Journey on the Cahal Pech Time Machine: An Archaeological Reconstruction of the Dynastic Sequence at a Belize Valley Maya Polity

By Jaime J. Awe



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.



Subsequent to the “breaking” of the Maya code, and the veritable “revolution” in the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs in the 1990’s, epigraphers have identified and traced the elite dynasties of several large polities across the Maya lowlands. Nowhere is this more evident than at Tikal, Calakmul, Palenque, Caracol and Copan where large numbers of inscribed monuments provide historic records of elite rulers spanning several centuries (Martin and Grube 2000).  But what about those sites without inscriptions; is it possible to identify their elite rulers over time?  Practically in response to this very question, Arlen Chase (1992:37) noted that, “The uppermost elite are fairly easy to identify” and although it is often difficult to match elite burials with “textual information contained in carved stone monuments;” elite remains “tend to be distinctive because of both location and contents.”  Chase also contends that, “Rulers can be identified primarily by the markers associated with their interments in conjunction with the special locations of such interments.”  He further posits that the diagnostic markers that identify the burials of rulers include “…codex remains, cinnabar, mirrors, stone vessels, jadeite jewelry, jadeite ear flares, jadeite masks, jadeite pendants, jadeite or stone tinklers, ceremonial bars, certain rare shells, textual materials, and perhaps stingray spines” (A. Chase 1992:37, also A. Chase and Z. Chase 2011).

Outside of the Maya area, several researchers have applied similar criteria for identifying upper class elite individuals in their burial records.  In their attempt to identify “rulers” in the Preclassic burials at Chalcatzingo, for example, Grove and Gillespie (1992:198) proposed that, “Location of the burial in elite/public contexts is taken as a first criterion of elite status.”  They (Grove and Gillespie 1992: 195) further note that the occurrence of stone statues in burials is a “significant correlate” that can be used for identifying graves as elite. They add that, “Monumental art is clearly associated with high-ranked individuals, who had the power and means to command its creation.  Much of that art is portraiture of certain specific elite individuals, in most instances probably the site’s chief.”  At Chalcatzingo (Grove and Gillespie 1992: 195), like in other parts of Mesoamerica, “Formative period monuments were frequently mutilated by decapitation, and such acts probably took place at the death of a center’s chief.”

For central Mexico, Grove and Gillespie (1992:192-202) identified four major archaeological indicators of high ranking elites in the Preclassic period. These include:  grave type (elaborate vs. simple graves), grave context (public elite architecture), presence/absence of exotic grave goods, and “artifacts with particular ideological burden” (e.g. effigy vessels).  They further contend that the archaeological indicators of high ranking elites in the Middle Preclassic Gulf Coast region differs little from that of central Mexico.  For the Gulf Coast, the criterion used to identify ruling elite includes grave type (elaborate vs. simple graves), grave context (public elite architecture), presence/absence of exotic grave goods, and the use of increasingly complex symbol systems (e.g. symbols that associated the elite with supernatural powers).

Most archaeologists (see Fitzsimmons 2009) would agree that the aforementioned indicators for upper class elite status listed by Chase, and by Grove and Gillespie, can be applied to cultures across the Mesoamerican landscape. If we accept this premise, it can be argued that the archaeological indicators for high ranking elite status in the Belize River Valley should include all of the following, or a combination of most of the following criteria:

  1. Grave type (placement within a tomb and crypt versus a simple grave)
  2. Grave context (interment in public elite architecture)
  3. Presence/absence of exotic grave goods (particularly jade, polychrome pottery, iron ore mirrors, spondylus shells)
  4. Presence/absence of objects with inscriptions (ceramic vessels with PSS, and/or inscribed bone, jade, shell, portable and non portable stone objects)
  5. Graves and artifacts with particular ideological burdens (e.g. corn god imagery, stingray spines, etc.).

By applying these criteria to the analysis of burials at sites without inscribed monuments, it should, therefore, be possible to determine which graves contained the remains of potential ruling elite. In an effort to test the validity of this hypothesis, and to determine a tentative sequence of rulers at Cahal Pech, we decided to examine the present burial data for the site against the five criteria listed above.


The Cahal Pech Burial Data

Presently, we have a total of 69 burials containing about 85 individuals from Cahal Pech (Fig. 1). These interments range in date from the Middle Preclassic to the Terminal Classic periods (800 B.C.-A.D.900). Some human remains have been recovered in Cunil phase (1200-900 B.C.) contexts but these consistently are comprised of small fragments of bone discovered in construction fill (Awe 1992).  The earliest “formal” burial placed within a grave is the Plaza B burial described below. This apparent change in the disposal of the dead may indicate that burial patterns at the site changed at the end of Cunil times (900 B.C.), and that changes in the treatment of the dead may be associated with changes in the socio-political complexity of Middle Preclassic communities. Alternatively, it may simply reflect the fact that Cunil phase burials have yet to be discovered at the site. Regardless, once burial in graves became the norm, this tradition remained consistent from Middle Preclassic to Terminal Classic times.  Burial orientation is another tradition that remains relatively constant during the almost two thousand years of occupation at Cahal Pech.  The standard orientation of burials at the site, and actually for most of the upper Belize Valley, is prone, head to the south and often facing east (Friewald 2011).

At least 11 of the 69 burials found at Cahal Pech exhibit all, if not most, of the indicators of upper class elite graves. Several other burials, particularly those within tombs in eastern shrines in peripheral settlements, also display a number of the characteristic features of elite burials. This is not unusual in the Belize Valley and is actually quite common at the site of Caledonia in the upper Macal River (Awe 1985), and at Caracol (Chase 1992:37-38). In spite of these contexts, it is quite unlikely that any of the individuals buried in tombs at these peripheral settlement clusters were elite rulers of the site.  The only exception to this rule at Cahal Pech may be two burials that were discovered in a large pyramid at the terminus of a causeway that connects the pyramid to the site core (Fig. 2). These, and other potential ruler graves, are described below. Because this is an attempt to identify a tentative dynastic sequence for the site, the burials are also presented in chronological order.


Plaza B Burial 1

Plaza B Burial 1 (henceforth Plaza B-Bu 1) was associated with a Middle Preclassic platform (Platform B) located more than a meter below the last, Classic period, Plaza B surface (Garber and Awe 2008:185-190).  The burial was one of four ritual deposits that had been placed on the southeast, northeast, southwest and northwest corners respectively of the Middle Preclassic platform. Plaza B-Bu 1 represents the deposit placed on the southeast corner of the building.  The grave consisted of two shallow crypts capped by large slabs of limestone.  The southernmost and smallest of the two crypts contained a Middle Preclassic, Sampopero Red: Variety Unspecified, bowl. Within the vessel were a fragmented, but complete, human skull and six greenstone beads (Fig. 3). Immediately to the north, in a separate, but larger, crypt, was an articulated headless skeleton. We believe that the head and body are of the same individual and that the decapitation was post-mortem and part of a reverential act.  In ancient Maya iconography, the concept of life, death, and renewal is a re-occurring theme (Mock 1998). Garber and Awe (2008:187) further note that:

In the Maya creation story, after the Hero Twins have defeated the Lords of the Death, they retrieve the severed head of their father. The head is then taken to the Three Stone Place of creation where it is then resurrected as the Maize God. The Maize God then creates the world by raising the world tree, separating earth and sky. He then partitions the world and creates the first four humans.

The deposit recovered in the northeast corner of Platform B contained what Garber and Awe (2008: 187) referred to as a layered “cosmogram” cache.  At the base of the cache were three slate bars overlain by a Middle Preclassic, headless, ceramic figurine, followed by a cluster of 13 polished greenstones above the figurine.  Garber and Awe (2008:187) previously argued that:

This deposit represents the created universe which took place at the Three Stone Place of creation as defined in Classic Period hieroglyphic texts and indicated here by the presence of the three slate bars. The 13 greenstones represent the 13 layers of the Upperworld and the firmament. The figurine represents the resurrected headless individual within the crypt of the southeast corner. According to the Classic Period texts, this occurs at the Three Stone Place of creation and the state of the created universe, in particular the north house, is called the “Raised-up-Sky-Place” (Freidel et al. 1993:71).

The ritual deposit in the northwest corner of the platform included another layered “cosmogram”.  This deposit, however, appears to be the “reciprocal opposite” of the northeastern deposit.  It contained three river-rolled pebbles above a black ceramic figurine head which, in turn, overlay thirteen obsidian chips.  The deposit at the southwestern corner of Platform B contained a single, large, Jenny Creek Phase, ceramic figurine head. All together, the ritual deposits were interpreted by Garber and Awe (2008:189) as “the remains of a ritual circuit associated with the death of an important individual. The purpose of this ritual was to symbolically resurrect that individual and place him in the sky – the place of revered ancestors.”  This complex ritual system “has strong parallels to a variety of elements in the iconographic and hieroglyphic systems of the Classic Period and demonstrates that the kings of the Classic Period were utilizing a system whose basic components had been developed several centuries earlier” (Garber and Awe 2008:189).  Equally important is the fact that the Cahal Pech deposits on Platform B represent one of the “earliest expressions of this system in the Maya lowlands.”

When compared to Classic period elite burials, it is readily apparent that Plaza B-Bu 1 lacks several of the indicators for high-ranking elite Maya burials. When compared to coeval Preclassic burials, however, the opposite is true.  For example, the burial is associated with one of the largest Middle Preclassic platforms at the site (Garber et al. 2006). The symbolism reflected by the four caches is also more complex than any other Middle Preclassic cache discovered at Cahal Pech, or at any other site in the Belize Valley.  The obvious symbolic association of the burial with the resurrection of the maize god is also a theme that is particularly associated with subsequent Late Preclassic and Classic period rulers. For all these reasons, we (see Garber and Awe 2008:189) previously argued that the ritual deposits must have been associated with the “death of an important individual” and why it is very likely that the individual interred in Plaza B-Bu 1 likely represents one of the first rulers at the site.     


Zopilote Group Burial 2 (The Stela Chamber)

The Zopilote Group is located approximately 600 meters south of the Cahal Pech Site Core and is physically connected to the center by a 4.0 m to 6.5 m wide sacbe (causeway). The group has five structures.  The most impressive building is Str. 1, an 11.5 m high pyramid that faces north toward the site core and which is located at the southern terminus of the causeway.  Investigations of Str. 1 in 1992 and 1993 revealed that the pyramid underwent several construction episodes. The first construction phase was erected in the Middle Preclassic and the final in the Late Classic period.  Our investigations at Zopilote uncovered two very impressive tombs.  The first, Burial 1, was located at the summit of the temple.  The second (Burial 2 or The Stela Chamber) was discovered beneath the north-facing central stairway of the temple.  I propose here that both burials represent the graves of possible rulers or high-ranking elite. The ruler in Burial 2 is represented by the image of an early Late Preclassic individual carved on a buried monument while Burial 1 contained the remains of a Late Classic leader.

As I indicate above, Burial 2 at Zopilote was discovered directly beneath the stairway of the final construction phase of Str. 1 (Awe et al. 2009).  The grave, a vaulted chamber measuring 1.7 m high, 1.0 m north-south and 0.75 m east-west, was completely packed with dirt.  Filling the tomb with dirt was likely done to ensure the stability of the stairway and to contain what is still the most interesting deposits yet discovered in any burial chamber at the site. Just below the tomb’s capstones, in an area we originally referred to as the upper burial (Fig. 4), were the remains of at least two, possibly four, infants aged between one and two years (Cheetham et al. 1993, 1994a).  In association with the infant remains were 19 “halved or smashed” Spanish Lookout phase, Late Classic period vessels, three ceramic pendants, five “obsidian blade fragments, 1 intact obsidian blade, 1 small fragment of honey-coloured chert and 1 large Pomacea flagellata shell” (Cheetham et al 1994a:172).

Below the children remains, and placed in upright position in the center of the chamber, were two large fragments of a carved stela.  Encircling the stela were approximately 200 (139 complete and several fragmented) small “finger bowls”.  Many of the unslipped finger bowls were placed lip to lip and contained adult human phalanges (Cheetham et al. 1994b).  The presence of fragments of human remains around other bowls suggests that they originally all contained finger bones. “If all the phalanges recovered in the tomb are combined” (i.e. within and outside the finger bowls) “they total 206 medial and distal phalanges” (Cheetham et al. 1994:181).  David Glassman, who analyzed the human remains from the tomb, suggests that the phalanges of the fourth, and perhaps the third, finger(s) were used (see Cheetham et al. 1994:181).  If this is the case, and if phalanges from both hands were cut off, then approximately 25 to 27 adult individuals would have contributed to the cache of fingers in the tomb.  Alternatively, if fingers from only one hand of an individual were cut off, the number of contributors would double.

At the northern base of the stela, and on the floor of the chamber (in what we referred to as the “Lower Burial”), we recovered 36 permanent mandibular incisors. Next to the teeth were four obsidian blade fragments, a fragmented, but complete, obsidian blade and three shells. “Four fragmentary roots (most likely from mandibular incisors) were also recovered from this area (Cheetham et al. 1994:183).  If the fragmentary roots were from separate mandibular incisors, it would bring the total number of incisors to 40.  Poor preservation of the incisors inhibited us from determining the exact number of individuals whose teeth were extracted for this offering. The analysis of the remains, nevertheless, suggests that the minimum number of individuals was at least nine.

Awe et al. (2009: 179-190) previously reported that the stela (Fig. 5) buried in Zopilote Tomb 2 was very eroded, “defaced and broken into two large pieces. Despite its condition, the monument was positioned as vertically as possible within Tomb 2 in an apparent effort to facilitate the placement of the ritual deposits (finger bowls)” around the entire length of the monument. The stela depicts a central human figure within the wide open maw of a composite jaguar serpent creature. This iconography, the wrap around style of carving, similarities with early monuments from the Pacific coast of Guatemala, and the eroded condition of the monument all suggest that the stela dates to at least the early half of the Late Preclassic period. Its location at the center of the tomb, and the placement of artifacts and offerings on top, around and below the monument also suggest that the primary purpose of the grave was to entomb the stela. But why bury a monument in a tomb within a large temple?  I believe that the reason for this special termination rite is because the human depicted on the monument was likely one of the Late Preclassic lineage heads of the Cahal Pech community. It is for this reason that this special attention was accorded to the monument. Interestingly, this special treatment of monuments that depict early rulers is not unique to Cahal Pech. During excavations of the southwestern stairway on Str. A6 at Caracol, we found the upper section of Stela 20 which depicts one of the Early Classic rulers at the site. At Pacbitun, a carved fragment of Altar 3, depicting a ruler with a ceremonial bar, was also discovered in Str. 1 (Healy 1990, Helmke and Awe 2013).  It is apparent, therefore, that the interment of monuments depicting rulers may likely be a western Belize tradition.


Burial B4-3

The next Late Preclassic, high ranking elite burial is Burial B4-3 (Fig. 6). This burial was axially located below the floor of the summit platform of Late Preclassic Str. B4 (Floor 3).  The grave was dug into the fill of the Preclassic temple and the burial was deposited in cache-like form rather than like other standard burials at the site. Notwithstanding this fact, Burial B4-3 is certainly one of the most ideologically charged interments discovered at Cahal Pech. The burial contained two large, lip to lip, Sierra Red ceramic vessels.  On the four sides of the vessels were several long bones that encased or framed the vessels in a quadripartite pattern. Alongside the bones, on each of the four sides of the vessels, a Middle Preclassic ceramic figurine head and the spout of a ceramic chocolate pot were placed. Within the vessels were large fragments of a human skull and two jade beads.  Below the bottom vessel, and at the center of the bone square, was a carved conch shell figure in the form of a crocodile.  Analysis of the human remains indicates that the skeleton was incomplete and missing almost all the teeth and most of the small bony remains.  According to our BVAR osteologist (Dr. Ashley McKeown of the University of Montana), the absence of teeth and small bony remains is a pattern that is consistent with burials that have been exhumed from their original place of interment and reburied in a new context. 

I (Awe 2012) previously argued that the pattern of deposition evident in Burial B4-3 provides an excellent example of a Maya cosmogram as well as for the early establishment of the myth of the hero twins and the resurrection of the maize god. In regard to the cosmogram, the burial reflects both the vertical and horizontal partitioning of the universe.  The square pattern of the bones is consistent with the quadripartite Maya view of universe.  The four figurines alongside the bones likely represent the original four humans that were formed at the time of creation (Christenson 2007:184; Recinos, Goetz and Morley 1950:167-169; Tedlock 1985:164-165). In reference to these four humans, the Popol Vuh mentions that, “They were simply made and modeled, it is said; they had no mother and no father” (Tedlock 1985:165).  In Allen Christenson’s (2007:187) translation of the Popol Vuh, and in reference to these original four humans, he notes that “Their knowledge of everything that they saw was complete—the four corners and the four sides, that which is within the sky and that which is within the earth”.  Interestingly, this association with deified ancestors concurs with the function of figurines proposed by Grove and Gillespie (1984:32) and Joyce Marcus (1993) who suggest that figurines represented ruler portraits or were used in divination rituals and in early cults of the ancestor.

An alternative explanation for the presence of the figurines is that they could represent Pawatuns. Fash (1991:163) notes that these “Maya mythological earth-bearers of the four cardinal points” are common in Classic period Maya iconography.  At Copan, for example, they are depicted on carved benches in Str. 9N-82 C 1st of the Sepulturas Group, as well as in Str. 66C  (Fash 1991:161).  Yet another example can be found at the entrance to Temple 22 at the same site (Fash 1991:163).  Taube (1998:429-432) and others (cf. Coe and Kerr 1997 :187) have also argued that Pawatuns are quadripartite, they represent “four aged beings supporting the corners of the universe” or “cosmic house”.  If this is the case, then the skull inside the two vessels could symbolically represent the axis mundi from which the four cardinal directions radiate.

In regards to the vertical divisions of the universe, the skull placed within the lip to lip vessels is akin to being within a cave in the sacred mountain.  This sacred mountain in turn rests on the back of the crocodile which floats in the primordial sea. This accords with Houston and Taube (2011:29) suggestion that:

In Mesoamerican thought, the sea is commonly identified with a primordial crocodilian being that symbolizes the earth.  Known as Cipactli or Tlaltecuhtli among the Aztec and Itzam Ka Ain for the contact period Yukatek, this is a creature of chaos and destruction that must be slain for the ordered world to be created…It is likely that through the mythic act of slaying the cosmic crocodile, the world tree and sky were created out of the primordial sea.  According to the Colonial Yukatek Chilam Balam books of Mani and Tizimin, the directional world trees were fashioned to raise the heavens after slaying of Itzam Cab Ain.

The connection between the burial and the resurrection of the maize god as described in the Popol Vuh is also very apparent.  In all translations of the Popol Vuh (as well as in Schele and Mathews 1998:211), it is noted that following their defeat and sacrifice of the underworld gods, the Hero Twins go to the ballcourt in Xibalba to dig up the remains of their father and uncle and then resurrect them. On the so called “Resurection” plate the hero twins are shown pouring water through a crack of the earth turtle.  The water is directed to the skull of their father the maize god.  This action results with the sprouting of maize or the rebirth of the maize god (Miller and Martin 2004:56-57).  

The two jade triangulates that were placed with the skull inside the lip to lip vessels almost certainly represent kernels of corn that were associated with fertility and preciousness.  The association of jade with corn is a long established concept in Maya archaeology.  Indeed, more than 50 years ago, Adrian Digby (1964:25–26, pl. xivb) identified a “plaque pendant of unidentified provenience as a depiction of the maize god and based the assertion on a comparison with a stone sculpture of the maize deity from Str. 22 at Copan currently in the British Museum.”  During the early Historic Period in the Yucatan, it was common practice to place a jade bead in the mouth of the deceased.  According to Miller and Martin (2004:57), this practice served to symbolically plant “the germ of the Maize God” in the deceased “in preparation for rebirth”.  Additionally, the jades may have been placed in the vessels along with the skull as part of what Stross (1998) calls animation rituals.  According to Stross (1998:31) this would ensure that the skull could be “animated or imbued with life”

In the case of the four chocolate pot spouts, I have argued that they are symbolically associated with the pouring of precious fluids, in this case water.  In their analysis of spouted pots, Powis et al. (2002:96) noted that “…spouted vessels or pichingas, as they are called by modern Maya groups living in highland Guatemala, are used as water bottles… In the town of Merida, Yucatan spouted jars also occur, but the modern Maya use them as water containers or coolers. The spouts on the sides of Burial B4-3 at Cahal Pech may therefore reflect the concept of pars pro toto, where one part of the pot represents the whole ceramic vessel.  In sum, the spouts in the B4-3 burial represent whole vessels that, symbolically, would have been used to pour water on the skull inside the lip to lip bowls.  It is through this action that the skull inside the pots would be revived. 

To summarize, Burial B4-3 contained skeletal elements of a male individual whose remains were exhumed from its original location. The skeletal remains were subsequently reburied in Str. B4, one of the most important Preclassic temples at the site. The grave was ordered in a pattern that confirms to both the vertical and horizontal partitioning of the Maya universe while the associated artificats were imbued with symbolism associated with the Maya creation story and the myth of the hero twins.  This special arrangement serves to support my contention that the person interred in Burial B4-3 likely represents one of the Preclassic rulers at the site and that those who buried him expected that, like the maize god, he would resurrect and become a deified ruler like his ancestors before him.


Burials B1-10 and B1-8

For the Terminal Preclassic (A.D. 50-250) we presently have two high ranking elite graves at Cahal Pech; Burial B1-10 and Burial B1-8 (Fig. 7).  The earliest, Burial B1-10, was discovered in a small tomb 7 meters below the summit of Str. B1, the eastern pyramidal shrine at Cahal Pech (Santasilia 2013).  The tomb contained the remains of a male individual between 30 and 50 years of age (McKeown 2013). The body lay on top of four ceramic vessels (Fig. 8). Two other vessels, a large Sierra Red basin and a tetrapod mammiform bowl were located in a niche slightly above the individual. Beneath the pelvic area, there were flecks of green and red pigment, possibly the remains of painted parchment. Spread over the entire skeleton was also a layer of dark organic material suggesting that the individual may have been wrapped in fabric.  Other non-ceramic remains included a jade effigy pendant and a tubular jade bead. Except for the Sierra Red basin, the other ceramic vessels, particularly those with tetrapodal supports, belong to the Augacate ceramic group of the Floral Park Complex at Barton Ramie. 

Burial B1-8 was located just above B1-10, deep below the summit of the site’s eastern shrine. Unlike B1-10, however, the grave that contained B1-8 had not preserved well because it caved in when the capstones of B1-10 collapsed (Santasilia 2013).  This collapse shattered most of the human remains and damaged one of the ceramic vessels.  In spite of this, we were able to determine that the interment was that of a male individual somewhere in his 30’s. The associated grave goods (Fig. 9) included four ceramic vessels, two complete and two fragmented tubular jade beads, a tubular shell bead and a fragment of a figurine. The ceramic vessels in the tomb consist of a dish and bowl with tetrapodal supports and two pot stands.  One of the pot stands is polychrome while the other, typed as a Late Preclassic Polvero Black vessel, has three knobs for supporting the vessel that may have originally sat on it. It can be argued that these three knobs ideologically represent the three hearth stone place in the Maya creation story.  In regards to the date of the burial, its stratigraphic position slightly above B1-10 clearly places the date of interment sometime just before that of the latter burial. The fact that the ceramic vessels in both burials are relatively similar and can all be placed in the Floral Park Complex, however, suggest that not much time had elapsed between the two events.  


Burial A1-1, Burial B1-11 and Burial B1-7

Two elite burials, Burial A1-1 and Burial B1-11, at Cahal Pech date to the Early Classic period and one, Burial B1-7, dates to the end of the Early Classic and start of the Late Classic (A.D. 550-650). Unfortunately, we know precious little of A1-1 because it was looted in the late 1970’s.  We also only found out about this burial from the confession of one of the looters who was apprehended and subsequently charged for vandalizing the mound.  In his possession, the looter had a black-slipped, Teotihuacan style, Balanza Black, slab-footed cylinder vase. He claimed that this vessel, along with other objects, had been found in Str. A1. Except for the Early Classic vessel, the other objects had been disposed of but the looter refused to offer any further information on the burial or its contents. 

Burial B1-11 was discovered within a stair block high up on the west face of Str. B1 2nd. The tomb contained the articulated remains of an older (40+ years) male (McKeown 2013) and several grave goods.  The latter (Fig. 10) included a Balanza Black basal-flanged bowl, a stingray spine, four large and one small tubular jade bead, a spherical jade bead, several small fragments of painted stucco, one unmodified spondylus shell and two perforated shell disks that either served as part of an adorno or could have been worn as ear flares (Ishihara-Brito et al. 2013).

Burial B1-7 was discovered in a large tomb about 3 meters below the summit of Str. B1 (Santasilia 2012). The tomb contained the skeletal remains of at least three adult individuals. Although the remains were in a very poor state of preservation, their stratigraphic position allows us to reconstruct the sequence of interments in the tomb. The earliest and lowermost burial was represented by the articulated feet of an adult individual.  These remains were discovered at the north end of the chamber, indicating a head to the south orientation.  The rest of the skeleton was not found in situ but the discovery of skeletal fragments inside some of the pottery vessels, and throughout the fill in the tomb, suggests that the remains of this individual (Individual 3) was likely disturbed during interment of Individual 2 and then re-deposited throughout the tomb. 

The remains of the second individual (Individual 2), “an adult male, was interred slightly above and to the east of the deposit of foot bones” (Novotny 2012).  Individual 2 was “laid in an extended, supine position with head oriented to the north”. Like Individual 3, some of the remains of Individual 2 were not in their anatomical position. This suggests that the tomb was reopened yet again for the interment of Individual 1.  According to Novotny (2012:10), this likely occurred when the body of Individual 2 “was mostly, but not completely, decomposed.”  Individual 1, an adult female, was deposited directly above Individual 2 in a supine, extended position with head to the north.

In terms of grave goods, Burial B1-7 is one of the two richest tombs yet discovered at Cahal Pech.  The burial contained 8 ceramic vessels (Fig.11).  Two of these were Early Classic, basal-flanged, Dos Arroyos Orange polychrome bowls, a stuccoed vase, a bichrome bowl, a Late Classic, Silk Grass, fluted vase, and three monochrome red dishes. Polished stone objects (Fig. 12) included 12 jade beads, three jade celts or belt plaques, two jade bar pendants, a jade effigy pendant depicting the corn god, and three jade ear flares. Shell and bone objects (Fig. 13) were represented by three, deer antler, rings, one complete and 7 fragmented styluses, three pins, four shell adornos with obsidian and spondylus shell inlays, a shell inkpot with red, black, yellow and blue pigment, and bone spatula carved with a hand design, a necklace made from dog teeth, and numerous other small objects. One of the bone pins and two of the deer antler rings were carved and inscribed. Mark Zender (personal communication) deciphered the glyphs on the bone pin to read: (u-)ba-ki (u)baak, which translates to “his/her bone.”  The glyphs on the rings were translated by Zender as yo-?-bi K'AWIIL-la-CHAN-na K'IN-ni-chi K'AN-na-?-wa-BAHLAM or the ring(?) of K'awiil Chan K'inich, K'an ? Bahlam.  These rings represent the first ever discovered in the Maya area with inscriptions and the latter may actually refer to the royal title of the rulers of the site (Santasilia 2012).

In addition to containing several unique objects, such as the rings and ink pot, Burial B1-7 had several very interesting features. For example, B1-7 represents the only multiple burial within a tomb at Cahal Pech. Equally intriguing is the fact that Individuals 1 and 2 represent the only burials with individuals lying in a supine position with a head to the north orientation. Both practices depart from the Belize Valley burial pattern of prone (face down) and head to the south orientation (see Freiwald 2011).  There are three possible explanations for this divergence.  First, it is possible that a mistake was made by those who deposited the burials in the tomb.  This, however, seems an unlikely scenario for the grave attendants would have had to make the same mistake twice.  The second possibility is that Individuals 1 and 2 were not local thus were interred in a manner that reflects orientation typical of their place of origin. At this point in time we cannot confirm this possibility but, hopefully, planned strontium isotope analyses will help to determine the origin of these individuals. The third possibility is that the divergent burial pattern evident in B1-7 reflects influences associated with changes in the socio-political landscape of the time.  At the end of the Early Classic, following the defeat of Tikal by Calakmul and its allies, Caracol began to exert considerable more influence in the Belize Valley.  At Caracol, multiple interments in tombs are the norm (Chase 1992, Z. Chase and A. Chase 2011), and about 50% of all burials at the site have a head to the north orientation (A. Chase, personal communication).  If we assume that Tikal’s influence in the Belize Valley was replaced by Caracol at the start of the Late Classic period, then it is possible that the Cahal Pech elite may have chosen to adopt or emulate burial practices that were typical of Caracol. The likelihood of this would be even greater if one of the individuals interred in B1-7 originated at Caracol. Here again is a situation that future strontium isotope analysis will be able to shed light on.


Burial B1-2

Burial B1-2 was discovered by Peter Schmidt in 1969 but he never published a report of these investigations. Schmidt’s notes, and illustration of the grave (Fig. 14), indicate that the burial was placed in a large tomb located approximately 1 meter east of Burial B1- 8 at the summit of Str. B1.  The tomb contained the remains of a single adult male individual.  Schmidt’s illustration of the burial indicates that the individual was lying in an extended position but the lack of a north arrow makes it impossible to determine the skeleton’s orientation.

Burial B1-2 was accompanied by sumptuous grave goods.  Above the pelvis was a beautiful jade and shell mosaic mask (Fig. 15).  Other polished stone objects included six jade beads, six jade ear flares, a perforated jade tube, and three jade celts. The tube and celts are similar to those found in Burial B1-B7.  Two additional mosaic masks, made predominantly from shell with a couple pieces of jade, were located just below the skull and several obsidian blades were placed near the feet of the individual.  Ceramic artifacts (Fig. 16) included eight pottery vessels.  Six of the vessels were polychrome and two were monochrome.  One of the vessels, a Saxche Ceramic Group cream polychrome, is chaliced-shaped and depicts an individual in the act of blood-letting from his penis. Another vessel, a basal flanged bowl, is a Dos Arroyos Orange polychrome. There is also a fluted vase that is similar in form and stylistic treatment to the fluted vase from Burial B1-7.  These, and other, similarities between B1-2 and B1-7 suggest an almost coeval date for the two burials with, perhaps, B1-7 predating B1-2 by a few years at most.


Zopilote Burial 1.

Burial 1 from the Zopilote Group was associated with the penultimate construction phase of Str. 1, the 11 meter tall pyramid at the terminus of the causeway.  The tomb contained the remains of two individuals (Cheetham et al. 1993:152-172).  Individual 1 was in an extended prone position with head to the south. The remains were those of an adult male individual.  Several of his incisors were decorated with jade inlays. Individual 2 was represented by a skull that was deposited inside a dish.  The skull was that of a young male individual.  No other skeletal remains of Individual 2 were discovered in the tomb suggesting that the skull may have been that of a decapitated victim rather than that of a venerated ancestor.

Zopilote Burial 1 contained numerous high status grave goods.  Non-ceramic artefacts included a large fragment of wood, a human effigy jade pendant and two jade beads, two shell (spondylus) ear flares, a shell disc, a stingray spine, a large pomacea shell, two small stone spheres, a stone bead, and a large number of elaborately decorated stucco fragments.  The latter may have originally formed part of the decoration on the sides of a Balanza Black ceramic vase. A total of nine pottery vessels were found in the tomb (Fig. 17).  Two of these, Vessels 1 and 2, are beautifully decorated with polychrome scenes depicting a deer hunt and a band of marching warriors (Fig. 18).  Vessel 1 is likely a Saturday Creek Polychrome and Vessel 2 is a Saxche Orange Polychrome, both dating to the early Late Classic Tiger Run Complex in the Belize Valley.  The other vessels include three bowls, another dish, a chalice and a small brown cream pitcher.  The Balanza Black vessel and the cream pitcher share similarities with late Early Classic vessels from the Peten. It is this combination of both Early and Late Classic ceramic types that leads me to suggest that Zopilote Burial 1 dates to the early part of the Late Classic period. Furthermore, the grave type, its location, and sumptuous grave goods all indicate that the burial was that of a high ranking elite, male, individual. The placement of elite tombs in causeway termini groups, and the deposition of finger caches like those found in Burial 2 at Zopilote, are traditions typical at Caracol (Chase 1992: 39).  It is therefore possible that both practices may reflect early Late Classic influences from that site.


Burial H1-1

We have recovered at least eight burials that date to the Terminal Classic period (A.D. 850-950) at Cahal Pech.  Of these, Burial H1-1 is the only interment that is undoubtedly that of a high ranking elite.  The only other burial that might fall into this category is an intrusive burial that was discovered by Schmidt in 1969 just below the summit of Str. B1. Because information on the latter is limited, I have decided not to include it in this paper.

Burial H1-1 was discovered just below the floor of Str. H1b, on the eastern side of Plaza H.  The large tomb was constructed of cut stones that had been scavenged or looted from a Late Classic building that was subsequently covered over by Str. H1a.  Inside the tomb were the articulated remains of a young adult male (Wrobel 2008).  The skeleton was in an extended position with head to the south. Associated with the burial were a variety of grave goods (Figs. 19 and 20) including 11 ceramic vessels, approximately 24 both complete and fragmented, perforated deer bone tubes, a dog teeth necklace that used teeth of at least 52 dogs, five obsidian blades, a carve jade pendant, two jade ear flares, two jade beads one modified conch shell and one shell bead.  At the northern end of the chamber the remains of a small feline, possibly ocelot was found.

One of the ceramic vessels from the tomb, a cream polychrome, may be a Terminal Classic Belize Valley attempt to copy the finer Cabrito Cream Polychromes of the Peten. The other vessels include a bichrome cylinder vase, two effigy censers, a fluted bowl, a cream-slipped pedestal vase, three monochrome bowls, one unslipped bowl and fragments of an unslipped jar. The carved jade pendant is an effigy of the corn god. Similar effigy pendants have been found in the tombs of high status elites across the Maya area and range in date from Early to Terminal Classic times. Because Burial H1-1 dates to the Terminal Classic period, it represents the last ruler in Cahal Pech’s incredibly long history of occupation.


Discussion and Conclusion

As Arlen Chase, David Grove, Susan Gillespie, and now our research at Cahal Pech indicate, the highest ranking individuals, presumably the chiefs and rulers of sites, can be readily identified by the co-occurrence of several elite markers in their graves.  In addition to inscriptions, these markers can include all of the following criteria, or a combination of these. In no particular order, these markers are: a) burial in monumental civic, or public architecture, b) interment within lavish crypts or tombs, c) the inclusion of exotic items of perceived high value (jade, mirrors, spondylus shells, etc., d) imported and/or locally made high quality pottery, and e) accompanying symbolism that serve to associate the individual with particular deities (e.g. corn god).

By applying the aforementioned criteria to the burials at Cahal Pech, we have identified at least 11 potential rulers at the site.  The earliest of these high ranking elite was interred in Platform B in Plaza B during the Middle Preclassic.  For the Late Preclassic we identified two possible rulers.  For one of these we have no skeletal remains but believe he is represented by the carved depiction of the human on Stela 9.  This monument was discovered in a tomb (Burial 2) within the large pyramid at the terminus of the causeway at the Zopilote Group.  The second Late Preclassic ruler is represented by Burial B4-3.  Although not deposited within a tomb, the ideologically laden arrangement of this burial, and its placement within the Late Preclassic B4 shrine, clearly reflects the elevated status of the individual.

During the Terminal Preclassic (a.k.a. Protoclassic) period, two possible rulers were buried at the site, Burial B1-10 and Burial B1-8.  Presently, the graves of these individuals represent the earliest tombs discovered at the site.  For the Early Classic we have at least two potential ruler graves. Because Burial A1-1 was looted in the 1970’s, we have practically no information on the burials context and contents. The second Early Classic burial is represented by Burial B1-11 which was deposited in the stair block of Str. B1-2nd.  For the period between the end of the Early Classic and start of the Late Classic, we identified the graves of two potential rulers.  In chronological order, from earliest to latest, these include Burial B1-7 and Burial B1-2.  After these we have only one Late Classic and one Terminal Classic burials. The former is represented by Burial 1 at the Zopilote Group, and the latter by the large tomb in Str. H1b.

It is readily apparent that the 11 burials discussed in this paper can in no way represent all the high ranking elite individuals who likely ruled and died during the two thousand years of occupation at Cahal Pech. In spite of this, our analysis of the burial data has allowed us to identify potential rulers for all the major periods of development at the site.  Hopefully, future research will discover the graves of additional high ranking elite and that this will allow us to continue building on the tentative sequence of rulers at this medium size Belize Valley polity.



Research at Cahal Pech has been supported by grants from the Social Sciences Research Council of Canada, the Gordon Childe Fund of the University of London, the Canadian Commission for Unesco, the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, David Swezy, Barbara Nelson and the Tilden Family Foundation. We are forever indebted to the generosity of these institutions and benefactors. In the field, and over the last 20 plus years, I have had the great fortune of working with some of the most dedicated staff.  The data reported herein is, in large part, testimony to their hard work and intuition. These individuals include James Conlon, David Cheetham, Terry Powis, James Aimers, Josalyn Ferguson, James Stemp, Gyles Iannone, Jennifer Piehl, David Lee, Rhan-ju Song, John Hodgson, Christophe Helmke, Julie Hoggarth, Rafael Guerra, Norbert Stanchly, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, Gabe Wrobel, Anna Novotny, Ashley McKeown, John and Linda Douglas, Catharina Santasilia, Doug Tilden, Mat Saunders, Jim and Christie Pritchard, Alfredo (Jim) Puc, Antonio Itza, Jorge Can and Myka Schwanke. Last, but certainly not least, I owe much gratitude to all my colleagues at the Institute of Archaeology and NICH for continuing to support my research in the Belize Valley.


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