When most people think about Mayan archaeology they imagine excavations in royal tombs or trenches cut into tree covered mounds. Few of us would expect that a significant find could be made underwater... particularly in a swamp. But Belizean archaeology is a many-faceted field, as the presentations at this year's Archaeology Symposium, now underway in San Ignacio, amply reveal. Among the updates to last year's reports is a startling discovery made by a team from Louisiana State University. It is a find unlike any in all of the Meso-American world, and it was made right here in Belize.
Janelle Chanona, Reporting
This might look like an ordinary wooden paddle, but its discovery in a peat bog in Paynes Creek National Park in the Toledo District has been making big waves on the world’s archaeological scene.
Dr. Heather McKillop, an archaeologist based at Louisiana State University, and a team of graduate students made the find in the Punta Ycacos Lagoon in 2004 while searching underwater for evidence of how the ancient Maya produced and distributed bulk products to its cities inland. One such everyday item was salt.
Dr. Heather McKillop, Archaeologist
”In ancient times, if the sea level were maybe one or two yards lower, then a lot of that would have been dry land. And what we found are evidence that while the Maya were either living underwater, because we have underwater sites, or the sea level has risen and submerged them.”
Archaeologists have discovered several points along the Belizean coastline, including Salt Creek in the north and Placencia and Paynes Creek in the south, that were likely used by the Maya for salt production. The accepted theory assumed that the process involved a series of small primitive operations where workers stood out in the elements, manning fires to boil the brine to make salt. But when McKillop and her field team starting poking around on the bottom for the lagoon for signs of life, they made a surprising discovery.
”And we freed the sediment from around this piece of wood, gently pulled it up, and we saw that it was a perfectly preserved post about a yard long and sharpened at the base.”
The post would be one of more than two hundred that have so far been found underwater. McKillop and her crew tagged the location of each...a step back revealing what is believed to be the walls of large buildings, similar to those of the modern Maya today. But the best was yet to come.
”We were feeling around for wood in the mud, we weren’t prepared for underwater archaeology or anything. And so he was feeling that was very smooth and he was being quiet, so we all sort of zoomed over figuring there was something and it turned out--we released all the soil from around it, pull it up, and it was a full-sized canoe paddle, wooden. And I looked at it and I thought, that’s exactly, exactly like the canoe paddles that are depicted in ancient Maya art.”
Dr. Jaime Awe, Dir., Institute of Archaeology
”I’m an archaeologist, every find is wonderful to me. I would say in terms of its impact to Maya studies, it is certainly one of the great discoveries because it’s one of a kind, it’s like when they discovered the jade head. No other Maya country can claim to have a jade head like we do, it’s the biggest single carved piece of jade. The wooden paddle, no other Maya country, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador can boast of ever finding a wooden paddle. Wood does not preserve in the tropics.”
Intensive tests on the paddle and posts have since determined the artefacts date back to the late Classic Maya, AD 680-880. But more significantly, the discoveries have led experts to theorize that the more than forty sites in Punta Ycacos are the remains of the infrastructure of a large factory, with a production line of standardized pots, hundreds of workers, and a number of buildings.
Dr. Jaime Awe
”The research that is being done along the Belizean coastline has produced incredible new information on salt and how these people were producing it there and then shipping it inland to large populations. I mean if Caracol had a hundred thousand people, and other cities like Tikal, they needed to access to this. So Heather’s book which is entitled “Salt: The White Gold of the Maya” is truly accurate.’
Dr. Heather McKillop
”It’s basically supply and demand, it’s like modern economy. The Maya certainly were involved in ritual and ceremony, but they had to live and they had to have salt. These big cities, even the dynastic Mayas, with their fancy hieroglyphs, they had to have salt and they had to have it everyday.’
Archaeologists are now desperately searching for the canoe that was used to paddle up the various rivers to deliver the precious salt. According to Director of the Institute of Archaeology, Jaime Awe, the unique find in Meso-America is just one of the more than thirty presentations made in the third annual Belize Archaeology Symposium.
”One of the things that we try to encourage most of the presenters, is to try to blend their presentation with language that is understandable by everybody, but still not at the expense of the scientific importance of it.”
“The Institute of Archaeology and the National Institute of Culture and History is continuing to make every effort to inform Belizeans, about our past, about the need to conserve the past, and the need to disseminate this information to Belizeans.’
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