The Chan site is an ancient Maya farming community located just outside of the modern day town of San Jose Soccutz in the Cayo District of Belize ...
by CYNTHIA ROBIN, PhD
The Chan site is an ancient Maya farming community located just outside of the modern day town of San Jose Soccutz in the Cayo District of Belize. The Chan site has a long occupation history spanning over 2000 years from around 900 BC to AD 1250 thus it provides archaeologists an ideal opportunity to study the daily lives of ordinary Maya farmers across the expanse of ancient Maya history. Since 2002 archaeologist from the US and Belize have been collaborating on research at the Chan site to explore the important roles that ordinary people played throughout the course of Maya history (Image 1).
We don’t know what the original ancient Maya name for the Chan site was, as the ancient farming inhabitants of Chan left behind no written documents. The Chan site is named after the landowners of the site Dons Ismael and Derric Chan of San Jose Soccutz. The landowners have protected and preserved the site and we are grateful for their assistance in our research. The Chan project is permitted by the Belize Institute of Archaeology and without their support this project would not have been possible. Everaldo Chi of San Jose Soccutz was the excavation foreman for the project. The project is directed by Dr. Cynthia Robin through Northwestern University and has been generously funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, the Heinz Foundation, and Ameritech.
The Chan site is located in west-central Belize in an interfluvial (“between rivers”) area between the Mopan and Macal branches of the Belize River (Image 2). The land in this area consists of rounded hills. The farming community of Chan is situated between a number of larger Maya civic-ceremonial centers such as Xunantunich and Actuncan to the west, Nohoch Ek, Buenavista del Cayo, and Cahal Pech to the north, Dos Chombitos and Guacamayo to the east, and Las Ruinas de Arenal to the south. Fortunately many of these major Maya centers have already been excavated. Cahal Pech has been studied by Dr. Jaime Awe, Director of the Belize Institute of Archaeology. Xunantunich has been studied by Drs. Richard Leventhal of the University of Pennsylvania and Wendy Ashmore of the University of California at Riverside. Buenavista del Cayo has been studied by Dr. Joe Ball of San Diego State University. Actuncan is currently being studied by Dr. Lisa LeCount of the University of Alabama. Because of all of this work on major Maya centers near Chan, we are in a good position now to study how ancient Maya life in a farming community related to life in larger centers around it.
The Chan site was selected for study not because of any imposing monumental architectural remains, but for the ordinariness of the site (Image 3). In many ways the Chan site is similar to other small agricultural communities throughout the Maya area. Archaeological research at the Chan site allows us to study the importance of daily life in an ordinary Maya farming community in the past. The long, over 2000 year occupation history of Chan, provides the time depth necessary to understand the relationship between life in the farming community and larger changes in Maya society. Because many of the larger civic-centers have been well studies by previous and current archaeological researchers, research at Chan will be able to directly examine how farming life related to the changing political fortunes of these larger civic-centers. Given the long history of occupation at Chan, its farming residents would have interacted, both directly and indirectly, with residents of a number of neighboring centers at different points in time.
During the Late Classic period, around 600-900 AD the site of Xunantunich rises to prominence in this part of the upper Belize River Valley. Chan is located only 4 km to the southeast of Xunantunich and is incorporated into the Xunantunich polity at this time. During this period leading residents at Chan would likely have gone to Xunantunich for major ceremonies and ordinary residents at Chan would likely have paid tribute to Xunantunich either through agricultural products or labor service in the construction of monuments at Xunantunich. Image 4 shows El Castillo, the central temple at Xunantunich as seen from the Chan site. The Late Classic residents of Chan would have been able tot see Xunantunich each day as they worked in their fields and lived in their homes. As they viewed this temple at Xunantunich, Chan residents would have had a constant reminder of the broader society in which they were participants. This distant image of monumental construction, which was unlike any construction at Chan, may also have reminded residents of the limits of their social world and the social differences that existed in their society.
Just as Xunantunich is visible from Chan, Chan is also visible from Xunantunich. Image 5 was taken standing on top of El Castillo at Xunantunich looking at the Chan site. The white arrow points to Chan which is today covered by trees. Today for the top of El Castillo, the Chan site looks like an undifferentiated mass of trees. Just as the trees at Chan today as seen from El Castillo look quite similar, the diversity and complexity of the everyday lives of Chan’s farmers is obscured from an archaeological perspective which only looks at major Maya centers. The goal of the Chan project is to promote a change in perspective on Maya society by focusing on the diversity of everyday life in an ordinary Maya farming community. Rather than looking at the ancient Maya world from the perspective on an ancient civic-center we want to see the ancient Maya world from the perspective of farmers living in an ordinary ancient community.
The Chan site covers 3.9 sq. km of rounded hilly terrain. Across that area there are 283 farming households, 1258 agricultural terraces, and 1 small community center and ritual complex (Image 6). Most of the residents at Chan were farmers. But some families also made stone tools or quarried limestone blocks for building construction.
Chan’s farmers built what are known as hill slope terraces (Image 7). Hill slope terraces make use of the slope of a hill for agriculture. Ancient farmers built stone walls perpendicular to the slope of a hill to create “step” going up a hill. The flat surfaces of these steps could be used for planting. As you can see in Image 7, this hill slop at Chan is not slanted like a typical hill slope, but it has been “stepped” by ancient Maya farmers to create agricultural terraces. Planting on agricultural terraces is a very conservation friendly form of agriculture because since you have created walls to retain the soil along the slopes, soil won’t erode down the hill slope.
Buildings at Chan range in height between 10 cm and 5 meters tall. A typical farmers house at Chan was small and only consisted of a stone platform with a pole and thatch house on top of it (Image 8). 40% of the stone house platforms at Chan are less than 50 cm tall. Another 43% of the stone house platforms at Chan are less than 1 meter tall.
At the center of the Chan site is a small community and ritual center. Here we find the largest buildings at Chan which were temples and administrative buildings. The largest building at Chan is a 5 meter high temple (Image 9). In this building Chan’s residents buried their important ancestors and worshiped the gods in ceremonies that involved burning incense and burying caches.
We have learned a great deal about ancient Maya farmers over the past 5 years of research at the Chan site, but we have many more years of research to go and we hope to learn more each year.
Chan Site Acknowledgements
Research at the Chan site would not have been possible without the dedicated work of our US and Belizean staff (Image 10). We would like to thank the following individuals for their hard work at Chan: Merle Alfaro, Nestor Alfaro, Yasmine Baktash, Chelsea Blackmore, Don Bernabe Camal Sr, Bernabe Camal Jr., Bernadette Cap, Douglas Bolender, Margaret Briggs, Jeff Buechler, Edwin Camal, Jonny Camal, Derric Chan, Eduardo Chan, Efrain Chan, Heriberto Chan, Don Ismael Chan, Ismael Chan Jr., Ismael F. Chan, Everaldo Chi, Don Rafael Chi, Elvis Chi, Omar Chi, Don Ventura Cocom, Placido Cunil Jr., Roberto Cunil, Abel Goodoy, Don Virgilio Goodoy, Ciro Hernandez, Chris Hetrick, Elvis Itza, Serena Jain, Serio Jimenez, Santiago Juarez, Ethan Kalosky, Caleb Kestle, Shelley Khan, Manuel Kent, Laura Kosakowsky, Michael Latsch, Lisa LeCount, David Lentz, Jose Lopez, Mariano Lopez Jr., Gumercindo Mai, Susan Mai, Lazaro Martinez, Rosa Martinez, William Middleton, Jim Meierhoff, Alex Miller, Mary Morrison, Luis Panti, Alma Patt, Don Salvador Penados, Jessie Pinchoff, Don Cruz Puc, Elvin Puc, Marta Puc, Nasario Puc, Sandra Puc, Ediberto Reyes, Cynthia Robin, Carlos Salgueros, Glenis Smith, Horace Smith, Elmer Valdez, and Andrew Wyatt.
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