Interactive Digs

Cahal Pech, Belize

Cahal Pech was founded in the Early Middle Preclassic period and continued to thrive as a Maya city until at least the end of the Classic period, though there is ceramic evidence of a longer occupation. Recent excavations have suggested that Cahal Pech, which was most likely settled by Maya from Guatemala, is one of the earliest Maya settlements in Belize.

Artifacts

Artifacts

Artifacts

Late Classic (ca. AD 600-700) Conch Shell Ink Pot excavated by C. Santasilia and A. Itza. This remarkable cut conch shell evidently served as an ink well for a master scribe, and must have accompanied one of the three occupants of the tomb chamber investigated at the summit of B1 in 2011, probably the uppermost. Three of the four wells of this ink pot still preserve indications of the blue, red, and black ink which once filled them. Similar ink wells are well known from Maya art.

This Late Classic (ca. AD 600-700) stucco vase from Pyramid B1, burial 7 was excavated by Catharina E. Santasilia and Antonio. It accompanied one of the three occupants of the tomb chamber investigated at the summit of B1 in the 2011 field season, probably the uppermost. The vessel was stuccoed before its surface was painted in yellow, blue, red and pink. Preliminary analysis of the design indicates that it represents a monstrous serpent.

Late Classic (ca. AD 600-700) Jade Bar Pectoral excavated by Catharina E. Santasilia and Antonio Itza. This large jade bar pectoral accompanied one of the three occupants of the tomb chamber investigated at the summit of B1 in the 2011 field season, probably the middle individual. Pectorals like this are often shown in Maya iconography as powerful conduits for summoning ancestral spirits. This artifact was undoubtedly a prestige item, signifying the rank of the wearer.

Late Classic (ca. AD 600-700) Jade Celts excavated by Catharina E. Santasilia and Antonio Itza. These three jade celts accompanied one of the three occupants of the tomb chamber investigated at the summit of B1 in the 2011 field season, probably the middle individual. These objects were suspended from ritual belts and would have struck one another as the wearer danced, emitting high musical notes. For this reason, the Classic Maya referred to these objects as uk’ees, noise-makers.

Early Late Classic (ca. AD 600-650) Incised Bone Ring excavated by Catharina E. Santasilia and Antonia Itza. This bone ring accompanied occupants of the tomb chamber investigated at the summit of B1 in the 2011 field season. Project epigrapher Dr. Marc Zender reads the text as yosib K’awiil Chan K’inich K’an ... Bahlam, or this is the ring of K’awiil Chan K’inich, K’an ... Bahlam”. While the final glyph on the ring depicts an unknown sign, this ring does show the first known glyph for “ring”.

Late Classic (ca. AD 600-700) Incised Turtle Shell Fragments excavated by C. E. Santasilia. Several fragments of carved turtle shell, previously overlooked, were discovered upon re-excavation of a burial context in 2012. Preliminary analysis by project epigrapher Dr. Marc Zender shows that the fragmentary hieroglyphic text reads ujuuchil ahk .... aj ... k'an ... bahlam, or this is the turtle shell of Aj ..., ... K’an ... Bahlam. This name seems to be the same as that seen on the bone ring.

Protoclassic (ca. AD 100-300) Jade Pectoral Figurine excavated by Catharina E. Santasilia and Jim Puc. Discovered in a burial below the summit of B1 in excavations during the 2012 field season, this jade figurine was designed to be worn on the breast of the pectoral. This carved jade figurine of a fleshy large-eyed deity was laterally perforated and was discovered on the breast of a male individual in the burial.

Early Classic (ca. AD 450-600) Peccary Vessel excavated by Catharina E. Santasilia and Doug Tilden. This Zacatal Cream (or Dos Arroyos) Ring Base Basal Flanged Dish was excavated in the 2013 field season and depicts prostrate captives. The lid depicts prostrate Maize Gods under a hollow peccary (Central American pig) head. Dr. Marc Zender notes that all of the iconography is typical of the peccary, but most diagnostic is the looping red scroll on its cheeks, a stylized marker of “musk”.


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Cahal Pech, meaning “Place of Ticks,” is a Maya site located in the Cayo district of Belize, just outside the town of San Ignacio. The site is within the upper region of the Belize Valley, close to both the Macal and Mopan rivers and about 10 kilometers (approx. 6.2 miles) from the neighboring Maya site of Xunantunich and 6 kilometers (approx. 3.7 miles) from Bueno Vista. These sites generally are made up of several plaza groups surrounded by large non-domestic structures, at least one ball court, and multiple monuments.

Cahal Pech covers approximately 10 square miles and includes 34 large buildings, the largest of which is around 24 meters tall, and a possible sweathouse. The site was founded in the Early Middle Preclassic period and continued to thrive as a Maya city until at least the end of the Classic period, though there is ceramic evidence of a longer occupation. Recent excavations have suggested that Cahal Pech, which was most likely settled by Maya from Guatemala, is one of the earliest Maya settlements in Belize.

Excavations go as far back as the 1950s, though the actual date of Cahal Pech’s discovery is unknown. The earliest published record of it is in Thompsons “Index of Maya sites in British Honduras”. Actual excavations, however, were not conducted until the middle of the twentieth century, when Linton Satterthwaite of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania discovered multiple stelae and monuments and excavated the ball court in the 1950s. Small-scale excavations continued at the site for several decades. In the 1980s, Dr. Jaime Awe, director of the Belize Institute of Archaeology, took over the excavations. In 2001 the Belize Valley Archeological Reconnaissance Project (BVAR) became involved in the work at Cahal Pech and in 2006 the American Foreign Academic Research (AFAR) began the first high school level field school in the United States at the site.

Slideshow: Notes on special finds by M. Zender and C. E. Santasilia

Past Archaeological Excavations at Cahal Pech

By Jason Chinuntdet, Davidson Day School Class of 2013; Wake Forest University Class of 2017

The first archaeological excavation at Cahal Pech was undertaken by Linton Satterthwaite of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. He completed preliminary mapping of the site core and undertook excavations in the site center in the 1950’s.  Unfortunately he published only two paragraphs on his work at the site.

During his survey of the Belize Valley, Gordon Willey of Harvard University visited Cahal Pech.  He did not excavate at the site, but did describe Cahal Pech briefly in his published findings.

In the 1960’s A.H. Anderson, the Archaeological Commissioner of Belize made several trips to Cahal Pech. While never excavating at the site, Anderson did lobby hard for the site core and periphery to be made into a national park because it was easily accessed by the town of San Ignacio and so was ideal for tourism.  Despite this Cahal Pech did not become a national park.

Peter Schmidt became the Archaeological Commissioner of Belize in 1968.  After an investigation of heavy looting at Cahal Pech, Schmidt decided to excavate. Schmidt excavated at the top of temple B1, and in the central location of plaza B. He found several important artifacts and tombs. Although Schmidt did not publish his findings thoroughly, he did provide some notes and drawings that are useful and all the artifacts he unearthed are in the Belize Department of Archaeology.

Cahal Pech was looted heavily in the 1970’s and for a long time the site was void of scientific excavation.  However in 1986 Joseph Ball excavated and restored several structures with funding from the Belize Department of Tourism. Ball was the first archaeologist to conduct long-term research at the site of Cahal Pech. He developed a theory that the site was a subservient state to a more powerful Maya city-state, thus Cahal Pech was not self-governing. The looting problem continued, and destroyed much of the information that could have been learned about the Maya from the site.

The San Ignacio Town Board and the Belize Department of Tourism at large became concerned as they wished to turn the site into a tourist draw for the community. Things took a turn for the better when in 1988 Dr. Jaime Awe conducted the first major scientific study into Cahal Pech known as the Cahal Pech Project. The Project had its first field season in the summer of 1988 and excavations continue today as part of the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance (BVAR) project.

BVAR-AFAR’s Research at Cahal Pech

By Maria Woodrow, Davidson Day School Class of 2013; Rhodes College Class of 2017

The Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project/American Foreign Academic Research Operations (BVAR/AFAR) is working on its eighth consecutive season as a joint project. Dr. Jaime Awe, the Director of the Belize Institute of Archaeology, and Mat Saunders, director of AFAR and co-director of the project, have determined all of the research questions throughout each of those eight seasons.

The creation of the project was an interesting one. In 2006, Mr. Saunders talked to Dr. Jaime Awe about having a group of high school students excavate at Cahal Pech alongside college students that were involved with the larger BVAR project. After much consideration Dr. Jaime Awe agreed. The group that Mr. Saunders brought that first year consisted of four students and they excavated a relatively small range structure, Structure C1, in the C Plaza. The goal of that season’s excavation was to try and expose the terminal phase architecture of the structure and determine if it included a shrine.

The next year, Dr. Jaime Awe allowed the BVAR/AFAR program to do their own operations, separate from the college group. They were given two units to excavate. One excavation was in the plaza in front of structure B4 and the other was an exploratory unit on structure F3. The goal of the unit in front of B4 was to try and define the layers of the plaster floor. While the goal of the unit on structure F3 was to define the terminal phase of the architecture. A year later in 2008, the program set up a plaza unit to the west of structure F2. During the season’s excavation, they uncovered an earlier phase of F2 that contained stucco armatures that were used for masks. The first three years yielded great data and allowed the AFAR project to prove that the high school students were capable of handling the responsibility of excavating at Cahal Pech.

2009 was a big year for the program. This was the first year that the project had a very clear research design for the exploration of Cahal Pech that was independent of the larger BVAR program. The program decided to excavate at Structure C4, which lies at the southern edge of the ball court. When they chose this location they were hoping to find a relationship between Structure C6 and the ball court but instead uncovered a structure without stair access and its facing stones removed. This was the first evidence for abandonment or defensive measures at Cahal Pech.

In the next excavation season, 2010, the program completed the excavation of structure C4 and was able to conserve the structure with a generous donation from the Archaeological Institute of America Site Preservation Program. They also wanted to further define Plaza C to see if they could find more evidence of structural modifications for defensive purposes. They decided to place test units on structure C6 as well as Plaza H. They were able to expose a small platform structure and the corner stair that lead from Plaza B to Plaza C.

In 2011, the Tilden Family Trust gave AFAR a generous donation, which allowed the project to further explore the transition space between Plaza C and Plaza B by excavating the structures separating B1, B2, and B3. This was the first year that a royal tomb was found and the excavations allowed for tomb exploration at the top of B1. Also in 2011, the terminal phase of architecture was discovered on the western side of structure B1, B2, and B3. The previous excavations on structure C6 were expanded to the west and also conserved.

2012 was another big year for the BVAR/AFAR operation. AFAR continued their work on the royal tomb, finding several burials, a turtle shell with hieroglyphs, as well as jade figurines. The program also excavated the transition space and back of B1 and B3. The findings from the transition space between B1 and B3 included a preserved plaster façade. This finding was extremely special because it showed exactly what the structure looked like when it was actually in use thousands of years ago. This concluded the 2012 excavating season.

The 2013 season involved excavating structure B6/7 in Plaza B in order to expose the terminal phase architecture.

Journey on the Cahal Pech Time Machine: An Archaeological Reconstruction of the Dynastic Sequence at a Belize Valley Maya Polity | By Jaime Awe, Director of the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project

In contrast to sites such as Tikal, Calakmul, Palenque, Caracol and Copan, determining the sequence of rulers at Maya polities that lack inscribed monuments is a particularly challenging task for the archaeologist. In spite of the inherent difficulties, however, it is possible to identify rulers at these sites through a systematic examination of the context and contents of elite burials and their associated symbolism. Applying this approach, this paper aims to demonstrate that we can identify a sequence of rulers, spanning from Preclassic to Terminal Classic times, at Cahal Pech.

See also ARCHAEOLOGY’s Interactive Dig Belize 2000: Cahal Pech.

Recommended Reading

Coe, Michael D.
2012 Breaking the Maya Code. Thames & Hudson, London.

Coe, Michael D. and Justin Kerr
1997  The Art of the Maya Scribe. Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, New York.

Hammond, Norman, and Gordan R. Wiley, eds.
2012 Maya Archaeology and Ethnohistory. University of Texas, Austin.

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube.
2000 Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Ancient Maya. Thames & Hudson, London.

Schele, Linda and Peter Mathews
1998  The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs.  Scribner, New York.

Schele, Linda, Mary Ellen Miller, and Justin Kerr.
1986 The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. G. Braziller, New York.

Sharer, Robert J., and Loa P. Traxler.
2005 The Ancient Maya. 6th ed. Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Tedlock, Dennis.
1996 Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life. Simon & Schuster, New York.

Further Reading

Chase, Diane Z., and Arlen F. Chase.
1992 Mesoamerican Elites: An Archaeological Assessment. University of Oklahoma, Norman.

Christenson, Allan
2007  Popol Vuh: Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya People. Electronic version of original 2003 publication. Mesoweb: www.mesoweb.com/publications.

Fash, William L.
1991  Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copan and the Ancient Maya. Thames and Hudson Ltd., London.

Fitzsimmons, James
2009  Death and the Classic Maya Kings (The Linda Schele Series in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies). University of Texas Press, Austin.

Freidel, David A., Linda Schele and Joy Parker
1993  Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path.  William Morrow and Co., New York.

Miller, Mary Ellen and Simon Martin.
2004 Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California.

Miller, Mary Ellen.
2012 The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec. Thames and Hudson, New York.

Mock, Shirley Boteler, ed.
1998 The Sowing and the Dawning: Termination, Dedication, and Transformation in the Archaeological and Ethnographic Record of Mesoamerica. University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

Powis, Terry G., Fred Valez, Jr., Thomas R. Hester, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Stan M. Tarka, Jr.
2002 “Spouted Vessels and Cacao Use Among the Preclassica Maya.” Latin American Antiquity 13.1 (2002): 85-106.

Stross, Brian.
1998 “Seven Ingredients in Mesoamerican Ensoulment: Dedication and Termination in Tenejapa.” The Sowing and the Dawning: Termination, Dedication, and Transformation in the Archaeological and Ethnographic Record of Mesoamerica. Edited by Shirley B. Mock, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque. 31-40.

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