Ancient Maya settlement unearthed in Belize

The settlement has been dated to the Early Classic Period (c. AD 250-600).

The remains of an ancient Maya neighbourhood have been uncovered in the Cayo District of central Belize.

A research team led by Dr Lisa Lucero from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign identified the site in an agricultural field at Spanish Lookout, a modernised Mennonite farming communiy.

Evidence of an ancient settlement had been gradually exposed in the field as a result of years of heavy ploughing, and recent aerial surveys of the site revealed the presence of possible dwellings, which now appear as white mounds dotted across the landscape.

An aerial photo of the site at Spanish Lookout, facing east. The white mounds are traces of ancient Maya dwellings. PHOTO: ©2022 VOPA and Belize Institute of Archaeology, NICH.

Excavating near existing roads, the team unearthed the remains of numerous standard Maya residences, formed of walls and plaster floors, that had been built close to one another.

An abundance of pottery sherds recovered from these household structures was used to date the site to the Early Classic Period (c. AD 250-600) of the Maya Empire.

Ceramic vessels used for domestic activities such as cooking, serving, and storage were also unearthed from these residences, along with manos and metates (ground stone tools), and agricultural tools made of chert.

Grinding tools typical of Maya farmsteads include, from left to right, a metate fragment, a round stone, and a mano fragment. Metates and manos were used to grind maize into flour. PHOTO: ©2022 VOPA and Belize Institute of Archaeology, NICH.

Part of a large platform mound was also exposed, and on its summit archaeologists identified the remains of four structures.

‘It is clear that an elite family lived here,’ said Rachel Gill and Yifan Wang, anthropology graduate students at the University of Illinois, who were involved in the excavation. ‘This mound would have been secluded, sectioned off from the rest of the neighborhood, like the large house at the end of a cul-de-sac.’

Perhaps the most intriguing discovery was the remains of a large structure built using uniform stones and white limestone plaster. Its size, together with a lack of associated domestic artefacts, indicates that it was not used as a typical Maya household.

Aerial photograph of what researchers believe is a community structure.
PHOTO: ©2022 VOPA and Belize Institute of Archaeology, NICH.

Instead, excavation of the building unearthed a cache of 15 unused stemmed points made of high quality, non-local chert, which would have required great skill to craft.

This was perhaps a dedicatory cache designed to sanctify the building or endow it with a soul – a practice observed at other Maya common places or public buildings.

As Gill and Wang explained: ‘We think we found some type of community building, perhaps for community events or ceremonies, similar to a modern church or recreation centre where everyone was welcome.’

This research has been conducted with permission from the Belize Institute of Archaeology, and funded by the National Science Foundation and a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Research Board grant.