Archaeology puzzle!

Many people have been turning to puzzles as a form of stress relief during COVID times. If you are one of those people (or even if you are not), try your hand at this 100-piece puzzle to see one of our 2019 excavation sites in the Alabama settlement. This is at structure ALA-002B where we excavated a granite stair that leads to the top of a middle- to upper-stratum residential platform, which dates to the Late to Terminal Classic (ca. 700-900 C.E.). Roughly one meter below the patio/plaza to the front of the building, below roughly 50 cm of flood deposits, we encountered ceramics from the Early Classic (ca. 250-500 C.E.), providing us with possible clues about the early Alabama community prior to its documented boom. You can read about these discoveries in our upcoming field report (stay tuned).

https://www.jigsawplanet.com/?rc=play&pid=25553863de3b

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Week 5: Spatial Network Analysis in Archaeology

We’re now in Week 9 (? who knows… COVID time) of self-isolation, and today was our fifth meet up of the SCRAP online reading group. This week we read a stimulating article about the use of spatial network analysis in Andean archaeology. We had 9 people take part in Canada, US, Belize, and Mexico. Our special guests were Dr. Nancy Peniche May and Dr. Jeffrey Seibert, whose backgrounds in ancient architectural and spatial analyses in the Maya world provided particularly relevant insight into the article under discussion. This week’s article was chosen by the SCRAP GIS specialist, Mr. Dave Blaine, who also wrote the following summary and discussion questions.

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Wernke, Steven A. (2012) Spatial Network Analysis of a Terminal Prehispanic and Early Colonial Settlement in Highland Peru. Journal of Archaeological Science 39: 1111-1122.

Summary.

This study focuses on a GIS-based spatial network analysis (SNA) of the site of Malata in the Andean highlands of southern Peru, and argues for the broad utility of this approach to provide quantitative and reproducible simulations of movement through the built environment of archaeological sites.  The general idea behind SNA is that spaces can be reduced to components; analyzed as networks of movement choices; visualized as maps and/or graphs that describe the presence and depth of connectedness within those spaces.  It is thought to be possible to quantify and simulate how navigable any given space is, (pre)determine common routing through those spaces, and inform the prediction of the correlation between spatial layouts and social phenomena such as crime, purchasing habits, or in this case processional and commensal ritual traffic.

Malata is well-preserved architecturally, and the author suggests that it provides a record of the significant changes to the built-environment that occurred during a “chronologically controlled window” as the site shifted from a modest Inka administrative centre to a Franciscan doctrina. Furthermore, the site allows for a comparative analysis of Inka and Spanish spatial planning priorities and movement, highlighting the “disparate beliefs and practices associated with the built environment”.

Discussion.

  1. To my mind, the main concern with employing modern analytical tools like network analysis – which were specifically invented to address modern commercial/industrial problems in data-driven fashion, within contexts and relationships in which most or all entities are known – is that they may be ill-suited to modelling past behaviours, or predicting past events, reconstructed from archaeological contexts where the data is fragmented and incomplete. Thoughts?
  2. Evaluating an archaeological site in the network terms of nodes and edges seems to expose how little we really know about the ancient world. However, this study shows SNA’s potential as a critical tool to reconstruct the past relationships and interactions between peoples and their built environments. What seems crucial to the success of that tool is what Wernke describes as the Inka “architectural canon”; to what extent is the architectural canon known in Alabama, and how congruent (or not) is it with what is known from other Maya sites?  Enough so to be able to deploy an SNA of our own?
  3. Overcoming data deficiencies is definitely a thing given the state of preservation in Alabama. Could the advantage of employing an approach like SNA be to help expose our underlying assumptions about the built environment at Alabama; how we classify and analyze it?

Week 4 of our COVID-Times Reading Group

For Week 4 of our COVID-times reading group, we read a stimulating article about the survey, testing, and excavation methods associated with “effaced earthen-core architecture” in the Maya region: platform architecture that has predominantly clay/mud/dirt core (fill) faced with dressed or hewn stone. We had eight participants in our conversation–again, from Belize, Canada, and the US–and we were lucky enough to have co-authors Drs. Brouwer Burg and Harrison-Buck join us for a wonderful 2+ hour conversation. Shawn provided a summary and the discussion questions to guide our conversation for this week.

Brouwer Burg, M., A. Runggaldier & E. Harrison-Buck (2016) The Afterlife of Earthen-Core Buildings: A Taphonomic Study of Threatened and Effaced Architecture in Central Belize. Journal of Field Archaeology 41(1): 17-36.

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Summary.
This article focuses on the site of Hats Kaab, in the lower Belize River Valley, and details work conducted there in the early 2010s by the Belize River East Archaeological (BREA) Project. Based on radiocarbon assays and ceramic dates, Hats Kaab was initially constructed in the Late Preclassic, with remodeling in the Late-Terminal Preclassic, and evidence of additional activity in the Classic and Post-Classic periods. A remarkably isolated collection of platforms arranged around a central plaza, it has been interpreted as a special purpose architectural complex of the E-Group type—acting as a functional solar observatory and a venue for large gatherings, including feasting—a persistent place, and a crossroads location. While there is plenty of neat stuff to tuck into with this article, the reason that it was chosen for this week’s reading group was for its parallels with Alabama (the focus of SCRAP’s research) in terms of scale/proportion, construction techniques, and post-abandonment taphonomy.

Discussion Questions.
1. How do we align excavated and surface-collected data? What factors might affect such
alignment?

2. Hats Kaab is notable (among many more positive things) for the extent to which it has been disturbed and degraded by agricultural development. Alabama has also been heavily impacted by agriculture. To what extent (and how) can we control for this in our field methodology and post-field analyses?

3. Like Hats Kaab, construction at Alabama is composed of clayey earthen fill, with structures faced by cut masonry. This is a question directed primarily at Marieka and Ellie (and Jill, of course). Can you describe BCM? For the SCRAP materials folks, I’m wondering how this might differ from the “weird” daub we’re finding at Alabama. Can we distinguish between the two?

4. Hats Kaab lies at a nexus. So does Alabama. Portable material culture can clearly speak to this position. Can architecture?

5. Can we invoke the persistent place concept at Alabama?

SCRAP Reading Group, Week 3: All About Pottery…in Africa!

This week’s reading group topic was pottery. Our ceramicist and lab director, Dr. Jill Jordan, selected our reading for this week, which was about modern pottery production in southern Niger and addresses topics that have come up in previous articles and discussions from our group: resource acquisition, knowledge transmission, identity, and practice. This was an opportunity for project members and guests to look at an ethnographic case study from another region and think about how we can apply concepts/methods to our work in Belize. This week we had seven participants for our conversation, hailing from Belize, Canada, and the US, including our special guest, Dr. Jerimy Cunningham, who works in Northern Mexico but has a background in pottery ethnoarchaeology in Africa. Our conversation lasted 2 hours, plus some additional, much needed, socializing time. Below, you’ll find a summary of the reading plus our discussion questions.

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SCRAP Reading Group, Week 3, Friday April 24 (online, 4pm MST).

“Thoughts and Adjustments in the Potter’s Backyard” (Olivier P. Gosselain, 2008, in Breaking the Mould: Challenging the Past through Pottery, edited by Ina Berg, pp. 67-79, BAR International Series 1861)

Summary: This book chapter explores pottery production in southern Niger-specifically clay extraction, clay processing (tempering), and shaping-to highlight the complex relationships between technological behavior and social contexts. Gosselain argues that “technical practices or objects are not intrinsically or univocally meaningful. Meaning is always situational-that is, heavily dependent on the context within which things, knowledge and know-how are acquired and put into practice” (67). He illustrates the relationship between pottery production and social context in Niger by considering potters’ social identity, the historical processes that affected movement (past and recent), and the movements of individuals as a result of environmental and economic constraints.

Clay Selection. Clay selection is part of a potter’s space of experience-the territory within which potters and/or members of their communities live, carry out activities, and develop social interactions. Clays used by potters are located near manufacturing sites (a worldwide trend including modern and ancient Maya [Arnold 1985]) and clay selection strategies are embedded in a web of other practices and located near places where other activities occur (e.g. habitation, wells, gardening, watering places, fields).

Clay Processing. Clay processing involves many steps: crushing, drying, soaking, tempering, and kneading (some are optional). Clay processing is not uniform across Niger and the relationship between paste recipe and social and/or community identity is different in southwest Niger and eastern Niger. In southwest Niger, there are no obvious patterns in paste recipe and social boundaries at the macro-level. However, at the micro-regional or community level, difference in temper choice (all potting groups use the same clay) is related to sub-groups within a village: blacksmiths, slaves, and farmers. In eastern Niger, clay processing recipes homogenize through kinship networks within large and bounded areas. Where potters’ identities are at stake, technological homogenization is at the micro-scale; when identity is not at stake, homogenization occurs at a larger scale.

Shaping. The way a potter shapes a vessel is related to their personal biography and the social setting where the work is carried out. Gosselain states (76-77), “Social value judgements attached to technical practices have led them to modify parts of their technical behavior, and, seemingly, the technique used for shaping vessels.” Vessel shaping, often considered a routine and mundane activity, is a tool for expressing identity in Niger.

 

Discussion Questions:

  • This book chapter focused on pottery production in Niger and the “organized chain of ‘situated actions’, during which knowledge is put into practice in a specific social and environmental setting” (77). What can we apply to our work in the Maya lowlands? Are the concepts limited to pottery or can they be applied to architecture? Other material culture?

 

  • Should we expect all aspects of the pottery production process in the Maya region to be shared in the same way? If not, what can we do to untangle the choices made my potters and the social relationships (or social boundaries) that produced the patterns we see in the archaeological record?

 

  • How can we incorporate “space of experience” in understanding craft production among the Maya? What would we need to consider? Can we use the two previous readings (Saqui 2012 and Dunham 1996) to inform on this?

 

  • Ethnographic work benefits from talking to potters to understand how social boundaries, identity, historical processes, etc. affect their decisions. Should we pursue similar questions in archaeology? How?

Another week of reading & online discussion

This evening we hosted the second meet up of our SCRAP Online Reading Group. Once again, we had participants from Belize, Canada, and the US take part, and the discussion carried on for 2 hours (plus an extra hour of chatting). Thanks to all who participated, including our special guest, Ms. Sylvia Batty. The following article summary and discussion questions were provided by Matt Longstaffe who is conducting his Ph.D. research as part of SCRAP.

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SCRAP Reading Group, Week 2: Friday, April 10, 2020: (online, 4:00 MST), “Resource Exploitation and Exchange among the Classic Maya: Some Initial Findings of the Maya Mountains Archaeological Project” (Peter Dunham, 1996, in The Managed Mosaic: Ancient Maya Agriculture and Resource Use, edited by S. L. Fedick, pp. 315-334. University Press of Utah).

Summary: This book chapter provides an overview of the results of field research conducted in 1992 by the Maya Mountains Archaeological Project (MMAP). The chapter discusses the unique natural resources of the Maya Mountains area and highlights several archaeological sites located in the Swasey and Trio branches of the Monkey River. Underpinning this discussion is a critique of the enduring narrative once popular among Mayanists that long-distance and external trade, and intensive centralized production, underwrote the emergence of complexity in the Maya region. In these “exogenic” models, the emergence of elites is tied to advantageous access to long-distance and foreign commerce. These types of models ignore the variability in trade and exchange that exist in all societies, instead favouring a premise in which long-distance trade is a requirement for complexity to emerge in peripheral regions such as Stann Creek and Toledo, as these areas are assumed to lack the essential resources needed for cultural development, reproduction, and maintenance. In contrast to these models, Dunham highlights the importance of internal and shorter-range exchange and the ways that ‘local’ resources can fuel complexity among the Maya

There are several reasons why I selected this article for discussion. First, the detailed discussions on the unique biological and mineralogical resources are pertinent to SCRAP’s ongoing research on resource exploitation and use in Stann Creek. Many of the unique biological and mineralogical resources valued by the Maya populations in the Swasey and Trio branches would also have been of importance to the Maya who lived in Alabama. Identifying these unique resources will help us to understand both why and how settlements arose in their vicinity. Second, the descriptions Dunham provides of sites such as Danto, Lagarto, Ruina Carolina, Martin’s Ruin, and Papayal, provide a rare glimpse into the many settlements of this region that are otherwise rarely discussed. These sites, like Alabama, diverge from the general characteristics of most Classic period Maya settlements, and offer, at a minimum, some physiographic comparisons to other sites with similar environmental settings in Stann Creek and Toledo. Third, Dunham raises some interesting hypotheses regarding the relationships between local networks of exchange, settlement patterns, and site functions. For instance, his hypothetical picture of a local sphere of interaction among communities connected through downstream resource exchange is an intriguing avenue of inquiry and may have some applicability for understanding the connections of Alabama to other settlements in Stann Creek and further afield. Finally, and encompassed within the points made above, this chapter provides a valuable and critical counterpoint to the dominant view amongst many Mayanists that the Maya Mountains region was an “unoccupied cultural backwater”.

Some Discussion Questions:

  1. The chapter highlights many of the unique biological resources of the Maya Mountains region. Given issues of preservation, archaeologists are often limited in the ways they can talk about many types of resources that were important to past Maya populations. How can we better represent resources that leave few, if any, material traces in our interpretations of the activities of past populations of Stann Creek?
  2. Resources are assigned “value” based on contextual factors. How do we reconcile common notions of what is considered “valuable” among the ancient Maya with the many different locally available resources often underrepresented in the archaeological literature?
  3. What do you think about Dunham’s idea of networks of communities engaged in a broader resource economy?
  4. People migrating to this region would be faced with challenges in how to adapt to the unique environment and best utilize its resource base. In what ways can we identify these challenges, as well as successes, in the archaeological record?

 

 

 

Sticking Together While at a Distance

Today we held the first meeting (hopefully of many) of the SCRAP Virtual Reading Group. Thank you to our participants from Belize, Canada, and the US for our 2.5-hour conversation, including our special guest, Dr. Pio Saqui. We look forward to our next discussion in two weeks’ time. Email us if you would like to join.

91211651_2421091004870126_7789254556612820992_nSCRAP Reading Group, Week 1: Friday, March 27, 2020 (online, 5 pm MST), Saqui, Pio. Mopan Maya Science: Traditional Ecological Knowledge and its Transmission Among Mopan Maya Milpa Communities of Belize. PhD diss., University of Florida, 2012.

Academic reading groups are conducted for a variety of reasons, including aiming to help each other understand written materials, as well as getting a sense of personal reactions and stimulating discussion about written materials of importance to a particular topic. In our case, it is primarily the latter—we’re starting this group in order to jointly read and engage with written academic material that SCRAP team members (either individually or as a group) find relevant to our current (or even future) research at Alabama and Pearce. Additionally, we felt this would be a good way to maintain social cohesion for our team—including members from Canada, the US, and Belize—while we are not able to meet up in the field as per usual this summer. We also are very happy that we can invite guests relevant to the particular topic we are studying, who can provide external perspectives, so as not to encourage ‘group think’ within our project.

For this week, I (Meaghan) chose the 2012 dissertation written by Dr. Pio Saqui—who we met last summer for the first time and is the brother of Mr. Ernesto Saqui who is our host in Maya Centre. The topic of his dissertation—which addresses the concepts of TEK, kol, and tzik within Mopan Maya communities of Southern Belize (Toledo District)—is seen to be relevant to us as we also work in a Mopan region of Belize and the aforementioned topics were likely also of import even in the past (thus, important to our study of the ancient past as archaeologists). I would also say that I hoped that reading this document might also contextualize some of the interactions and topics we have engaged with in conversation and while working alongside Mopan crew members in Maya Mopan Village, as well as some of the general theoretical issues we have been tackling in our research at Alabama and Pearce.

Here is a brief summary of Dr. Saqui’s work (prepared by Meaghan):

This ethnographic study—conducted by an Indigenous Mopan Maya researcher from Belize—explores the persistence of Mopan Maya traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) through the study of the current role of milpa agriculture and ecological knowledge (kol) and associated sociopolitical structures of respect (tzik) within four Mopan Maya communities of Southern Belize (Toledo District). The author argues that these two interconnected concepts form the framework for the Mopan worldview as it exists today—and potentially pushed back into the ancient past. The study concludes that “being indigenous Mopan Maya requires close contact with, and traditional knowledge of, the ecosystem and the ways in which it interacts through milpa farming with daily life, community and kinship. It is this close connection with milpa farming or kol and tzik that ensures the transmission of TEK through the generations.” The study also addresses the current threats faced by both kol and tzik (and therefore the entire system of TEK) due to globalizing economic forces leading to the abandonment of personal subsistence practices in favour of commercial practices, wage labour, lack of community control over education/curriculum, and language loss. The study also brings up points of interest and contention when it comes to Indigenous researchers studying their own “peoples.”

91114373_2421198831526010_3530747530046341120_oThe main questions that directed our two-hour discussion (plus 1/2 hour introduction to our group):

  1. Do the elements/processes of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) qualify it as a “science” (does it need to be qualified), as suggested in the title of this reading?
  2. What do you think about the essence of “Mayaness” and/or “Mopaness(?)” as it is presented in this study (i.e. the essential role of kol and tzik)?
  3. How might the concept of tzik be materialized archaeologically? Is it a useful concept for us as archaeologists examining the past?
  4. How much of swidden agriculture/kol reflects very specific local knowledge versus more general understandings of the ‘world’?

SCRAP 2020 Field Season Postponed

Given current travel advisories and bans, we have made the difficult decision to postpone our upcoming field season until 2021. But not to worry! Fieldwork is only part of the archaeological endeavour. SCRAP members will certainly be able to keep themselves busy working up the data we’ve already collected over five seasons at Alabama (as well as recent Lidar survey at Pearce) and we’ll be sure to share the process through our social media as we go. Stay tuned and thank you to our entire SCRAP Team—both in Belize and abroad—for your ongoing hard work and dedication to archaeological investigation and heritage conservation in the Stann Creek District! Stay healthy!

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