About Cahal Pech

Past Archaeological Excavations at Cahal Pech
BVAR-AFAR's Research at Cahal Pech


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.

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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.

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

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