Excavations at the Maya City of Xnoha
I spent a few weeks last summer as a volunteer with the Maya Research Program, excavating at the ancient city of Xnoha in northwest Belize. This was the first time I had done archaeology abroad, and was also the first time I had ever been in the jungle. Our campsite was an old cinderblock building that had, I was told, once belonged to a drug lord before his murder (and yes, that murder did occur in the building). Beyond this central structure the camp had expanded to accomodate more and more archaeologists, eventually becoming the equivalent of a small village, one that created a summer customer boom for the small Mennonite settlement that lay across the dirt road from camp.
From camp, a short, bumpy drive in a half dozen barely functioning pickups brought us from the edge of the jungle into its dense interior.
I was placed on a crew of five excavating a residential structure. We worked with pickaxes and shovels, hacking through masonry and plaster floors. This was archaeology of the most tragic kind. The Maya often built on top of the foundations of older structures, and to reveal the layers of construction we had to peel back (smash) each one in turn.
I expected work in the jungle to be hard, but I definitely didn't think I'd have to put down the pickaxe every few minutes from exhaustion, or that the buff I was wearing would be so soaked with sweat it would make a squelching sound as it shifted on my neck. I also didn't expect the howler monkeys to be territorial, or that they would vent their anger at our intrusion by pooping all over our dig site each night after we left.
The density of unexcavated archaeology in Belize is astounding. In the landscape photo above, there are multiple structures, which you may be able to spot as unnatural bumps sitting atop what should be flat hilltops. There are whole cities still being discovered, and most of the ones that we know of remain untouched by archaeologists (though not by looters).
Excavation proceeded slowly at Xnoha, and fell into a predictable routine. Awake by 5:30, breakfast at 6:00, in the pickups by 7:30 and at the site by 8:00. We'd work from 8:00-12:00, break for lunch, and than work until evening. The howler monkeys created a continuous cacophany in the distance, and between bursts of digging, my crew amused ourselves by playing baseball with rocks and sticks.
As we reached the lowest layer of construction, we found a vertebral column. It was buried upright in a cavity dug into the bedrock, and our initial thought was that it must be human. However, a lab analysis soon revealed it to be a jaguar, which put the whole crew into a tizzy. I may not be able to articulate it as well as my PhD overseers, but I was told that it was not uncommon to find Jaguars interred under the floors of elite residential compounds, and that finding one here was suggestive of the rank and influence of the home owners.
In addition to this find, the volume and variety of artifacts that came out of every layer amazed me. The Maya used pottery fragments and old stone tools and flakes as loose fill, alongside rocks, to undergird the plaster floors of their constructions. Between each floor, we pulled out buckets of pottery, lithics, and limestone blocks.
The photo below is a view of me exploring a looter's trench, cutting about 20ft. into a Maya temple. They aimed for the center and the base, hoping to find a burial and the most valuable artifacts. Our own excavation focused on the pyramid steps of the temple, which had been built up in layers, with each set of steps layed over older ones.
Occasionally I was moved from structure 34, the elite residential structure, to others as crews needed extra hands. One day was spent cleaning and photographing stages of excavation of a pyramid (which, in Maya terms always means a temple). Another was spent helping a crew backfill a fully excacated structure. That day was basically eight hours of hauling 40 lb. buckets of rock.
Back at structure 34, the discovery of a large, hollow space beneath the lowest level of construction raised great excitement, though discussion of its contents must wait until its excavation in the next field season.
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When at last we anchored in the harbor, off the white town hung between the blazing sky and its reflection in the mirage which swept and rolled over the wide lagoon, then the heat of Arabia came out like a drawn sword and struck us speechless"
The best prophet of the future is the past."
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Always my soul hungered for less than it had"
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Genes are rarely about inevitability, especially when it comes to humans, the brain, or behavior. They're about vulnerability, propensities, tendencies." ~Robert Sapolsky
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