SCRAP 2022 Week 6: Public Archaeology & End of Season

This is the final blog post of our 2022 field season. Although our season did not go exactly as we hoped, thanks to the realities of our current world, it was definitely full of interesting events, some cool archaeology, meeting new people, and a wonderful time reconnecting with collaborators, colleagues, and friends who we hadn’t seen in person in almost three years. We’d like to thank our entire field team for all their hard work and dedication, including Dave Blaine, Idelfonso (Elfonso) Cal, Nora Chiac, Higinio Chiac Sr, Justino Chiac, Wilmer Chiac, Alvanio Chun, Juan Coc, Matt Longstaffe, Shawn Morton, Alson Ovando, Diego Paquiul, Juan Paquiul, Meaghan Peuramaki-Brown, Lupercio Salam, Saralyn Smith, Doris Teul, and Godwin Teul. Our foreign crew would also like to thank their hosts, Mr. Ernesto and Ms. Aurora Saqui of Maya Centre, for taking such good care of them all season—physically, mentally, and spiritually.

The following blog post was written by Mr. Alson Ovando of Dangriga Town, Stann Creek District, who is a graduate of the University of Belize Natural Resources Management Program, and worked with SCRAP this summer as a research assistant.

Public Archeology in Belize: Conducting Educational Outreach in the Stann Creek District

As summer rolls around, schools close for the year and the weather begins to warm up across much of the world. The summer months also signify the start of the Archeology field season in Belize. Most archeological research done in Belize is conducted by about 27 foreign research teams. These research teams are mostly made up of academics and volunteers from all over the world. This is why the summer is the perfect time for them to come to Belize and conduct field studies while schools are on summer vacation.

This year, the Stann Creek Regional Archaeology Project (SCRAP) team began their field season a few weeks before schools closed in Belize for summer break. This presented a valuable opportunity for the team to conduct archeological outreach at local schools around the Alabama archaeological site. The project director, Dr. Meaghan Peuramaki-Brown, was invited to speak to the first-year students at Georgetown Technical Highschool (GTH). Over a full day at the GTH, Dr. Peuramaki-Brown and I spoke to five first-form classes about the importance of archeology and how they could participate in archeological research in Belize. They were provided with a handout to take home with them (see below), as well as stickers with the SCRAP logo.

Presentations at GTH
GTH handout

Additionally, the SCRAP team was able to visit the Maya Mopan Primary School. There, Dr. Shawn Morton (SCRAP co-director), presented teachers with donated iPads equipped with an in-house developed app focusing on the Alabama archaeological site. The purpose of the app is to support new online curriculum elements in classrooms while educating students about the Alabama townsite and the life of the ancient Mayas who once lived in the local area. After Dr. Morton officially handed over the tablets and introduced the application to the teachers, he and I were able to visit the Standard 3, 4, and 5 classes to discuss archeology in Belize and give students a first-hand look at some of the artifacts that were found at Alabama. At the end of each presentation, students were given the chance to experience the hands-on aspect of fieldwork when they were challenged to lift or move one of the heavy granite blocks collected from the mounds at Alabama. Although many attempts were made to lift the stone most of the students failed. However, to our surprise, a few students did manage to lift the heavy stone! The SCRAP team used this hands-on challenge to explain that Maya houses were built on elevated platforms with heavy stones like the ones the students tried to lift. These types of stones were also used to build stairs and other architectural pieces. At the end of the visit, many of the students were intrigued and gathered at the last class the team visited to ask questions and see the artifacts. I was glad to be a part of such an essential part of the scientific process and a meaningful learning experience for those students.

Ultimately, conducting archeological outreach increases awareness about archeology in the Stann Creek District and educates Belizeans about the role they can play in helping archeologists learn more about the past and present through their unique and diverse perspectives. Many Belizeans are also shocked to learn that SCRAP even exists and conducts yearly archeological research in Stann Creek. SCRAP hopes to inspire a deeper appreciation for archeology among Belizeans of the Stann Creek District and foster stewardship of historical artifacts and monuments. In the future, SCRAP will be looking at more ways to conduct outreach in schools and among the wider Belizean public.

Fortunately, one way SCRAP has been able to engage Belizeans is by building awareness of archeology in Belize through social media. In fact, they recently made a list of “5 Belizean Archaeology Pages to Follow” put out by Heritage Education Network Belize. By staying consistently active on social media, SCRAP and other archeology project teams working in Belize have been able to inform the public of their recent activities. Social media has also made it easier to plan events and engage people of all ages. Not to mention, social media provides the perfect platform for sharing stories from the field, pictures, opportunities, and other helpful pieces of information about archeology in real-time.

Past SCRAP outreach activities

 After working with SCRAP and participating in their outreach efforts in Belize this field season, I was asked to provide some recommendations for archeologists who want to engage more Belizeans online. The most effective tool to gain an audience and engage with them is through social media. All archeological teams working within Belize should have a strong presence on social media and I recommend using a cross-content creation strategy for social media. This simply means taking pictures or videos of things happening day-to-day at the field site and posting those pictures and videos to multiple platforms. For example, if you take videos each day or week they can be shared on Facebook, YouTube shorts, Instagram Reels, Twitter, and TikTok. If you take pictures you can share that picture with a short description on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Both pictures and videos can be used for longer blogs on a website and then shared on each social media platform with links to the website.

@scraparky on Instagram

Another way to grow a Belizean audience is by tagging or posting in relevant groups that would find the topic of archeology and Belizean history interesting. For example, find Belizean social media groups that are focused on culture, history, art, and any other relevant groups of people that would enjoy seeing archeological work being done in Belize. Collaborating with big Belizean social media personalities can also grow a larger audience. Belizean influencers with large followings based on travelling lifestyle in Belize could provide exponential interest. Inviting Belizean influencers to volunteer or visit a project site to make content for their page could create a surge of interest in archaeology. Another helpful strategy is to engage the Belizean media. It is important for archeology teams to make the media rounds before the start of their field season to spread awareness about their presence in local communities and engage local interests. Securing a spot on a local morning talk show, radio shows, or on the nightly news will reach a large audience and garner widespread interest across all platforms. As teams become more consistent with creating content for social media their audiences will grow and generate long-term followers, likes, comments, and the viral sharing of archeological content from their pages. Eventually, creating an online community focused on archeology will not only keep stakeholders, rights holders, and interest groups engaged but will inspire a whole new generation of Belizeans to appreciate archeology and engage with projects taking place in their communities.

SCRAP 2022 Week 5: Transitioning to “Flabby Lab”

As our field season heads into its final week, we’ve transitioned into lab work slightly early. This is partly due to us being short one Lab Director this season (we miss you, Jill!). This week, our blog will hopefully help you understand what goes on “behind the scenes” with all the ancient belongings (artifacts and ecofacts) after they have been excavated from the ground at the Alabama Townsite.

We jokingly refer to the lab portion of our field season as “Flabby Lab.” This is because we go from very active days at the site—walking and digging all day long—to mostly stationary work at tables. In reality, the work of a research archaeologist primarily takes place behind desks, microscopes, and computers; the fieldwork portion of the year is relatively short.

Step 1: Check-in

Ancient belongings are bagged in the field according to “lot”: a system of record-keeping and provenience documentation used during excavations. On SCRAP, we do not separate items into various categories (e.g., pottery, lithics) until they arrive in the lab. We only separate items in the field if something particularly delicate or sensitive is uncovered. For example, breakable/sharp obsidian placed in individual plastic containers, or the recovery of human remains. The latter, which we have yet to encounter at Alabama, can often appear in unexpected locales and require special consideration. These considerations would occur in consultation with local cultural/religious representatives and the Institute of Archaeology. 

When excavation supervisors arrive at our field lab at the end of the day, they check in their artifact bags in our check-in binder. This allows us to keep tabs on all ancient belongings brought in and their progress through the washing, sorting, cataloguing, analysis, and storage stages. Any ecofacts collected—e.g., carbonized materials—are also checked in.

Step 2: Cleaning

Most artifacts then need to be cleaned to be appropriately sorted and analyzed. Our team members do this with buckets of water and toothbrushes—no different than the standard toothbrushes you use to brush your teeth (purchased for the purpose… we don’t raid each other’s toiletry kits). You must wet your brush and gently remove dirt from ceramic sherds and stone flakes. You must also take care not to destroy any delicate details such as painted designs. Depending on the weather, the artifacts are then placed to dry on screens for a day or two.

Step 3: Sorting

Once dry, the artifacts are sorted according to material type and/or technology. For example, common SCRAP categories for bulk materials (commonly recovered items) include ceramic, chipped-stone lithics, and daub construction material. They are bagged separately, though notes are made of their co-occurrence as a complete assemblage.

Step 4: Basic cataloguing

Once separated, all belongings are counted and weighed. They are placed in heavy-gauge plastic bags with tags inside and out labelled according to lot/context. They are then given individual or bulk catalogue numbers.

Step 5: Preliminary analysis

Following basic cataloguing, or sometimes alongside it, we further document materials via drawing, photography, 3D scan, etc. Further analysis also involves describing shape, colour, method of manufacture, etc. We complete a variety of spreadsheets and forms at this stage, which will provide documentation not only for our own further analysis but that of future archaeologists. 

Step 6: Additional analysis or export

Some ancient belongings are subjected to further study in the field, often with digital microscopes. Unfortunately, other items require additional study that is not currently possible in Belize. An example would be charred or carbonized wood and seeds that we use to provide more accurate dating of archaeological contexts. For this, we must send samples to labs in other parts of the world. To do that, we must seek permission from the Government of Belize via the Institute of Archaeology. In the case of carbon, permission is sought to export these materials for destructive analysis; only the analysis results are returned to Belize. For the export of any actual artifacts, we seek permission for export for a limited period, and all items must be returned to Belize within a year. Significant justification must be provided to be granted an export permit.

Step 7: Storage and Outreach

All ancient items are stored in Belize for additional future study and for use in teaching and outreach activities. Anyone can come and request to see these items—they are always here. Currently, SCRAP storage is located in the Stann Creek District, but we are actively seeking to arrange a facility in the local community nearby Alabama (following the security requirements of the Institute of Archaeology).

If you have any questions about this process, please reach out in the comments or by email to scrap.arky@gmail.com

Cheers,

Meaghan & Shawn

SCRAP Co-Directors

SCRAP 2022 Week 4: Socioeconomic Institutions @ Alabama

This week’s blog is by SCRAP Field Director and Ph.D. Candidate Matthew Longstaffe.

In late April, I jetted off from Calgary to Mexico to begin my second (albeit much delayed, thanks to COVID) spring/summer of dissertation fieldwork. For a month, I was in the jungles of the Calakmul Biosphere in southern Campeche, where I was excavating in the residential compound of a wealthy ancient household in the ancient city of Yaxnohcah. By late May, I was on my way to Stann Creek to join up with my SCRAP colleagues to begin excavating at Alabama.

My fieldwork in Stann Creek and Campeche is to collect data for my doctoral dissertation at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.

Broadly, my research at both Yaxnohcah and Alabama is grounded in three overarching questions:

  • What integrative strategies did people use to participate in socioeconomic institutions?
  • How is this participation reflected in the archaeological record of residences?
  • How does participation in socioeconomic institutions impact the social organization of communities? 

But what exactly do I mean when discussing “socioeconomic institutions”? Here, I borrow a definition from Holland-Lulewicz and colleagues (2020), who conceptualize institutions as “organizations of people that carry out objectives using regularized practices and norms, labor, and resources.” Within this framework, I consider institutions not immaterial or abstract but tangible social phenomena with material outcomes. Regardless of their specific form and objectives, “socioeconomic” institutions integrate individuals and groups across communities through their shared purpose of provisioning society through, for example, production, consumption, and/or distribution of material goods. Marketplaces, craft guilds, task-oriented labour groups, and reciprocal labour pools are all examples of socioeconomic institutions. 

At Yaxnohcah, I am investigating a residential compound located immediately next to a neighbourhood marketplace. I explore the possibility that the people who lived in this residential group played a role in organizing and administering this community-level socioeconomic institution. 

But what am I doing at Alabama? In contrast to other, more well-researched areas of the Maya lowlands, we know very little about the socioeconomic institutions of Alabama and, to a certain degree, the Stann Creek District more broadly. SCRAP hypothesizes that resource development was a key driver of rapid growth at Alabama. I believe that socioeconomic institutions emerged to help support these activities, integrating this community’s households into social, political, and economic networks operating at multiple scales.

Picking up where we left off in 2019, this field season, we are excavating at one of the largest and best-preserved settlement sites outside the Alabama monumental core. The site is ALA-002 and lies roughly 1 km from the monumental core or “downtown” of Alabama. This settlement site has shown strong potential for providing the data types necessary to address my research questions. In 2019, investigations at ALA-002 found intact, reasonably well-preserved architecture and numerous, well-stratified artifacts of different material classes. This year, Shawn, Dave, and I are supervising excavations at the settlement site’s three mounds. We hope to further clarify the architectural forms of their platforms (and associated superstructures when possible) and expand our artifact database.

Together, the data collected will be critical for understanding the overall function of ALA-002 and the activities that took place at this location. Thus, one of my study’s goals (which will help address my research questions) is to use excavation and artifact data to reconstruct the socioeconomic practices of the people who lived at this settlement site. For example, material analyses of recovered artifacts (e.g., ceramics, tools, and other objects) should provide us with information to evaluate the type, scope, and scale of activities that occurred at ALA-002. Furthermore, by analyzing these artifacts and looking for patterns in their distribution, we can identify local and non-local belongings that can tell us about broader trade relationships, signifying participation in socioeconomic institutions. These are just a snippet of the analyses we plan to undertake. Still, this type of information can help us understand the relationships residents of ALA-002 exemplified within the socioeconomic organization of Alabama and the surrounding region at various times.

As a final aside, because it’s too cool to ignore, one of the more interesting findings so far this year is evidence that two locations at ALA-002, although constructed and principally occupied during the Late and Terminal Classic periods, appear to have been reoccupied (for at least a time) during the Late Postclassic and possibly into the early Colonial period. While our analysis is still preliminary, a wide array of temporally diagnostic artifacts, notably projectile points, ceramics, and purpose-made ceramic net-weights, support this interpretation.

References:

Holland-Lulewicz, Jacob, Megan Anne Conger, Jennifer Birch, Stephen A. Kowalewski, and Travis W. Jones (2020). An Institutional Approach for Archaeology. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 58:101163.

SCRAP 2022 Week 3: Dirt, Rocks, and Ticks

This week‘s blog comes from one of our new SCRAP team members, Saralyn Smith, who is an MSc student at Western University.

Two weeks ago, I landed in Belize City around noon on a Saturday. It was my first time leaving Canada, my first time leaving home, and my first time flying. My ears hurt, and my legs were cramped, but I was beyond excited as soon as the Caribbean air hit me. It marked the beginning of a five-week learning experience.

Block C2 access road with foothills in the background

After completing my Bachelor’s of Science not one month earlier, I began a Master’s of Geology. This new journey would start with this trip to collect soil samples from the ancient Maya townsite of Alabama. The goal is to better understand the agricultural patterns during the peak occupation period at Alabama–approx. 700-900 AD. I will begin geochemical carbon analyses when I return to Canada and receive the shipped samples I have collected here (pending export permit from the Institute of Archaeology).

Some colour…

While it has only been two weeks, many interesting things have happened. I have discovered that I am a beacon for every biting, stinging, and pinching insect Stann Creek District offers. I should have brought equally as much hydrocortisone as I did sunscreen. On that note, I have further realized that it is possible to sunburn through a hundred layers of SPF 50—my swollen, bumpy, and crispy arms can attest. At least I can say that this is the best watch-tan I have ever had.

When the itching kept me up at night, I sought out Ms. Aurora for help. After glimpsing my arms, she said my bites were watering, which was a kind way of saying that each of my 80-something fly bites was leaking off-yellow puss. She offered me an herbal afterbite from her shop that contained Red Pollywood and Jackass Bitters. This soothed my bites enough that I slept four hours without waking, which was a significant improvement. As I have said from the beginning, it is all part of the adventure!

While I have been forced into a knowledge of insects, I have also gladly learned much from my team members. As the newest team member with SCRAP and a geologist-in-progress, I was welcomed with open arms. With varying backgrounds and experiences, everyone brings something wholly unique to the table. They taught me about the granite-rich geological history of the area, which is intriguing and crucial to my research. The countless archaeological finds troweled from the units on site each day serve as pieces to an ever-growing puzzle, which has been forming for years now and will continue to take shape in the years to come.

The wildlife might just be one of the most fascinating parts of this trip. The howler monkeys call for the rain, the jaguars roam close and yet far, and the leaf-cutter ants slowly dismantle entire trees before my eyes. A green-and-yellow snake slithered across my boot and up the nearest banana tree just the other day. While some might have quaked at the sight, I would take ten thousand snakes over a singular tick any day.

I really, really hate ticks.

One thing that cannot be overstated is how immersive the experience has already been. Not only have I been thrust into another cultural world, but I have had the privilege to converse with and learn from locals living here. I have whined about the heat countless times and revealed how much I miss snow and ice, only to laugh at the alarmed reactions I receive. I vow to never complain about the cold ever again.

Collecting and sampling soil cores

I would not be able to participate in this field experience if it were not for the funding offered by both my home school and SCRAP/SSHRC. I am so grateful for this opportunity. Big thanks to Dave for the two pictures above that impressively capture my amateur soil sampling skills and make-shift handle protector. That rag is in actual tatters now.

I and my house gecko (ceremoniously dubbed ‘Greg’ by my family via video chat) encourage anyone reading this to go out into the world and experience something—anything—new. Go and learn, reach out, open up, and uncover the countless differences worldwide.

It’s one thing to learn in a classroom. It’s entirely different to live it.

SCRAP 2022 Week 2: Thoughts from “the Field”

This week’s blog is a more personal, reflective piece by SCRAP team member Dave Blaine. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 24th of May…
It’s my second day of fieldwork since 2019, yesterday having been partially called off due to a torrential tropical downpour. It’s only halfway through the day, and I’m already tired… a bit nauseated… I feel slightly off-balance… Sleep so far has been largely ineffective… It’s really hot…

I feel like I can either have a drink… or just collapse into a fetal ball and weep.

My mind strays to a week ago, sucking air and body aching from a weekend of backyard gardening in daytime temperatures barely half as hot as today, with no humidity! That felt hard! And with every year I clock past 40, it seems like it’s getting harder.

I’m seriously starting to wonder whether I’m still cut out for this sort of thing.

***

So far, my return to the field following almost three years of pandemic lockdown has been a humbling experience. However, I found air travel to have changed little due to Covid-19. Airports are still the same familiar melee of bureaucracy and lineups; masks and vaccine records not so much disrupting the whole process as adding on to it.

No, it’s the fact of being away close to three years, of being shut in that’s really wearing me down.

I’m not just telling myself that as I sit panting on the jungle floor, trying not to pass out from heat exhaustion. But the truth is this is one hell of a way to start travelling again after such a long and wearisome hiatus.

Since joining the SCRAP team in the field, this is the first time I will have been on site for the entire field season. The work begins with the labour-intensive task of clearing away the vegetation from the mounds we’ll be excavating. And unlike the forests back home, the regrowth here after only a few years is such that you could be forgiven for assuming we’d never worked here at all.

Unphased, our collaborators from the local Maya community – wielding machetes with surgical precision – clear every bush, root, and blade of grass from our proposed dig sites, literally peeling the brush back almost like a carpet. The North Americans try their best to help out, but our machete skills are lacking so we mostly just help clear away the chopped material with our gloved hands.

Our team has new and familiar faces this season, and I’m unexpectedly moved to be remembered so fondly by local companions I haven’t seen in so long.

Bit by bit, the week progresses through the opening of all three of this year’s dig sites, all of us getting acquainted and re-acquainted as we went along. What emerges is a continuum of the little vignettes that only come out of getting to know people. Saralyn deploying an hourly application of bug repellent from a can the size of a bazooka; Mr. Paquiul identifying the mournful baying echoing down from the nearby hills as the cries of Howler Monkeys – he calls them baboons – calling for the rain; exchanging stories with Mr. Juan about how determined and focused our daughters are: his will go to work for a bank, mine will be a veterinarian…

Belize, I quickly remember, is demanding but also rewarding.

***

Later, the weekend affords a short getaway to the beach and possibly the best pizza joint – certainly our favourite one – in Belize. Shawn observes philosophically that he likes having favourite places in different countries. As I take stock of this favourite place, I realize, despite the only recent lifting of pandemic restrictions, that it seems busier and more touristy than the last time I was here. The place has expanded, and they’ve added services… After the last week of getting our project started again, it becomes clear that not everyone who travels gets to visit places in quite the same way we do… and not everyone wants to.

For me, travelling for field research harkens back to a time when you were privileged to travel somewhere and experience an authentic adventure in a faraway place. It feels like much travel these days has become about simply appearing somewhere, hoping it will drive more engagement on your social feed. But nothing we’re down here to do is merely to say we’d done it. Why we’re here and why we keep coming back is for a reason:

To learn (and share) something interesting about a place, and its people.


SCRAP 2022 Week 1: Back in Belize!

We are officially up and running in Belize after almost three long years! Where to start? This past week (and a half) has been all about preparation for the field:

An organized storeroom indicates an organized project.

Meaghan and Shawn cleaned out our storage and set up our field lab at camp. After all this time away, we were concerned about the status of our gear. Had it all survived? Mould and mildew. Dry rot. Corrosion. Critters! None were wanted. All were suspected. We were vigilant for the many tarantulas, scorpions, roaches, termites, and rodents that we had assumed would have made our gear home, but none were to be seen. The reason became apparent in short order; we had ants! While they were a little annoying, they didn’t hurt the equipment and were easily moved out (important, as Matt, one of our graduate students, would soon be moving in). In the end, most of the equipment survived our absence. The total cost of our time away? Three pairs of boots. One pair of runners. Two camera lenses (mould) and two camera LCD screens (functional but not 100 %). Not bad!

Our lab space!

Fundamentally, archaeological fieldwork is about relationships. Just as we were concerned about the state of our equipment after our absence, we were worried about the status of our relationships and the well-being of our friends and colleagues. While nobody escaped the last few years unscathed, the dominant sentiment was hopeful and optimistic. This past week, we spent some quality time renewing ties (and creating new ones) in Maya Mopan, Maya Centre, and Cayo. With them, we planned additional details for this season. We also had a surprise visitor from NCALM (the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping) in Houston, USA. They spent the night with us at Nuuk Che’il in advance of re-flying our 2019 lidar survey at the site of Pearce to capture some missing details.

Most importantly, Ms. Aurora and Mr. Ernesto Saqui, our hosts and friends, conducted a blessing for our season of research at Alabama and the flight over Pearce. From the departed ancestors and local spirits, they asked for permission and aid to help ensure a successful season, for the safety of our entire team and that of the communities of the region affected by our activities.

Mr. Ernesto and Ms. Aurora preparing for a blessing/ ceremony.

Sometimes fun can be serious business! As this is planting season, we were fortunate to be invited to participate in the “corn game” with the friends and family of the Saquis. The game results are used for divining the outcome of the harvest and the timing of rains. While Shawn was on the losing team, the results were deemed auspicious for our hosts.

On a board marked by dried corn kernels, using tokens of sticks and flowers and dice of marked corn, through attack and counterattack, the results predict the outcome of the planting season and the coming of the rains.

On Friday, to wrap up the week, we visited our colleagues at the Institute of Archaeology—Dr. Melissa Badillo (Interim Director) and Dr. John Morris (Research Director)—and picked up our official permit for the 2022 season. We also handed in the report of our 2019 season, which you can read here.

On Saturday, we picked up our second rental vehicle and drove to Belize City to meet Saralyn Smith (M.Sc., Western University). After a cancelled flight and a frantic re-booking, we picked up Dave Blaine (M.A., Athabasca University) in Dangriga on Sunday, along with Belizean natural resource manager, Alson Ovando. You can learn all about our 2022 field team by visiting the “Project Members” tab.

Watch this blog and our social media channels (Facebook, Instagram, and sometimes Twitter) as we update you throughout our season.

Cheers from Belize!

Meaghan & Shawn

SCRAP Reading Group, Week 37: Migration and Deep History

Last week, Lorraine led a discussion about the recent article in Nature Communications that focuses on the genetic prehistory of human populations in Central America. It highlights new evidence from skeletal remains of Early-Middle Holocene individuals found within caves of the Toledo District (just south of Stann Creek). Thanks to all who participated.

Douglas J. Kennett , Mark Lipson, Keith M. Prufer, David Mora-Marín , Richard J. George,
Nadin Rohland, Mark Robinson, Willa R. Trask, Heather H. J. Edgar, Ethan C. Hill, Erin E. Ray, Paige Lynch, Emily Moes, Lexi O’Donnell, Thomas K. Harper, Emily J. Kate, Josue Ramos, John Morris, Said M. Gutierrez, Timothy M. Ryan, Brendan J. Culleton, Jaime J. Awe, and David Reich. (2022). “South-to-north migration preceded the advent of intensive farming in the Maya region.” Nature Communications, 13:1530. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-29158-y | http://www.nature.com/naturecommunications

Summary:

This article pertains to the Bladen Paleoindian and Archaic Archaeological Project (BPAAP) and the research conducted at two Belize rock-shelter sites known as Mayahak Cab Pek (MCHP) and Saki Tzul (ST). These shelters contained archaeological deposits dating back to ~12,000 cal. BP. Researchers selected 20 individuals appropriate for genomic and stable isotope sampling. Individuals dated to between 9,600 and 3,700 cal. BP, with an apparent gap in the skeletal record between 7,300 and 5,600 cal. BP. The individuals who fell within the 9,600 to 7,300 cal. BP range owed their ancestry to an early-splitting branch of humanity’s first southern dispersal into the Americas during the Late Pleistocene. Sometime between 7,300 to 5,600 cal. BP, there was a south-to-north movement into southeastern Yucatan. The individuals who fell within the 5,600 to 3,700 cal. BP range owed their ancestry to the descendants of earlier dispersals from the north-to-south and south-to-north. Linguistic and paleoecological data were marshalled to infer a subsequent northward migration of Chibchan-related populations from northern South America and southern Central America. Genetic characterizations of modern Maya peoples reflect these latter (post-5,600 cal. BP) population events.

Questions:

  1. According to the authors, “Stable isotope dietary data from these individuals show increases in their consumption of maize starting after 4,700 cal. BP, but it is unclear if this dietary shift represents local adoption of more intensive maize cultivation or a new population of maize farmers moving into the region.” Based on the information provided in this article, which would you ascribe to the increases in maize horticulture and consumption: (a) adoption of maize and other domesticates by local forger-horticulturalists, (b) the intrusion of more horticulture-oriented populations with new varieties of maize, or (c) combination of (a) and (b).
  2. Individuals were found in the Hoyo Negro (Black Hole) sinkhole of the Tulum area and the Naharon cave of Quintana Roo, with dates of 10,976 +/- 20 14C y BP (12,910 – 11,750 cal. BP) and 11,670 ) +/- 60 14C y BP (13,721 – 13,354 cal. BP), respectively. Are we able to fit these individuals into the scheme presented by Kennet et al.? What information would we need?
  3. Terminology matters… doesn’t it? In the article, Kennet et al. describe their skeletal populations as representing the “first” migration into the Americas. Dating to between 9,600 and 7,300 cal. BP, is this an accurate description? Why does it matter?
  4. The specific content of this article may lie outside the expertise of many members of our group, but a concept/concern that we are all familiar with is sample size. How confident are you in the broad-strokes picture of human migration painted by this paper? Which story is of greater interest to you, local/specific or global/general? Why?

SCRAP Reading Group, Week 36: Houselots

This week’s reading focused on the issue of ancient houselot size in major cities and rural areas of the northern Maya lowlands. Thank you to all who took part. Summary and discussion questions are below.

Map of the ancient Maya site of Chunchucmil. This particular map covers only the central 1 km2 of the pre-Hispanic city. The orange-brown colour indicates ancient stone walls. Light green indicates depressions (such as quarries or sascaberas). Black lines indicate ancient architecture. [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chunchucmil-sitecentermap.jpg]

Hutson, Scott R., Timothy S. Hare, Travis W. Stanton, Marilyn A. Masson, Nicolas C. Barth, Traci Ardren, and Aline Magnoni (2021). A space of One’s own: Houselot size among the ancient Maya. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 64: 101362.

Summary

Hutson and colleagues use various qualitative and quantitative variables to explore houselot size at the major urban centers of Chunchucmil, Coba, and Maya in the northern Maya lowlands and a rural area in southwestern Quintana Roo in the southern Maya lowlands. They use new lidar imagery to track more variables and more easily quantify variation than previous research. 

Houselot size (the dependent variable) is analyzed with reference to multiple independent variables:

  • Wealth
  • The number of people living within houselots
  • Distance from the site core
  • Farming strategies

Other independent variables discussed, but cannot be tested using lidar imagery, include craft specialization, local norms, environmental variability, and social identity. Houselot space correlates most strongly (but not unequivocally) with proxies for wealth. Craft activities have little bearing on houselot size. Agricultural strategies likely factor into houselot size at Chunchucmil and in southwestern Quintana Roo but only in the latter case do houselots play a role in smallholding. Much of the variability remains unexplained. 

Potential Discussion Questions

  • The case studies from Yucatan cannot be directly applied to the southern Maya lowlands because of the lack of clearly defined, walled boundaries. Other ways to identify houselots? Should we use a different word or definition?
  • The authors state, “Indicators of wealth such as house size or elaboration and artifact assemblages suggest that settlement clusters beyond the single houselot may better represent the relationship of bounded spaces to wealth and related roles in society.” Is this true for the southern Maya lowlands? Akin to a neighbourhood or some other cluster? How would settlement clusters affect our understanding of the relationship between wealth/farming strategies/farming strategies and houselot size?
  • There are still many lidar datasets and questions to explore using spatial analysis. What are the next steps for integrating lidar/spatial analysis with other data types? Different types of comparative spatial questions?

SCRAP Reading Group, Week 35: The complexity of mound building.

Thank you to Matt, who selected our excellent article for discussion this week, focused on geoarchaeological perspectives on mound building. It is an excellent resource for our SCRAP team, which deals with complex earthen-core architecture at Alabama. See below for article reference, summary, and discussion questions.

Initiating excavations at Str. 10 of Alabama, with complex earthen stratigraphy both within the mound (access ramp and main platform) and outside in the North Plaza (e.g., red clay has been brought in from elsewhere).

Sherwood, Sarah C., and Tristram R. Kidder. “The DaVincis of dirt: Geoarchaeological perspectives on Native American mound building in the Mississippi River basin.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 30.1 (2011): 69-87.

Sherwood and Kidder challenge the assumption that earthen mounds are “simple” instead of arguing that mound construction was complex, requiring engineering know-how, substantial planning, considerable knowledge of soil properties, and the ability to mobilize labour. They advocate for studying the process of mound construction, arguing this approach can reveal as much, if not more, cultural information than functional perspectives that only consider mounds as an end-product. Put another way, the mounds themselves can be viewed as culturally significant artifacts that can tell us much about their builders’ society, economy, politics, and culture.

Using examples of monumental earthen-core mounds in the Mississippi River basin–Cahokia, Poverty Point, and Shiloh Mounds–the authors demonstrate the utility of employing multiple scales of evidence generated through geoarchaeological investigations to decipher the process of mound construction. These include regional soils and geomorphology, field observation of lithostratigraphic units, and micro-scale identification of mineralogy and soil development. They argue this data can be used to understand the organization of labour and the pace of construction, and evaluate past decisions related to the selection of materials and use of specific construction techniques. 

Possible Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you think of the concept of mounds as artifacts? Do you agree with the authors that by studying the process of mound construction, we can learn as much about society, economy, politics, and culture as we do from other forms of evidence (e.g., artifacts, settlement patterns, land use)?  
  2. The authors provide compelling evidence to challenge the assumption that “mounds are composed of the cumulative deposition of earthen material (typically local unconsolidated soil), accomplished by piling up consecutive ‘‘basket loads.’’ Should we discard this assumption in our analyses, or does it still have validity in certain contexts? Either way, do we need to change our language when we talk about core/fill contexts? Do we have sufficient evidence to distinguish between “loaded,” “homogenous,” or “zoned” fills? 
  3. The authors suggest the only significant difference between constructing smaller mounds and monumental mounds was the degree of labour investment. Is this a fair assumption? 
  4. The examples presented in this article have clearly distinguishable stratigraphy and deposits related to building materials and techniques. For example, sod and soil blocks, zoned fill, and veneers, are pretty obvious. Should we be looking for similar features in our architecture (recognizing the soils and sediments used for construction at Alabama are far more homogenous)? 
  5. How can we introduce some of the methodologies presented in this article to our research? Can we do this ourselves as “generalists,” or do we require in-field “specialists” to support data collection and analysis?
  6. Are there lessons in the article that those of us who work in regions of the Maya lowlands that predominantly feature boulder/rubble core/fill can apply to our research? 
  7. I’m intrigued by the idea that veneers were applied to the outside of mounds, especially since lime plaster gets all the attention. What do we think of the idea that clay-based veneers were applied to earthen-core mounds in Stann Creek (or other limestone-poor regions)? Any evidence? If so, aside from obvious functional concerns (repelling water, for example), can we hypothesize about cultural implications of this outward-facing choice in building technique (i.e., indexical vs. canonical communication)? 

SCRAP Reading Group, Week 34: Planning for the Field

This week, we did not discuss a reading; instead, we talked about the logistics of planning for and engaging in field research this spring/summer. Thank you to Marieka for sharing her recent fieldwork experience in Belize.

Follow this link for a field site safety checklist to use in COVID times, provided by the Canadian Archaeological Association.