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Recent excavations at the ancient Maya minor center of Tutu Uitz Na in the Belize River Valley revealed an especially large—about 20 million shells—Middle Preclassic (900–300 BC) shell deposit underlying the plaza. Although marine shell species make up a small percentage of the assemblage, most shells are Pachychilus spp., a common freshwater snail known in the southern Maya Lowlands as jute. This report describes the architectural context and assemblage of the deposit and compares it to similar examples in the region. We propose that the Tutu Uitz Na deposit provides one of the earliest examples of depictions of the Maya primordial sea in an architectural context.
Production and consumption of pottery tempered with fresh volcanic ash peaked in the Late to Terminal Classic periods in the Maya lowlands. Differences in the type of volcanic inclusion and vessel form indicate that the pottery was produced in multiple locations by different groups of potters. In this article, we characterize pottery from household contexts at Baking Pot, Belize, using thin-section petrography and neutron activation analysis (NAA) to document mineralogical and chemical variability and determine provenance. The pottery was produced by adding fresh volcanic ash to a micritic clay. The petrographic and chemical data indicate that this paste recipe was produced locally in the Belize Valley. Variation in the paste recipes used is likely due to both production differences and postdepositional alteration. We argue that it is critical to use both petrography and NAA to understand pottery production and provenance in the Maya region.
The transition from the Late Archaic to the Late Early Formative period witnessed profound changes in the Maya lowlands. In addition to the establishment of the first settlements and agrarian communities, this critical phase of cultural development heralded the introduction of ceramics, saw changes in lithic technology, gave rise to inter-regional trade and exchange, and witnessed the introduction of a complex symbolic system expressed on portable objects. In this article, we synthesize data collected over the past several decades by various archaeological projects in western Belize to provide an overview of the cultural changes that unfolded during the Late Archaic to Late Early Formative period in the Upper Belize River Valley. We also provide evidence indicating that it was during this critical transitional period that we begin to see the establishment of several cultural traditions that became uniquely lowland Maya.
This introduction to the Special Section provides a summary of our current understanding of the first humans and the first Maya in these regions and presents seven articles that examine these critical periods from varied, intersecting perspectives. The Introduction begins with a brief history of early preceramic research (primarily in northern Belize) and provides a current chronology for the Paleoindian, Archaic, and Early Preclassic periods. The Paleoindian and Archaic (ca. 11,500–900 b.c.) periods are discussed in terms of the origins of the first peoples in these regions, lithic technology, subsistence, and early ritual. Next, a summary of archaeological evidence for the transition to the first villages (ca. 1200–800 b.c.) is provided, with examinations of a horticultural lifestyle, the earliest ceramics, increased socio-economic complexity, new ideology and ritual practices, and developing social inequality. Proto-Mayan and Mayan languages—their dating, origin, and early lexicon—are discussed in relation to the first Maya. Material culture and language are explored with regard to conceptions of Maya culture.
Deposits linked to abandonment have been widely recorded across the Maya lowlands, associated with the final activities occurring in ceremonial areas of Classic Maya centers. Various models have been applied to explain the activities that lie behind the formation of these contexts, including those linked to rapid abandonment (e.g., warfare) and others focused on more protracted events (termination rituals, and/or pilgrimages). Here, we assess Bayesian models for three chronological scenarios of varying tempo to explain the formation of peri-abandonment deposits at Baking Pot, Belize. Using stratigraphic information from these deposits, hieroglyphic dates recovered on artifacts, and direct dates on human skeletal remains and faunal remains from distinct layers in three deposits in Group B at Baking Pot, we identify multiple depositional events that spanned the eighth to ninth centuries AD. These results suggest that the processes associated with the breakdown of institutionalized rulership and its command of labor to construct and maintain ceremonial spaces were protracted at Baking Pot, with evidence for the final depositional activity dated to the mid-to-late ninth century. This interval of deposition was temporally distinct from the earlier deposition(s) in the eighth century. Together, these data offer a detailed view of the end of the Classic period at Baking Pot, in which the ceremonial spaces of the site slowly fell into disuse over a period of more than a century.
Recent investigations at Cahal Pech, Belize, documented a previously unrecognized Middle Preclassic (700–500 cal BC) E-Group complex. Located in an open public plaza, the monumental complex likely functioned as a forum for communal public events. In the Late Preclassic, the E-Group was replaced by an ancestor shrine where several royal tombs are located, as well as buildings separating public civic space from private elite space. These shifts in monumental construction temporally track the development of ideological manifestations of power and provide evidence for the formalization of dynastic rulership by an emerging elite class.
Investigations at Xunantunich indicate that this major Belize River Valley site rose rapidly to regional prominence during the Late Classic Hats' Chaak phase (a.d. 670–780). While the social, political, and economic reasons for Xunantunich's relatively late and rapid rise are still not fully understood, it has been suggested that this ascent was a direct result of either a patron-client relationship with, or owing to direct control by, the larger primary center of Naranjo in neighboring Guatemala. In this paper, we evaluate previous arguments for this proposed dynamic relationship between the two sites, and we discuss the political implications of more recently acquired data in our assessment of this relationship.
Archaeological investigations by the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project at Cahal Pech uncovered several Terminal Classic (a.d. 750–900) peri-abandonment deposits and activity areas at this Belize River Valley center. The deposits contained a diverse assemblage of cultural remains located above and between collapsed architecture, associated with evidence for burning activities. In the past, archaeologists have generally interpreted similar assemblages as “problematic deposits”—“de facto” refuse (garbage)—as associated with building termination and desecration, or as evidence for rapid abandonment during the violent destruction of these ancient cities. It is argued here that the microstratigraphic excavation and contextual analysis of these features provide limited support for these explanations. Alternatively, we suggest that the deposits are more likely associated with peri-abandonment rituals that were conducted by a reduced remnant population at Cahal Pech, or by small groups who continued to reside in the site's periphery during the last stages of the Terminal Classic period.
The discovery of cultural remains on or above the floors of rooms and courtyards at several Maya sites has been interpreted by some archaeologists as problematic deposits, squatter's refuse, as evidence for feasting, termination rituals, de facto refuse, or rapid abandonment as a result of warfare. Investigations by the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project have recorded similar deposits at several surface and subterranean sites in Western Belize. Our regional, contextual, and methodological approaches for studying these deposits, coupled with ethnohistoric and ethnographic information, provide limited support for the interpretation of these remains as de facto refuse or due to rapid abandonment. Instead, we argue that these deposits are more likely the result of peri-abandonment activities such as propitiation rituals and/or pilgrimages during and after the gradual abandonment of sites in the Belize River Valley.
Archaeological research in the Maya lowlands has identified special deposits that offer essential information about the abandonment of Classic Maya centers. We argue that some of the “problematical deposits” associated with terminal architecture may be more accurately described as peri-abandonment deposits since they temporally and behaviorally relate to the activities associated with the final use of ceremonial space. Here, we describe several peri-abandonment deposits that were identified in Group B at the site of Baking Pot, located in western Belize. Using detailed stratigraphic and contextual information, artifact assemblages, and calendar dates recorded on polychrome vessels recovered in the deposits, we describe the nature of activities associated with the formation of peri-abandonment deposits at Baking Pot in the eighth to ninth centuries. We find patterning in the spatial locations of deposits in the corners of plazas and courtyards at Baking Pot, with variability in artifact assemblages between specific deposits.
Investigations in the site core of Cahal Pech have recovered a range of data reflecting Terminal Classic Maya activity at this Belize Valley site. The materials, which were recovered in a tomb, a burial, and in epicentral plaza deposits, include a diverse assemblage of cultural remains including whole and partial vessels, projectile points, obsidian blade fragments, deer antlers, figurines, pottery flutes, spindle whorls, and jade beads. Similar deposits at other Maya sites in western Belize have been interpreted as evidence for de facto refuse or rapid abandonment. Contextual analyses of the Cahal Pech data suggest that the deposits are more likely associated with post-abandonment activity such as pilgrimage from the still-occupied periphery of the site.
Problematic deposits, containing different types of artifacts and skeletal remains, are typically recovered on or near the surfaces of the terminal phase of elite civic-ceremonial architecture at ancient Maya sites. These contexts often date to the Terminal Classic period (~a.d. 750–900). They have been variously interpreted as evidence for site abandonment, squatting, warfare, or dedication or termination rituals. Sixteen chert bifaces were recovered from problematic deposits at the bases of Structures A2 and A3 in the elite Plaza A at Cahal Pech, Belize. Stone tools from problematic deposits are rarely examined in significant detail. Based on stylistic, metric, and use-wear analyses, the bifaces were likely produced locally, used during important hunting or warfare activities, and then ritually deposited in the Terminal Classic. These bifaces were likely hafted to spearthrower darts and represented “success” at hunting or fighting. The recovery of weaponry in problematic deposits that is not the direct result of warfare is an important observation because Mayanists have generally interpreted their presence in these contexts as evidence of warfare. The fact that the points were recovered in groups of seven and nine may indicate that they had important symbolic meanings that connected them to supernatural or mythological places or entities.
Interpreting middens, feasting events, ritual, or terminal deposits in the Maya world requires an evaluation of faunal remains. Maya archaeologists consistently evaluate other artifact classes, but often offer simply number of identified specimens values for skeletal elements recovered from these deposits. To further understand their archaeological significance, we analyzed faunal materials from deposits at the sites of Baking Pot and Xunantunich in the Upper Belize River Valley. We identified the species, bone elements, bone or shell artifacts, taphonomic signatures, and quantitative ratios recovered to test whether a deposit can be identified as a midden, part of a feasting ritual, terminal ritual, or other rituals significant to the Maya. Our analyses allow us to begin building a system for using faunal remains as a proxy for interpreting the significance of these deposits. In this paper, we present our results and hope to open the conversation for future evaluations of faunal remains in similar deposits.
The term “problematical deposits” was coined decades ago at Tikal to refer to special deposits that were neither burials nor caches. Since that time, the term has been expanded to refer to a range of deposits that have puzzled archaeologists. In this paper we review the various interpretations that have been offered for these deposits including de facto refuse, squatter deposits, and the remains of dedication or termination ritual, feasting, or pilgrimage. We argue that the superficial similarity of these deposits can make it difficult to identify the range of activities that they represent and that detailed contextual analysis is required to distinguish them. We offer some of the archaeological correlates that have been associated with different types of problematic deposits.
This study uses neutron activation analysis of ceramics to examine economic change and increasing social complexity at the Preclassic Maya site of Cahal Pech in Belize (1200 cal BC–cal AD 300). Seven compositional groups were identified from the site's civic-ceremonial centre and two peripheral residential groups. Analyses indicate that both utilitarian and non-utilitarian ceramics were locally produced as early as 1200 cal BC, and that by c. 700 cal BC, fineware vessels were being exported into neighbouring parts of Guatemala. These results provide direct evidence for economic interaction between Maya lowland communities and for their increasing socio-political complexity.
In this study, we employ multiple lines of evidence to elucidate the use of mortuary ritual by the ruling elite at the ancient Maya site of Cahal Pech, Belize, during the Early Classic and early Late Classic periods (AD 250–630). The interments of multiple individuals in Burial 7 of Structure B1, the central structure of an Eastern Triadic Assemblage or “E-group” style architectural complex, were in a manner not consistent with the greater Belize River Valley, the only multiple individual human burial yet encountered at Cahal Pech. The sequential interments contained a suggestive quantity of high-quality artifacts, further setting them apart from their contemporaries. Among these artifacts were a set of bone rings and a hairpin inscribed with hieroglyphs, some of the few inscriptions ever found at Cahal Pech. We analyzed regional mortuary patterns, radiogenic strontium values, and radiocarbon data to test hypotheses about who these individuals were in life, why they were treated differently in death, and to reconstruct the sequence of events of this complex mortuary deposit. We contend that the mortuary practices in Burial 7 indicate an attempt by the Cahal Pech elite to identify with cities or regions outside the Belize River Valley area.
Ceramic figurines are ubiquitous throughout the archaeological record of Mesoamerica. These small, handheld objects continue to fascinate archaeologists, and their role in the daily lives of the people who created and used them remains a point of debate in some academic circles. The figurines have been interpreted variously as children's toys, fertility fetish tools, and ritual objects. At the site of Cahal Pech, located in the Belize Valley of west-central Belize, a large assemblage of figurines has been recovered from construction fill dating to the Cunil (1200–900 b.c.) and Kanluk ceramic phases (900–350 b.c.) of the Preclassic period. In this article, we analyzed the temporal and spatial distribution of these objects in the settlement and conclude that these objects were used in a variety of ritual events. Although they mainly served as venues for invoking ancestors in domestic rituals, their discovery in public spaces suggests diverse social uses. Most importantly, their limited presence in residential and public spaces outside the Plaza B section of the site core during the late facet of the Kanluk phase may indicate that certain rituals were not performed by the entire community.
In the original publication of this article, the title was printed as “Four Preceramic Points Newly Discovered in Belize: A Comment on Stemp et al. (1996:279–299).” The article has been updated to the correct title. The authors apologize for this error.