Archaeology students conduct four-week excavation on San Pedro Maya site
Thursday, June 15th, 2017
As part of a four-week archaeological field study, a total of 14 students majoring in anthropology have been excavating the “San Pedro Maya” site, located at Hostel La Vista on Barrier Reef Drive. Under the supervision of Dr. Scott Simmons, Professor of Archaeology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) USA, and Dr. Tracie Mayfield, University of Arizona Anthropology Instructor, the students began their mission on May 25th, hoping to unveil clues to the ancient Maya cultural systems, trade, and their interactions among other regions.
12 of the students are from UNCW: Jason Stolfer, Jeffrey Canaday, John Valente, Alex Rasmussen, Kaitlyn Lowrance, Katherine Gutierrez-Soto, Katie Menaugh, Breanne Bradshaw, Caylea Flanagan, Kelly Williams, Rachel Miller, and Elizabeth Montgomery. Lou Celestin is from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and Cassidy Putnam is from North Carolina State University.
The “San Pedro Maya” site is known as one of the largest registered archaeology sites on Ambergris Caye, and Dr. Simmons explained what led his interest to preserve the site. “I came to San Pedro in 2016, and saw that construction was happening at the old Sands Hotel, which is now Hostel La Vista. At the time, I talked to the owner George Parham, and informed him of the significance of this Maya site. I had done some limited archaeology work here in 1993, and was able to find burials, conch shells, fire pots, and human remains. To my knowledge, this is the only contact period site [on the island], and I wanted to preserve its history,” said Simmons. After being granted permission from the Parhams, areas surrounding the Hostel have been closed off from public access.
The primary purpose of the field study is to give students hands-on experience, train them on academic and professional archaeological methods, and teach them all the basic techniques of archaeology. “During this field study, we will be able to get more evidence of what life was like in San Pedro, while getting more evidence of occupation. We will be able to answer key questions such as: When did the first people get here? Was it during the Classic Period, or was it before or after that? How big were the settlements? What kind of materials did they have access to?” said Simmons.
Now entering their fourth and final week, the students have been on a mission to uncover answers to these important scientific and cultural questions. Using shovels, trowels, screens, tape measures, hand brooms and brushes, they have been excavating the site six days out of the week, from 8AM to 4PM. The students have dug several grid test pits, and using their hand tools, they take off the top layer of grass, dig through the layers of soil, remove the items of interest, clean them, sort them out, and then write a report on their findings.
What was life like on Ambergris Caye?
So far, they have unearthed a wide-range of pre-historic artifacts, the earliest artifacts dating back to 1100-1200AD. Clay net sinkers, Maya and British pottery, stone tools, flint, obsidian (volcanic glass) from either Guatemala or Honduras, British artifacts from the late 19th to early 20th century, spear points, animal bones and teeth, food refuse, bottles, knife handles, conch shells, and round stones all make up the haul.
The discovery of two Maya pots was the highlight of the excavation. The small pot, found intact, is believed to have been made by a young child, and the bigger pot, which was in pieces that can be put back together, was adorned with parallel lines and was most likely used for cooking. These items date back to the Terminal Classic Period, which ranges from 800 to 1200AD. Dr. Simmons stated that it is rare to find artifacts intact, or where all pieces almost fit perfectly together.
According to him, these items reflect that trade was an important aspect to the Mayas of Ambergris Caye. “After the Maya collapsed in 900AD, trade and fishing became important. A lot of these sites on Ambergris Caye, from Bacalar Chico down to Marco Gonzalez, traded items like obsidians, hard stones, salt, and cacao beans. These things were really valuable among the Mayas, and we see emphasis on trade and exchange during that period of time,” said Simmons.
He also believes that the Maya communicated with other Mayas from the mainland, trading their ideas and items. “We tend to make this differentiation of the island and the mainland, but in many ways, the connections were really strong. There were a lot of similarities. There’s not a big contrast with Mayas on the island and the mainland, and in a lot of ways, the island was just an extension of the mainland or vice versa,” said Simmons.
He further explained that the Maya traveled to the mainland on large canoes through the lagoon. “We have a report from Christopher Columbus’ fourth and final voyage to the New World in 1502, where he entered the Bay of Honduras (Southern Belize). Columbus encountered a huge canoe, which was 50 feet long, 20 feet wide, and had dozens of people. It had a cabin with a lot of trade goods—many of which have been discovered, and a lot of paddlers. If he didn’t report it, we might have not known how the Maya traveled,” said Simmons.
What happened to the Mayas?
Dr. Simmons explained his theory on what happened to the Maya civilization. “There is a huge misconception that the Maya disappeared, but there are about six million Maya speaking people in Guatemala and Mexico. In Belize, we have the Ke’kchi, Yucatec and the Mopan Mayas, so they are still here. I believe that they just changed a lot overtime. It’s been a long stretch of 1,000 or more years in time, and people adapt and shift their priorities,” said Simmons.
With several Maya sites still thriving throughout Belize today, such as the Xunantunich, Caracol, Lamanai, Cahal Pech, El Pilar, La Milpa, Colha, San Estevan, Cerros, Santa Rita, and Altun Ha, there’s no doubt that the history of the Maya is still a prominent factor of Belize’s rich culture.
What does this mean for San Pedro?
Dr. Simmons stated that Ambergris Caye is home to more than two dozen Maya sites, and the more sites that are preserved, the more value it will add to San Pedro’s ancient history. He says it is important for the community of San Pedro to not only learn its history, but preserve it for future generations to come. “This site is part of Belize’s heritage. It’s one thing to be aware of the history and the other to appreciate the value of it. This site reflects Belizeans’ identity. It’s a real privilege to work here, because I get to meet so many people from different backgrounds. When you can understand a little bit more of where you come from and who you are, it enriches everybody’s lives. There’s a lot that we can learn from these sites, and once we preserve them, we can enlighten the younger generation,” said Simmons.
Student Breanne Bradshaw says her experience has been very rewarding. “This site has a lot of hidden history, and discovering anything new will provide San Pedranos with a token of their cultural background,” she said.
Dr. Simmons is hoping to obtain permission from Dr. John Morris, Director at the Institute of Archaeology in Belize (IA), to bring some of the artifacts to UNCW for further analysis. In addition, with each analyzed artifact, he will be preparing a full report by the end of the year, detailing all of the discoveries of the “San Pedro Maya” site. He will then provide a copy of the report to the IA, the San Pedro Town Council, and have it available online for public access.
The students will be returning to their hometowns on Friday, June 23rd, and at the end of the school semester, all students will be awarded six academic credits. On Wednesday, June 28th to Friday, June 30th, Dr. Simmons will be attending the Belize Archaeology Symposium to present his exciting findings of the site to other researchers. He hopes that the San Pedro community will appreciate the efforts of archaeology, and is looking forward to unveiling other Maya sites in the future.
Dr. Simmons and Dr. Mayfield give special thanks to Hostel La Vista for this invaluable opportunity, all of the students for their hard work, the Institute of Archaeology, and all of those who provided positive support during their stay on Ambergris Caye.
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