Fall Activities for SCRAP

Well, it is now November, and I think most of us have fully recovered from our long field season. We have still been busy over the past couple months. Here’s what has been happening:

20160917_103617_001Megan Williams has been finishing up her independent research on the obsidian collected from Alabama during the 2015 settlement survey. She presented preliminary results at a conference in September and will be working toward preparing a formal publication in the coming year, while also applying for graduate school. We’ll also soon be sourcing the obsidian collected from our test excavations this summer. This information can tell us about some of the Alabama Maya’s involvement in long-distance exchange networks over time.

A new project member, Aysha Braun of Athabasca University, is joining us to help with our usewear study of granite metates recovered from our test excavations this summer. She will be working alongside Dr. Peuramaki-Brown and University of Calgary graduate student Matt Abtosway to conduct her independent research using the resulting data. We are hoping this data, along with our sourcing study directed by Dr. Tibbits, will allow us to better understand the workability of the Cockscomb granites and use-life of resulting metates, as well as possibly identifying diverse activities being conducted among the households of Alabama. Watch for results in the near future!

We have completed our preliminary petrographic analysis of ceramic and clay samples collected during the 2015 settlement survey. We are working with Dr. Linda Howie of HD Analytical Solutions and will present these preliminary findings at the 2017 Society for American Archaeology Annual Meetings in Vancouver, B.C. this spring.

Dr. Morton has also completed the final map of the epicentre, and along with Dr. Peuramaki-Brown, is now beginning some spatial and volumetric analyses, which will be featured in upcoming publications currently in preparation.

Additionally, we are sending off many carbon samples to Beta Analytic for AMS dating (as soon as Meaghan completes the sample prep), so we can hopefully get some helpful, absolute dates for the residential sites we tested this summer. This will help with further solidifying the occupation chronology of Alabama.

Finally, all project members are working hard to get the final reports done from the summer season. This includes reviewing all the journal entries, paperwork, photos, and mapping done over the summer, inputting data into our project database, and writing up the detailed report of our investigations. We will have this report submitted to the Institute of Archaeology in 2017, and posted alongside our 2014 and 2015 reports on our website.

We hope you are all enjoying a lovely fall!

The SCRAP Team.

SCRAP 2016 fieldwork comes to an end

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SCRAP 2016 Session 2

We have come to the end of our grand archaeological adventure in Belize, which has been filled with dirt, blood, sweat and tears (mostly of joy, sometimes of frustration). Overall, it has been a worthwhile and exciting experience for us all. Week 4 was spent finishing up final tasks in the field, while our last week focused on lab work and project shut down tasks, including compiling our preliminary report to submit to the Institute of Archaeology prior to leaving the country.

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Meaghan taking end of excavation soil samples from a unit profile

Week 4 started off with visits from Tawny and her husband Matt at the Alabama site on Tuesday and Wednesday. The two came out in order to conduct pXRF analysis on the granite architectural blocks at each of the mounds under excavation. This was done in order to gain information on where the granite blocks used in construction of the house mounds may have been sub sourced.

Teaghan spent Monday digging one more 50cmx1m window in the middle of her unit, to sterile. She did this in order to gain more information about the mysterious piles of rocks in her unit. For Kelsey, Virginia, and Higinio, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday morning were spent on the long dig to reach sterile levels in their unit. For Teaghan, Tuesday was spent completing the final maps of her unit as well as photographing all areas of the excavation before backfilling the units. With her fieldwork completed, she spent Wednesday back at the hotel assisting with artifact analysis. Cristina spent Wednesday in the field aiding Kelsey in the final mapping of her unit.



Cleaning and oiling equipment for storage

On Thursday, Teaghan, Tawny, and Matt took a field trip! The three went and checked out the Maya sites of Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit (and got to see an NBA player who was on vacation in Belize). Cristina and Meaghan spent the day in Independence organizing and cleaning the field equipment as well as continuing analyzing artifacts. The rest of us spent the day in the field completing the mapping and photographing of all remaining units before backfilling.


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Breakfast and presentation at Ms. Juana’s Kitchen

Friday morning the entire crew met at Ms. Juana’s Kitchen for a last breakfast together; they enjoyed delicious fresh avocado, refried beans, chicken, and flour tortilla. After breakfast, other members of the community joined us and were treated to a presentation about the results of our excavations. Members of the community then got the opportunity to see some of the interesting finds from throughout the summer excavations and reminisce about our time in the field.

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Waterfall trip

After this, we took a lovely hike, led by Mr. Gonzalo, through the orchard and up into the foothills to a set of two beautiful waterfalls. The rest of the afternoon was spent cooling off in the fresh water! After this, we returned to the hotel, accompanied by Virginia, Sylvestro, and Higinio.

We then celebrated the completion of our fieldwork with a bonfire at the hotel where we fired briquettes and small pots we created with clay samples collected from site. The group also celebrated Cristina and Virginia’s birthdays with red velvet cupcakes, apple crumble, and Ginger Nut Kisses (the culinary creation that transpired when Kelsey was unable to find the ingredients for regular s’mores in Independence).

The next day, Meaghan, Shawn, Cristina, Teaghan, and Kelsey hopped on the Hokey Pokey and spent the weekend enjoying the beach in Placencia! They were enjoying it so much that they decided to extend their trip an extra night and returned to Independence early in the morning on Monday. Thus began our last week in Belize: the dreaded Lab Week.

Our last week was spent at the hotel completing all of the lab work that needed to be done prior to our return to our respective homes, as well as surviving through a hurricane (which was not that bad in our area). Since the artifacts and copies of all our notes and photos will remain in Belize with the Institute of Archaeology, analysis and scanning of all required information has to be completed prior to departure. A preliminary report on the findings of our excavations was also completed and submitted to the Institute. Monday and Tuesday was spent with Shawn and Meaghan completing the lithic and ceramic analysis, while Teaghan, Kelsey, and Cristina completed the groundstone and daub analysis. Wednesday saw Teaghan scanning all of the paperwork from the site as well as 3D scanning artifacts; Cristina photographed all of the obsidian and small finds; Kelsey and Shawn completed acetate peels on the granite artifact and experimental metates; and Meaghan completed various odds-and-ends tasks. The rest of the week was spent finishing up the last bits of lab work, and packing up to head to San Ignacio on Saturday for our last day in beautiful Belize.

So, all in all, this has been another wonderful field season of the Stann Creek Regional Archaeology Project. We now head home to start considering all the details of our excavations and start compiling our final report, as well as some publishable manuscripts. Watch for our final report of the 2016 season, to appear on this website in early 2017. Also watch for occasional update on what we are up to out of the field, including our ongoing obsidian sourcing, clay characterization studies, granite sourcing, experimental grinding and use wear studies, carbon dating, etc., etc.


Goodbye, from Alabama-Maya Mopan!

So long from Alabama-Maya Mopan!

SCRAP 2016 Crew

Week 3, Session 2: Almost done…


We’ll keep our political opinions to ourselves 🙂

Last week was the third week of Session 2, and the 7th field week of SCRAP 2016. Boy, are we feeling it. Not only did we claw our way through Week 7 (this crew is an amazing bunch of troopers), but we also had to deal with non-stop RNC coverage on television, leading to many a heated political discussion at the breakfast table (no arguments, just a bunch of Canadians, Belizeans, and a lone American voicing our opinions — we won’t say anything more on the subject).

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Starting the long dig to sterile

The week saw the winding down of excavations, with crew members at each of the settlement sites/mounds trying to reach sterile levels in their deep excavation pits. Kelsey and Higinio’s mound turned out to be quite curious, with what appears to be a round structure/feature siting to the front of the house platform itself. This curious feature will definitely be a focus of future investigations.

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Week 7 but still smiling.


Shawn and Sylvestro’s deep excavations that revealed the bottom double course (all that remained of a much higher face) platform face of the over 2m tall platform was both a relief and something of a let-down, but nonetheless hugely informative.

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A busy crew.

Teaghan, Mr. Gonzalo, and Mr. Zoilo’s confusing piles of granite and other stone became a bit clearer and may actually provide direct evidence for metate production at the site (stay tuned for more information in our 2016 final report). This will also be the focus of future investigations at Alabama.


Ceramic fun.

Meaghan spent the week conducting ceramic analysis; this is an important pursuit for building a site type collection, beginning to assign tentative dates to our various contexts (to be refined through carbon dating), and to begin understanding some basic domestic activities at each location. Cristina also engaged in some serious lab work, finishing much of the washing, cataloguing, and basic analyses. Virginia served a rotating-role, helping with final excavations and mapping activities.

Overall, the second last week of field work was a great success. Our final week will focus on mapping, profiling, photographing, and backfilling, as well as one final community outreach and engagement presentation.

IMG_0857Greetings from Belize!



Week 2, Session 2, SCRAP 2016

Last week, which was Week 2 of the SCRAP 2016 Session 2, is complete!

To their delight (Cristina being the most vocal), Cristina and Virginia finally completed their complex excavations from the first session! On Tuesday they moved to the ALA-043 site, which is a solitary mound and the last settlement site we are testing in 2016. With Mr. Gonzalo and Mr. Zoilo’s help, they set up a 2m X 1m unit on the backside of the mound. The next day they replaced Teaghan, Mr. Gonzalo, and Mr. Zoilo at Mound C of site ALA-045. Their goal was to continue digging and reach sterile to close the unit. They were still digging on Thursday and Friday. Hopefully this week they will finish!


Confusing pile of granite blocks, metates (?), and other boulders

On Wednesday, Teaghan, Mr. Gonzalo, and Mr. Zoilo, who had yet to find any architecture in their area, commenced digging at the ALA-043 mound and struck granite blocks immediately. Further digging exposed a grouping of curved granite boulders and other rocks without a clear purposeful orientation. They continued to dig and found many artifacts. On Thursday, Teaghan mapped the rock cluster allowing the team to remove some of the rocks and dig beneath them. Meaghan hoped they would find intact architecture or the face of the building, but they did not. [Editor’s note: t least, nothing that was clearly architecture… looks like a pile of granite… which is really cool!] This led Meaghan to set up a 1m X 1m extension directly north, allowing them to expose and investigate the rest of the rock cluster and hopefully find the building face. By the end of Friday they had removed the humus/plough zone of this new subop and exposed a few more rocks. We are all hopeful that the face of the building or an answer to what this rock pile/cluster is will be answered this week with some more digging!


Kelsey exposing possible platform face.

Kelsey and Higinio finally got to investigate the granite they exposed on Friday. (Kelsey was excited about it all weekend!) This led to finding more granite blocks on Tuesday, which was very exciting. On Wednesday because of this discovery they extended the unit another meter to the south to make sure that they would catch the front of the building and run into the face. They continued this investigation on Thursday and Friday. By the end of Friday they had still not found a distinct face and the unit is still another perplexing pile of rocks.

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Sylvestro setting up the compaction test

Meanwhile over at Kelsey’s old unit, Shawn and Sylvestro finally exposed rock and found the potential building Kelsey tirelessly dug to find last session. The lowest face of the platform is VERY deep, far deeper and lower on the mound than expected. Along with Meaghan, they also developed a “compaction test” in order to try to trace the platform in the rest of our trench, as the surface of the clay platform could not be distinguished from overburden during excavations. [Editor’s note: This unexpectedness and uncertainty, and the resulting new methods, is part of the excitement of doing household archaeology in a new area.]


Crew at Mayflower Bocawina National Park.

On Friday we only worked in the morning. In the afternoon, the whole crew packed into our vehicles to drive to Mayflower Bocawina National Park (http://www.bocawina.com/). There we toured the Mayflower and Maintzunun (which means “hummingbird”) sites. Following this, Kelsey, Cristina, Teaghan, Virginia, and Higinio hiked to a pair of waterfalls, while Meaghan, Shawn, Mr. Gonzalo, Mr. Zoilo, and Sylvestro relaxed and enjoyed some delicious fruit juices at the restaurant. This trip fulfilled Kelsey’s deepest desire of going on a hike to waterfalls while in Belize!


Benque Fiesta

Happily, we accomplished a lot of what we hoped we would at the culmination of last week. The excavations of Mound A at site ALA-045 and the mound at site ALA-043 both uncovered much granite material and possible architecture; Shawn and Sylvestro are investigating architecture at Subop 2A; and Cristina and Virginia finally found the end of their feature and have moved on! Next week we hope to solve the mystery of the granite cluster/pile at ALA-043; continue to uncover the platform face in Subop 2A; reach sterile at ALA-045C; and, have Kelsey finally find intact architecture to make her field season!

On the weekend, Meaghan, Shawn, Kelsey, Cristina, and Teaghan drove to Cayo to enjoy the Benque Fiesta on Saturday night. We returned on Sunday to complete some lab work in the afternoon and get set for Week 3 Session 2 at SCRAP.

See you next week!

Teaghan, Cristina, and Kelsey



Start of SCRAP 2016 Session 2


Teaghan enjoying her first day in Belize, visiting the amazing site of Xunantunich in Cayo District

We have completed the first week of Session 2 at SCRAP! Teaghan survived her first field week in Belize and we are happy to report that she has suffered minimally; sunburn only over 60% of her body, bug bites swollen merely to the size of ping pong balls, and barely 30 bruises.

Monday was the first day in the field and it consisted of an introduction to the site for Teaghan as well as the other new members of our team for the second session; Mr. Gonzalo, Mr. Higinio, and Mr. Zoilo.  We also have Mr. Sylvestro from Session 1 returning to the field with us for this session.  On Monday we toured the epicenter in order for the newcomers to get accustomed to the setting of Alabama.  We then went and saw the excavations at group ALA-047, which we started in Session 1, so that the team could see the progress thus far.  Following that, the group headed over to the new set of mounds (group ALA-045) that we will be working on during this session.  The touring and introductions took half of the day, so after that Meaghan, Shawn, Kelsey, Cristina, and Teaghan returned to Independence to prepare the field kits for the coming week and to wash any artifacts that remained from the final days of Session 1.

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New crew members learning to excavate with Kelsey

The next day was warm and sunny, and, to our dismay, Teaghan had fallen ill overnight.  She toughed it out though and made it out to the field with us for the morning. Higinio, Zoilo, Gonzalo, Teaghan, and Kelsey spent the morning backfilling the hole that Megan and Mr. Idelfonso worked on tirelessly during Session 1 (sorry Megan).  The group of us then headed over to the new set of mounds.  Higinio, Zoilo, and Gonzalo used their machetes to clear the mounds so we could get a good idea of their orientation.  Once it was cleared, the team then set up a 2m x 1m unit on the backside of Mound A and another 2m x 1m unit on the side of Mound B.  The two units both ended up being perfectly orientated to the exact same degree to each other, without even checking the compass, because Meaghan is just that good! After lunch, Kelsey taught Higinio, Zoilo, and Gonzalo how to excavate, and they began removing the disturbed ploughzone layer from Mound A.

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Virginia digging the mysterious feature.

Cristina and Virginia spent the day back in their original unit from Session 1 to attempt to complete excavations of the feature encountered on the final day.  On Tuesday and Wednesday morning they brought the northern half of their unit down to the same level as the feature they wished to excavate. They also started to map the feature, and bisected it to excavate it in smaller portions by 5cm levels.

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Kelsey and Higinio’s mysterious granite boulder. What will it be??? Stay tuned for next week’s summary 🙂

Shawn and Sylvestro spent Tuesday and Wednesday completing their excavations of the unit on Mound D from Session 1. Teaghan, Zoilo, and Gonzalo began excavations of the new unit on Mound B on Wednesday.  Kelsey and Higinio continued to dig the unit on Mound A.  Neither team had yet to uncover in situ architecture at the new set of mounds.  Thursday continued in the same manner for those at the new excavations, still with no major recoveries to report.  It was decided on Thursday that in order to capture the missing architecture, another 2m x 1m unit was added onto the ends of the subops at Mounds A and B.  This proved to be a wise decision as on Friday a large piece of granite became exposed at Mound A, hopefully indicating the presence of an intact platform!  Only time and digging will tell!

Cristina and Virginia at the other set of mounds continued to excavate their feature on Thursday and Friday.  They discovered that it was expanding as they continued to dig downwards and they continued to excavate.  As they dug down they discovered that the feature continued to grow and they had to expand their window multiple times in order to capture it all.  Shawn and Sylvestro completed the unit on Mound D on Wednesday.  Following this, the two then moved on to complete the excavations of Kelsey’s mysterious unit on Mound A from Session 1.  They are hoping that by expanding the unit further down the mound they will be able to uncover the mystery that led Kelsey to endless frustration and disappointment during Session 1.

Overall, it was a very productive and exciting first week to the session! The team hopes that the coming week will expose more intact architecture at the new set of mounds; will offer a solution to the great mystery of Subop 2A; and, hopefully, Cristina and Virginia can finally find the end of their feature and move on to a new mound!

Cockscomb-Basin-Sanctuary-and-Jaguar-Preserve-in-BelizeThe weekend (for us), was spent enjoying some fishing and snorkeling in Placencia. Meanwhile, Meaghan and Shawn, along with their new friends Mr. Ben and Mr. Brijilio, ventured into the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and Jaguar Preserve in order to visit another archaeological site in this neighbouring area (stay tuned for more on that).

See you next week!

Kelsey, Teaghan, Cristina

Unit Set Up “How-to”

The first week of each of our field sessions began with unit set up. This is a horrid task, so we felt we should share the experience with you all.

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Some basic tools: line levels (a.k.a. spirit level, bubble level, simple level), plumb bob, tape measure

The technical aspects of setting up an archaeological excavation unit may vary from project to project, but some basic tools remain the same: string, measuring tapes, corner nails/stakes, line levels, compass, plumb bob, a fellow archaeologist [*Editor’s note: or two, or three*], some humility, patience, and no immediate access to sharp objects (see our previous post about an Archaeologist’s Field Kit https://scraparchaeology.com/2016/06/01/what-exactly-is-in-an-archaeologists-field-kit/). If you have ever had the pleasure of setting up a unit before, you know what we are talking about. [*Editor’s note: Shooting in an excavation grid does not count!]  It has been, thus far, the best test of how our crew can work together in a tedious and repetitive process and we can happily report that all crew members are still here and there was no hitch hiking back to camp! So let’s open up a window for you into the specifics of setting up a unit (we will try to keep our stress levels down).

The first thing we feel the need to mention is that the units we are setting up in the Alabama settlement are a little different from “normal” units that many archaeologists in North America are familiar with. Because we are working on mounds, which we believe to be the remains of house platforms, all of our units are set up on slopes. Additionally, we are working in an orange orchard with large trees placed every five feet, so our space to move freely in some instances is limited. However, because we are the best-of-the-best [*Editor’s note: and humble*], our units came out near perfect. Oh the humility! [*Editor’s Note: Oh the humanity!]


Megan holding the tapes and string at top two nails

The first step in unit set up is to determine the dimensions of the unit you desire. During the Phase II Testing program at SCRAP we are using 1 meter by 2 meter areas, although this can vary depending on the size of the mound to be investigated.  Align your 1m x 2m excavation based on the feature you are excavating; measure out one meter on your tape and place two large nails rimmed with bright coloured flagging tape at each end.  Cut two pieces of string each over 2 meters long and attach a line level to both. Ask your fellow crew member to hold one end of each string and the beginning of each measuring tape in each hand, have them stand at the top of your one-meter section with their hands over each nail.  Now ask them to look into your eyes and tell them that you appreciate them and that they are a pleasure to work with because shit is about to get real! [*Editor’s note: Apologies for the foul language, but it really was called for.]


Checking levels

Next, you need to calculate the hypotenuse of your unit. [*Editor’s note: This is where an archaeologist uses pretty much the only math they ever remembered from school…  the Pythagorean Theorem: a2 + b2 = c2.] Since our units are 1m x 2m, the hypotenuse is 2.24 meters. [*Editor’s note: Or, more exactly, 2.236m.] Calculating this measurement will ensure that your unit is perfectly straight and square.  Stand on the bottom left corner of your unit and grab the other ends of each tape and set the one in your left hand to 200cm and the one in your right to 224cm, the strings should also be in each hand as parallel as possible to the tapes.  At this point you want to simultaneously make sure that your tapes/strings are level and line up your 200cm point with your 224cm point.


Matching up points on tapes, and bobbing to place the nail

Using your teeth (or, if you are lucky, a second unsuspecting helper [victim]), use the plumb bob to correctly pin on the ground where the two points meet, placing another large nail with flagging tape into the ground at said point.  Repeat this process for the right side of the unit, reversing the tapes so that your 224cm one is now running diagonally from top left to bottom right, place a nail in the ground and pray to the Gods of Archaeology.  Measure the distances between all nails to ensure they are the correct dimensions.  If they are not, curse the Gods of Archaeology, and start the aforementioned process all over again until your measurements are correct. [*Editor’s note: Alternatively, you could just shoot everything in with a total station. But where would the fun be in that!?!*] Be sure to switch places with your colleague because clearly s/he is the problem and not you.


End product: 2m x 1m back-staked excavation unit with datum

After about an eternity your measurements should eventually be correct, at which point you need to string up and back-stake the corners of your unit.  Back-staking a unit is very important because it allows you to correctly stay within the dimensions of your area while still presenting an opportunity for forgiveness if you happen to lose one of your corner nails while excavating. Outlining your unit with brightly coloured sting that lies directly over your nails will help you with keeping the walls of your excavation area straight, and hopefully prevent you from tripping over the string.  Place two back-stakes behind every nail looping the string around them as tight as you can so that the line doesn’t sag, remove any surface debris/vegetation, and keep your string as low to the ground as possible. Place your datum stake around the middle of the top one-meter section and be sure to measure its height from ground surface and distance from the unit walls, and mark these measurements in your notebook. These are important for tying in all your unit measurements to the larger site mapping program.


Once it is done, kick back and relax with a beer (and beat on a piece of granite just for fun)

Finally, sheepishly look to your crew member, tell them they did good, and offer to buy them a beer because frankly, you guys deserve it.

Until next time,

Megan, Cristina, Kelsey, and Virginia