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!



Weeks 8, 9, AND 10: The End.

I know, I know. The point of a weekly blog is that it is posted, well, weekly. And while I’d like to hide behind the anonymity of the royal “we” on this one, as I type this from the comfort of my Flagstaff apartment, I am acutely aware that I (not we) didn’t manage to get this out in time.  In my defense, the last three weeks have been exceptionally busy.  Let me explain…

The two busiest times in any field project are at the beginning and at the end.  While at the beginning this activity is fueled by excitement for the coming season, at the end the dominant emotion is anxiety. Is everything properly buttoned up? Did we wring out as much information as we possibly could?  Have I answered my basic questions and do I have enough to complete that next publication or to propose that next grant? Just how over budget are we?  All of this in the knowledge that our time is finite, marked by the hard deadline of our plane tickets home.

Inevitably, you come out the end of the season with more questions than answers and a “To Do” list the length of your arm (12 pt font) for the next season.  But I’m happy to report that thanks to the efforts of our hard working project members, we can count this season among the successes.


Getting artifacts ready for storage and checking condition of stored artifacts from past seasons.


Weeks 8 and 9: Our Last Weeks of Field Work

The end of our field work was blessedly staggered, allowing for each piece to be wrapped up in its own time and with the attention needed.

Matt and his crew were the first to hit the finish line; a couple hundred shovel tests and one deep stratigraphic test unit added to the books since they began in May. What took nearly 8 weeks to dig out was filled back in a day and a half. Sylvestro, Higinio Jr., Damacio, and Aaron barely broke a sweat!

Meaghan, Virginia, and the two senior Mr. Chiacs finished next.  Their excavations succeeded in hinting at a much deeper settlement history than we had hitherto encountered, and illuminated something of the complex construction history (method and timeline) of hands-down the nicest set of stairs ever found by this project.  Again, nearly 4 weeks of excavated earth was put back in less than a day.

The final excavations to finish were my own (if you didn’t gather earlier, I am a procrastinator), despite the tireless work of Mr.s Paquiul, Cal, Salam, and our volunteer, Diego.  In the end, our comparatively large excavations (8 x 3 m, through platform and plaza, alike) at a presumed temple platform in Alabama’s monumental core delivered on questions of construction history, method, and materials, an infuriating lack of architectural stone leaves us scratching our heads. Were we digging stairs? A ramp? Were the stones stripped from the structure in the recent past? In the distant past? Where they never there? Grrr! We filled in this excavation on Friday morning.

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Enigmatic Str. 10

Why fill in our excavations? Particularly if we are planning on returning to these locations in future? It is both a legal requirement of the permit granted to Meaghan by Belize’s Institute of Archaeology, and the ethical thing to do.  Alabama is not a tourist site. It is not protected, save by the good will of the property owner and community. It lies within an active orange orchard. There is no money available for keeping the site clean. An open excavation in these conditions would be a danger for workers and equipment, and would quickly succumb to the cumulative effects of erosion, plant roots, and the questing hands of passers by. We backfill our excavations not because we are trying to hide something, or because we like making more work for ourselves, but because the earth has protected these one-of-a-kind places for more than a thousand years, and if we are fortunate, it will continue to do so.

Week 10: The End is Nigh

Following two public presentations on this season’s activities in both Maya Mopan and Maya Centre—such public engagement has been a hallmark of SCRAP since its inception, this time, with the Chairman and Alcalde of Maya Mopan arranging for a marimba and dancing in association—we snuck to the beach for a well-deserved breather before our lab week commenced.


Final lab days

This past week, we…

-Cleaned, repaired, inventoried, and stored all project and personal equipment.

-Completed basic cataloguing and conducted more extensive ceramic and lithic descriptions/analyses.

-Photographed and illustrated relevant objects before likewise placing these in storage.

-Scanned and compiled all notes, plans, profiles, etc., and ultimately turned these in to an expansive preliminary report for the Institute.


Learning about artifacts recovered this season


Presentation and movie event in Maya Mopan

Why do we produce such a report if we are going to produce a final report later? Again, it is both a legal and ethical requirement. The preliminary report (in this case, more than 400 pages long, not including photographs!) represents our raw data. It is no less than the complete record, as best as we can record, of our activities. There isn’t much interpretation in this document (that will come later), but, knock on wood, should something happen to us, archaeologists that come after should be able to pick up where we left off.  It is our recording and preservation of such a record that most significantly separates archaeologists from looters. This is the most important thing we do, and the reason that SCRAP has a lab week at the end of the field season.

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488 page preliminary report

And with that, another field season for the Stann Creek Regional Archaeology Project comes to a close. Thank you again to the whole crew and to those that we’ve come to rely upon to pull this off. Thank you to Mr. H. Chiac Sr., Mr. J. Paquiul, Mr. I. Cal, Mr. L. Salam, Mr. J. Chiac, Mr. S. Chiac, Mr. H. Chiac Jr., Ms. V. Chiac, Mr. D. Sho, Mr. A. Tush, Ms. J. and Mr. C. Teul, Mr. C. Teul, Mr. J. Teck, and to the residents of Maya Mopan. Thank you to Mr. Greene and Ms. Canton of Greene Groves Orchards.  Thank you to Ms. A. and Mr. E. Saqui, Mr. G. Saqui, Mr. R. Saqui, and the other good folks at Nuuk Che’il Cottages in Maya Centre. Thank you to Ms. Ella and Mr. Kenny of Ella’s Cool Spot, and the staff of Driftwood, both in Hopkins Village. Thank you to our volunteers–Mr. D. Paquiul, Niki, Gillian, Frank, and young Mr. T. Teul–and the team from UNESCO Suriname-Belize Heritage Mission. Finally, thank you to friends and colleagues, new and old, at the Institute of Archaeology, the Institute for Social and Cultural Research, and the Stann Creek House of Culture.  We’ll see you next time!


Shawn and the SCRAP Team


Week 7: Field Lab

We spent last weekend (end of Week 7) at the beautiful Ranguana Cabanas on the beach in Placencia. Shawn has been talking about this hotel for years and I am so glad that I finally got to stay there! The water and weather were absolutely beautiful. We did a lot of reading for pleasure and drinking coffee while gazing at the ocean. Matt and I even got to try Shawn’s mom’s comfort food called “Macaroni Swirl,” which involves LOTS of cheese. It seems whenever SCRAP has access to a kitchen we are sure to make at least one decadent, cheese-filled dish and this weekend was no exception. It was the relaxing and food-filled weekend we all needed before the start of our eighth week of field and lab work.

Most of our blogs have focused on different aspects of fieldwork at Alabama but the laboratory is just as vital to archaeological research. Our week 7 blog post discusses the wonderful world of the field lab. I am the lab director which is kind of like a cruise director except that I am less concerned about making you do the hokey pokey in front of your whole family and more interested in ensuring that the artifacts are washed, catalogued, and organized for storage and future analysis. Okay, so I am nothing like a cruise director but I do encourage organized fun.

We are lucky to have a wonderful field laboratory at Nu’uk Che’il in Maya Centre where we also stay and eat the majority of our meals. The lab is spacious and provides a screened-in area (with electricity and fans!) to do much of our analytical work. When the field crew gets in each day around 4pm all of the incoming artifacts are placed into these labeled bins. Everyone joins in to make sure that the artifacts are washed and then they are placed on a screen to dry. The washing process can be tedious but it is a good time for everyone to discuss their day and the different artifacts coming out of the excavation units. One of the benefits of being on a smaller archaeological project is that we all get to see the artifacts every day and discuss them with each other.

The drying process can take anywhere from one day to multiple days depending on how much it has rained. All of the artifacts are counted and weighed before being stored in plastic bags. Each artifact class (e.g. ceramic, lithic, groundstone) is bagged and catalogued separately. These records are an account of every artifact that was recovered during excavations and form the basis of future analytical work. We give these data to the Belize Institute of Archaeology (IA) at the end of each field season as part of our responsibilities for being granted permission to conduct archaeological research in Belize. We also provide the IA with copies of excavations notes, forms, and pictures at the end of each season.

In addition to my role as the Lab Director for SCRAP, I am also a ceramic analyst. We are just starting to familiarize ourselves with the pottery recovered from Alabama so I will wait until later to write more specifically about the pottery. Stay tuned for a blog called “Pottery: The Best Artifact in the World” or “Know Your Sand, Know Your World” once we have a better handle on the data. Artifact analysis generally takes place over many years, involves different project members with diverse specialties, and sometimes requires exporting materials out of Belize for additional analyses. For example, carbon is exported to acquire dates, obsidian for pXRF analysis to determine provenance, and pottery for thin section petrography to determine provenance and information on how the pottery was made. In order to export archaeological materials, we must get approval and official paperwork from the IA and return the materials to Belize once the analysis is completed (typically within one year). A lot of our analytical work, however, can be done in the lab in Maya Centre. The rest of the crew will join me the last week of the field season to do additional artifact analysis, take photographs, and draw some of the more interesting artifacts (e.g. chert bifaces and figurine fragments) to include in our annual report. We are spending Week 8 conducting fieldwork and lab work and then head to Hopkins for another relaxing beach weekend. One of the many perks of working in the Stann Creek District!

Until next time,

Dr. Jill Jordan


Week 6: STP Paradise

Week 6 saw us back in the field excavating at two new structures (Trumpet Tree Mound in the settlement, and Str. 10 in the monumental core). However, our focus for the blog this week is shovel test pits. The following is written by PhD student, Matt Longstaffe.

When thinking about archaeology, images of adventure and discovery often come to mind. Think, for example, the excavation of ancient palaces, temples, and tombs – lost for thousands of years, found deep in the jungle. While this certainly has been, and in some cases still is, one part of archaeology – there are, however, other pathways to discovery…

Take, for example, the humble shovel test pit.

What is a “shovel test pit” you ask? (well… maybe you are not …). It is exactly as it sounds: a small test pit, most often (but not always) excavated using a shovel, usually (but, again, not always) dug in a systematic manner (for example, on a regularly spaced grid). One of the most commonly used archaeological data collection methods, the shovel test pit allows archaeologists to gather a variety of different types of data. For example, stratigraphy, artifacts, eco-facts (e.g., botanicals, charcoal), and soils and sediments can all be collected using a “STP”. As an excavation tool, it is valuable in the sense that it allows for collection of data in a systematic and minimally invasive manner across a large area in a relatively short amount of time. They are useful for identifying spatial patterns related to past human activities, for example, through the analysis of artifacts, ecofacts, and the concentration of chemicals and trace element residues in the soil. Different activities – for example, manufacturing goods, cooking food, and disposing of refuse – leave different and unique archaeological signatures. Through the triangulation of multiple lines of evidence, archaeologists can use data from STPS make arguments for the types of activities that took place in ancient spaces, and in some cases, identify the actual locations where activities occurred.

This summer, my fieldwork at Alabama has focused on the shovel test pit. I am investigating the off-mound space associated with one of Alabama’s largest outlying settlement groups (the same group at which Meaghan, and earlier this summer Dave, have been conducting test excavations). My goal for this field season is to systematically test the spaces between and behind the settlement group’s three mounds.

To do this, I am excavating 50 cm by 50 cm test pits, on a regularly spaced 5-meter grid. Some of my goals include: to collect artifacts, ecofacts, and soils and sediments from across the settlement group, identify features, locate any buried architecture, identify activity areas and refuse deposits, and gather stratigraphic information related to both cultural (e.g., plaza construction) and natural (e.g., accumulation of soil and sediments) contexts. This of course, is just part of broader multi-year research plan to collect and analyze data from a variety of archaeological contexts, using different excavation and laboratory methods, to help us better understand the livelihoods of the people who resided at not only this settlement group, but also the Alabama settlement as a whole.

So far, we have excavated over 150 test pits. We are working not in the jungle, but rather in an orange grove. On sunny days it can be oppressively hot – the work is hard and hydration is critical.

Because we are constantly moving around the orchard. we don’t have the luxury of shelter. That means when it’s sunny there is no shade, and when it rains you get wet.

Nonetheless, these excavations have been rewarding, and have already taught us a lot about this settlement group and the ancient Maya who lived here.

Some general highlights:

  • There is a formal raised plaza associated with the group, constructed using boulder and river cobble fill.
  • Almost all of the test pits contain cultural materials, whether ceramic, daub, lithics, or in some cases, remnants of groundstone tools. I was not sure how much cultural material we would find at this settlement group and have been pleasantly surprised by the diversity of artifacts we’ve recovered.
  • Several of the test pits have recovered diagnostic ceramics and charcoal, which will hopefully allow us to build a chronology for the construction of the plaza.
  • Test pits behind one of the buildings look like they may have located a midden (garbage!).
  • Soils and sediments have been collected from each test pit. Through laboratory analysis I hope to characterize the soils to identify chemical signatures related to past activities.





Weeks 4 & 5, plus a conference

The past three weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind. We shut down excavations at the Coconut Mound, having recovered both construction and occupation dates, as well as some tantalizing additional finds that possibly suggest settlement occupation prior to a significant flooding event early in Alabama’s history and a long period of abandonment following the event (you’ll have to wait for our final report for more details). We’ll be conducting more extensive excavations at this site next season.

We then opened up excavations at Trumpet Tree Mound in the same settlement group. Helping us with these excavations were members of a UNESCO Mission Group who have been on a Belize exchange focused on tangible and intangible heritage across the country. We were very thrilled to have Irene, Stephen, and Paul working with us for three days, during which we started uncovering the beautiful granite steps of Trumpet Tree Mound.

Up in the monumental core, we completed our investigations at Str. 1/2 for the season (to be reopened in the future), having recovered additional, fascinating information regarding construction methods at the site and earlier phases of construction (yet to be dated—we’ll be running many AMS dates this year).

We took a long weekend break in Hopkins after week 3, and enjoyed some fun times during Mango Fest—including a sweet round of mini golf (we are all pretty amazing).

Niki left us at the end of Week 4 (but we made sure to take a 2019 crew photo first) and we were then joined by Gillian Taylor—who was also one of our field school students last season.

17C0EA7D-3F37-4313-9B0B-FF846C830E28Shawn and I were invited to make a presentation about the project at the Fajina meeting in Maya Mopan, and we were accompanied by a representative from the Institute of Archaeology; the meeting went very well and we are looking forward to our next event at the end of July. We all paid a quick visit to our colleagues down in Big Fall, Toledo District to look at pottery from the neighbouring district, and were treated to a tour of Nim Li Punit by Dr. Geoff Braswell, who highlighted many of the recent, amazing finds from the site.

Over the last two weeks of our first session, we also took part in a “dehaunting” ceremony at a home in Maya Centre, as well as a healing ceremony; we were very happy to have been part of these events—which are often limited to close family—alongside our friends at Nuuk Cheil and our colleagues from the Institute for Social and Cultural Research. Dave left us at the end of Week 5 just before we headed to Cayo.


Taking part in a healing ceremony

Finally, we just finished a week in Cayo where we all attended and presented at the 17th annual Belize Archaeology Symposium. This is an event that brings together archaeologists from across the country to present on their recent research/activities; in particular, the conference aims to inform tour guides, teachers, students, and the general public about the impressive array of archaeological studies happening in the country. We attended three days of talks—presenting our own on the final day—and celebrated the end of the conference with a big party with much dancing (again, we are all pretty amazing).


We are now back in Stann Creek District for the second half of our field season. We have some new excavations and a couple community events coming up over this month, so stay tuned!

Meaghan, Shawn, Matt, and Jill

Week 3… We think… (June 2-9, 2019)

Note to the reader.

This recap of our week’s activities is a week late (internet outage issues) and has been borrowed from a much larger travelogue of my experiences during this, my second field season with SCRAP.  It’s not always easy to keep a running account of all the goings-on during a project like this, and yet my assortment of Rite in the Rain notebooks – curled with sweat, and smeared with all manner of dust and historical debris – managed to accumulate a small series of impressions for each and every day.

If I have succeeded at crafting an image of life on, and around this project, it is through the eyes (and the lens) of a traveller – an enthusiastic participant – trying to gain an understanding, rather than of an expert, dispensing it.  It has always been my good fortune to be surrounded by companions who are experts, and without whose expertise this learning process would have been much harder.

Dave Blaine.  June, 2019.  Maya Center, Belize.

Week 3.

Day 9.  Maya Center to Placencia

A nod to Shawn, who has been our constant driver on this project.  He swings our bright red passenger van expertly around potholes and stray dogs, and screeches to nearly complete stops in the middle of the highway at entirely irregular intervals to climb the vehicle over the absurdly lofty speed bumps they call down here “Pedestrian Ramps”.


After a long but enjoyable day spent at the Maya Glyphs workshop in Belmopan, we decide to trade the gravitas of the capital city for the repose of the Caribbean.  Mostly we spend the day seated on or near the beach at one of Meaghan and Shawn’s preferred haunts, Barefoot Beach Bar.  When I first visited last year, it sported a sandwich board sign with the magnificent proclamation “Soup of the Day: Vodka”.  Today however it’s a more prosaic “Live Music”, with a series of dates and times listed.

We’re soon joined by a colleague of Meaghan’s from Athabasca U; a biological anthropologist named Dr. Hugh Notman.  He’s already wrapped up his field school for the season, leading students through the jungle in search of howler monkeys.  He’ll be on his way back to Alberta tomorrow.  The days since my arrival have been so incredibly hot that I feel a pang of envy; I’ve only been down here a week.


After dinner at Barefoot, we retire down the boardwalk – which is made of concrete now, since the last one was washed away by a hurricane – to Tutti Frutti Gelateria, which serves up what is unquestionably the best gelato anywhere.  I’m told the owners divide their time between here and home in Italy.  I’m grateful that our Belize season coincides with theirs.


Placencia Beach

Day 10.  Alabama

Up at 5 am to kick off another week of field work.  I’m nursing a dreadful sunburn from yesterday’s afternoon in Placencia.  I don’t know how I always manage to forget how susceptible I am to the sun.  I guess my Anglo-Saxon genome is just better suited to cloudy places.

We arrive on site at the usual time and Mr. Chiac is waiting expectantly for us.  Small in stature – like most local Maya – with the leathery features of someone who has worked outdoors for most of his life; wearing a faded Athabasca University baseball cap, and a torn and sweat stained t-shirt, he’s a powerhouse of a man: robust, commanding and spry.

Today however he is agitated, and with good reason.  The site, he tells us, has been vandalized.  As we survey the damage, it is immediately apparent that these were looters, looking in haphazard and destructive fashion, for whatever it was that attracted us to this site.  I can’t help but notice how upset our team members from the local village of Maya Mopan are over this.  It is a poignant display of how invested they have become in their years working with SCRAP.

Fortunately, the damage appears to be minimal.  The worst that seems to have happened is that we lost the opportunity to map several large granite blocks that make up the fall of our structures before they were moved out of context.  I suppose the assumption must be that if we’re down here in the first place, it must be because there’s something valuable to find.  But that assumption ignores the questions we’re asking of this site: When did people live here, how were they making a living?  To answer these questions, we need to find the garbage, not the gold.  I guess one person’s treasure, really is another one’s trash.

*Note: This activity occurred in the orange orchard settlement area–not the monumental core of the site, which has remained largely untouched by looters since the 1950s/60s.

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Day 11.

Listening to my Maya companions talk amongst themselves is a curious experience.  During the lunch break, we are joined by Sylvestro.  After exchanging pleasantries, Sylvestro enters into a deep conversation with Mr. Chiac.  What surprises me is not how much I don’t understand, but how much I do.  Sylvestro seems to be constantly shifting gears from Mopan to Creole and Spanish and back as the need requires.  Mostly it’s the modern words I can glean.  Words like “Dive Shop”, “Training”, “Certification”, and “Saturday”, and the recognizable place-name of “Placencia” gives away at least the gist of the conversation.


Today has blessed us with the most amiable working weather of the excursion so far.  With a daytime high of only 32 degrees Celsius, overcast skies to offer refuge from the blistering sun, and an almost constant breeze off the Maya Mountains, today presents itself in stark contrast to the inescapably lethargic humidity that has both steamed and smothered us during our time here.


A Cool View Atop STR-002

Day 12.

The day starts cool and breezy, and we decide to visit Structure 1/2 in the Monumental Core where I started out with SCRAP last year.  I barely recognize it from my last visit.  The progress of the excavation has been steady.  What was first a shallow strip taken off the sloping side of the building is now a deep trench: a swath cut right into its side.  And perhaps some evidence of an earlier building slightly underneath and in front of it.  As with everywhere in Alabama, excavation yields generally more questions than answers, and the architectural patterns both here and in the settlement continue to be crazy-making to decipher but unbelievably interesting.


Shawn and company at STR-1-2

Day 13.

The soil in my excavation doesn’t seem to be changing very much.  It seems to be the same dark reddish brown sandy clay from the topsoil all the way down.  Situated in between two rows of orchard trees, Mr. Chiac explains for me that the continuous schedule of mowing, and spraying, and harvesting would see fairly heavy farm vehicle traffic through here about every three months.  And the orchard has been here since the 70s (although this particular block was only established in the 90s)!  No wonder the soil is so compacted.  I notice for the first time that my trowel is considerably more rounded on the one edge than when I started almost two weeks ago.  I have to re-sharpen it every hour.  It’s like trying to give an Easter Island statue a shave!


Overcast skies manage to hold out until midday.  The steady breeze however, doesn’t abate and we enjoy another day of generally bearable conditions.  This is more than I can say for Matt and his team.  Without benefit of tarps and awnings, and a single, stationary site, his survey grid of a hundred or so shovel test pits keeps them exposed and sun-baked as they make their way throughout the orchard.


Matt setting up his shovel survey grid

Day 14.

On our way to site we stop for gas.  It seems like the rest of Stann Creek had the same idea: the lineup at the pumps almost stretches out to the road.  Waiting in the queue ahead of us are two trucks as distinct from each other as is possible to be.  One is a ramshackle 1-ton Ford; the other, a Lilliputian old Toyota.  Both however are filled to bursting with uncovered, unsecured loads of pineapple.

It’s the Toyota that really captures my attention.  From its tailgate it calls itself an OYO A.  What makes the Ts erode so much faster than the rest of the letters?  It looks and sounds like the Wizard of Oz’s description of the Tin Man, and is so irretrievably overburdened that the tops of its rear tires disappear past their rims under the rear fenders.  I wonder what happens to the pineapples when he encounters one of those “Pedestrian Ramps”.  If he can even scale them at all, do the pineapples then tumble off individually, or in groups?

From the seat behind me Matt wonders aloud whether trucks full – or rather truck-fulls – of pineapple is actually some kind of standardized unit here.  I wonder: would that be a 350 of pineapple, or a four-banger?



Day 15.

Our last day in the field prior to the long weekend.  The heat today seems particularly potent, and the morning forecast’s promise of 97 % humidity is already wringing sweat from parts of my body I couldn’t have imagined.  My clothes are already completely sodden, as if I’d bathed in them.  It’s only 10:30 in the morning!  Next to my companion Diego – Mr. Paquiul’s son – whose shirt has yet to show the first signs of perspiration, I’m sure I look like a drowned rat.


We gather our first good sample of carbon from my excavation unit.  I’m sure that as discoveries go, a bit of charcoal must seem particularly lackluster, but it is exactly the kind of find we want to make on this project, because charcoal equals dates!  Dates – retrieved through carbon dating – for when people may have occupied this site, or at least, when they were present and burning things at the site.


Friday Night.

The office attendant at our guest house in Hopkins, who is gushingly enthusiastic about the food, drink and activities at Hopkins, neglects to provide us with the remote controllers required to turn on our A/C units.  It’s not the first snafu we’ve encountered with this booking – not unlike hotel websites that showcase images of rooms spectacularly more opulent than the one you’re being put up in, and amenities you can never find – and leaves us all with a distinctly sour attitude towards AirBnB.  So it’s a hot and fitful sleep to kick off the first night of our long weekend.


Sunny skies over the orchard office

Day 16.  Hopkins Village

Saturday in Hopkins Village: hot and sticky, with offshore breezes that are less refreshing than they are like a fevered hyperventilation.  Almost as if the day was coming down with something.  Even the locals are balking openly at the temperatures this season.


While I don’t know it for a fact, I’m certain that today was one of the hottest days on record.  It turns out that subsisting off nachos, French fries, and a selection of admittedly sumptuous flavours of barbecued chicken wings, along with a hearty sampling of Belizean rum drinks, was probably not the best strategy for coping with it.

After a preposterous game of mini-golf, which thanks to incapacity and dumb luck was characterized by quintuple bogeys and holes-in-one in equal measure, and a short lie-down on the 4th fairway, I acknowledge that I’ve reached my limit, wish my comrades a good night, and shuffle back to our guest house.  Despite being hours after dark, the heat still radiating off the town’s main street is palpable, almost like I’m wading through it.  I wonder if I haven’t managed the unlikely feat of getting a sunburn on my lower calves and ankles, while walking home at night…


At Driftwood, Hopkins

Day 17.  Hopkins Village.

The Caribbean looks like it’s had a similar night to mine.  It appears distinctly greenish in the early morning sun, with sluggish waves collapsing exhausted against the sand.  Back to bed, in my air conditioned guest room, for the few hours we have left before our 10:30 am checkout time.

It’s a lazy Sunday for us I think.

More next week.

Week 2: The Adventure Continues!

Our second full week in the field was hot hot hot! Sunday was a lazy day spent at our home base in Maya Centre – a delicious breakfast with fresh fruit from the garden, followed by time to catch up on work (or sleep), or hang out with the dogs. Jill and Frank also spent some time firing pottery with our hostess, Miss Aurora Saqui.


Experimental pottery

Monday morning, Frank left us to return to San Antonio (Cayo District, Belize) and his studies in tourism. The rest of the crew headed out to set up excavation units for structures ALA-002A and ALA-002C, two of three structures in a settlement group organized around a large courtyard, to the southwest of the monumental core. Our goal is to determine what these structures were used for, who used them, and how they relate temporally to the monumental core. We spent the morning clearing, erecting shelters, and setting up excavation units. It wasn’t all work – we stopped for orange breaks (we are in an orchard after all!) and some refreshing coconut water (thanks Higinio Jr!) to keep us hydrated. We called it a day by about 1pm and headed off to Dangriga for supplies and an excursion to Red Bank and Roseville on the way back. We finished the day with a fabulous 3-course meal that included Rigo’s amazing chicken cheese dip – delicious!!

Tuesday we got back at the hard work of excavating! Shawn’s crew continued to work on exposing blocks of an underlying structure at Structure 1/2, while Meaghan’s and Dave’s crews opened up their new units. The soil made for easy digging in Meaghan’s unit, while it was an entirely different story for Dave and crew in the packed earth under the orange trees. We wrapped up early in order to pick up Matt, fresh off a bus from another excavation in Campeche, Mexico and suffering the after-effects of jungle snail ceviche. Thankfully he was feeling better by the time he reached us!

Dave's Unit

Dave’s unit at ALA-002C

Wednesday was a busy day as Matt started prepping for his shovel test pits in the ALA-002 courtyard, while Shawn’s crew started to pull some of the large architectural stones in an effort to understand their building’s construction. Meaghan and Dave continued to expose architectural stone in their units. We ended the day with a trip to Ella’s Cool Spot in Hopkins, and Jill made a new friend!

On Thursday Shawn stayed in Maya Centre to attend to some business, while his crew was deployed to help Matt dig shovel test pits. Matt’s crew not only uncovered the cobble ballast of the plaza surface but also a variety of artifacts. 9 holes down, only 150 to go!

We were all glad when Friday rolled around. Matt and crew continued to work on test pits, Meghan and crew made progress on the extension to their unit, Dave and crew continued to expose an architectural alignment, and Shawn and crew continued their work on Structure 1/2.

Saturday we were up early and off to Belmopan to attend a Maya Glyphs workshop put on by Mayas for Ancient Mayan (MAM) and our host M. Ernesto Saqui. Seven of our crew members from Maya Mopan–both young and old–also attended, and a good time was had by all. Mr. Idelfonso Cal put it best when he said how pleased he was to learn something new about his ancestors that he had never been exposed to before–it made him feel young (he’s 71). After the return trip to Maya Mopan to drop off our colleagues, we headed into Hopkins for some celebratory pizza!

Stay tuned for our next Sunday to Saturday installment…..a trip to Placencia in the Vomit Comet is involved!

Cheers from Stann Creek District, Belize!

The SCRAP Team

Week 1: Setting Up, Digging Out, and Preliminary Adventures in the Foothills of the Maya Mountains

This week was our first full week in the field (Alabama site) and we hit the ground running… well, running with sweat, at least. After picking up Jill, Niki, and Frank on Sunday and getting settled into our “field camp” in Stann Creek District, Belize—we unpacked our lab and prepped for our first day of field work. At day’s end, we travelled to nearby Hopkins for an evening of pizza and fun.


Our newly screened-in lab

On Monday, after a late breakfast, we met with our Belizean collaborators—happily greeting friends from past seasons and meeting a couple of new individuals—, inspected the areas that we’d be focussing our efforts on this season, and went over the general plans.


Discussing and debating plans for 2019 season

The folks from the village near the site had gotten an early start to avoid the heat of the day while clearing our excavation areas, so we called it quits early. That night, Meaghan schooled Shawn and Frank at dominoes.


Shawn pretending he’s better at dominoes than Meaghan

On Tuesday, we departed Maya Centre at our regularly scheduled time of 6 am and breakfasted in Maya Mopan. The guys set up an extensive tarp palace (rain shelter) in the monumental core and we re-established the boundaries of the 2018 excavations at Alabama Structure 1&2 (we’ll be continuing in this locale this season).


Excavations at Tarp Palace (a.k.a. Structures 1 & 2)

Meanwhile, a couple of kilometres to the southwest, a small crew began prepping for excavation of a mysterious granite feature first recorded in 2015 when Mr. Chiac Sr. (our Foreman) showed it to Meaghan, wondering what it might be. Originally interpreted as a staging area for the extraction of granite from the neighbouring streambed, the team was interested in ascertaining whether the feature was truly cultural, and to when it may have dated.  Was it related in any way to ancient community efforts at granite extraction for architectural blocks or other artifacts? Our ace Lab Director, Jill, strutted her stuff in the field, exploring the wild world of sand and clay in the Waha Leaf Creek valley. Hopkins beckoned yet again, along with our friend from Cayo (grown-up grandkids in tow), Mr. Landy.


Jill digs sand.

On Wednesday, we cleared the backfill out of the 2018 Op 6 excavations at Structure 1&2, where we will be revisiting some cool architectural finds uncovered at the end of last season. We also started excavating our granite feature, finding only a single potsherd within (thanks, Niki)! This, along with a stone axe uncovered by Higinio the following day, confirmed the feature was cultural, and we currently believe this to be the intentional shoring up of a natural terrace area, perhaps to prevent erosion for agricultural purposes (currently being used for growing jipijapa and bamboo with cacao and banana lower down, the steward of which was also curious as to original purpose of the feature). In present day, agricultural terracing is not a common technique used in Stann Creek, and its use in the pre-Columbian past of the region had only been hypothesized by archaeologists in the 80s and 90s. Future carbon dating will hopefully confirm the pre-Columbian designation, and we are now looking for a graduate student to do future terrace studies (hint hint), with a particular focus on understanding the extent of its use during the period of Alabama’s “boom.” The evening brought further excitement. As the water was out, we elected to drag our sweaty selves to Hopkins for a well-deserved dip in the Caribbean.  Nothing like an all-natural seaweed scrub and salt on the bug bites to put you in a positive frame of mind!


Excavations at granite feature (Higinio, Niki, Frank)

On Thursday, we began excavation in earnest at Structure 1&2, following up on leads suggested in 2018. Two questions dictate our efforts here: First, what is the temporal span of construction represented at the locale? Tantalizing evidence for an earlier structure running perpendicular to the principal mass of Structure 1&2 was identified at the end of the 2018 season, and a conspicuous pile of granite slightly above the final plaza level may suggest post-Classic, post-abandonment, reuse/visitation. Second, how were earthen-core, granite-faced structures actually built and how have the taphonomic processes of a millennium transformed them?  Excavations continued at the granite feature in the foothills and our Lab Director took control back in camp. At the end of the day, we returned home to find water still in absence. This time, a quick trip to the Sittee River at Kendal cooled us and cleansed us. For dinner… All we can say is black dinner for the main and stewed pumpkin with 3lbs of sugar for dessert… sigh…amazing…


Frank and Virginia screening Tarp Palace matrix

Friday. Oh, Friday. How we love you. Meaghan completed her excavations in the foothills (mapped, profiled, 3D modeled, and backfilled), and Shawn completed a second full day of excavations at Structure 1&2. We ended the day with celebratory Ideals (basically Mr. Freezes) and headed back to camp where we enjoyed a delicious supper and the best dessert ever concocted by human or god: a banana pineapple fritter with chocolate sauce (thank you, Rigo)!


Working and relaxing in Hopkins.

Weekend was free for crew to catch up on work, relax, or whatever. On Saturday, we hung out in lab all morning doing work, until we picked up Dave at the airport. We then took him to a “Welcome Back to Belize” evening in Hopkins, hanging out at Ella’s Cool Spot.

That’s all for now. We’ll cover Sunday to Saturday of Week 2 next time. Stay tuned!

The SCRAP Team

Prep Week: You Can’t Can This Type Of Heat

There is no more important point of a field project (except, perhaps, the actual digging, lab work, and reporting) than the beginning. We arrived in Belize late on a sweltering Saturday afternoon, after repeated delays and way too much airport coffee. Temperatures in Belize have been soaring at over 100 F, a sharp contrast to the still snowy conditions where we had just been (Calgary and Flagstaff).


Arriving in Belize to +100F weather

It has become our habit to arrive in Belize at least one week before fieldwork is set to commence, in order to take care of all the minutia—purchasing supplies, printing paperwork, renting vehicles, and picking up our permit (you may have seen an earlier post involving a “happy dance”). When things go smoothly, this leaves us with ample time to take care of other essentials to a successful field season—socializing, reconnecting with friends and family, taking in the sights, and acclimatizing. While things rarely go as smoothly as is ideal for the former, we always have ample time for the latter, and this year was no exception. Thank you to Ms. Erva and Mr. Landy, Nigel, Yvette, Karim, and all the rest of the Espat clan, to Raf Guerra, Kay Loague, and everyone else that we had the pleasure to reconnect with this week. We’ll see you at the Belize Archaeology Symposium in 5 weeks’ time!


Hanging out on Burns Avenue in San Ignacio, Cayo


Cooling off at the lovely Rio On Pools in the Pine Ridge

We met our other project members, Jill, Niki, and Frank (more members to follow next week), and headed out for Stann Creek District on Sunday, spending the day setting up our lab and going through items left in storage. We are ready and raring to go for our first week of the season!

Next week’s blog will introduce the goals of this season and outline our first week’s progress.

Meaghan, Shawn, and the SCRAP team.