Abstract: Underwater Maya: Discovery, Mapping, and Excavating in a Peat Bog Below the Sea Floor, Belize


While walking in a shallow lagoon in southern Belize in search of “briquetage”—broken pots used to boil brine over fires to make salt—we made an accidental discovery that has transformed our knowledge of the ancient Maya. We found wooden posts and artifacts—including the only reported ancient Maya canoe paddle—perfectly preserved in a peat bog below the sea floor. The peat is mangrove peat, formed from accumulation of debris and roots as the salt-water red mangroves kept pace with rising seas. We did find lots of “briquetage,” but also the buildings and other structures associated with a massive salt production industry that reached its peak during the height of the Late Classic Maya civilization (A.D. 600-900), when demand at the inland cities for this basic biological necessity was highest. Since wood is rarely preserved in the tropical landscape of Central America, the Paynes Creek Salt Works provide a stunning example of the kinds of wooden buildings used by the ancient Maya. In this presentation, I summarize the discovery and mapping of some 4000 wooden posts between 2005 and 2009, as well as the ongoing field research excavating “Ancient Maya Wooden Architecture and the Salt Industry.” With a Site Preservation Grant from the AIA for “Underwater Maya,” I am working with the local communities to provide displays and education, including an “observation platform” at the sites, to promote tourism and protection of these ancient Maya treasures of the sea.


Heather McKillop’s Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:

In Search of Maya Sea Traders (Texas A & M University Press, 2005 hardcover and paperback)  is a readable account in which I describe how I did the fieldwork as well as our finds, focusing on the ancient Maya seaport at Wild Cane Cay and also discussing the salt works—before we discovered wooden structures!

Salt: White Gold of the Ancient Maya (University Press of Florida, 2002 hardcover and 2008 paperback) describes the original 4 saltworks in Paynes Creek National Park that prompted survey to see if there were more saltworks, leading to the discovery of the wooden architecture (not discussed in the Salt book).

The Ancient Maya (2006, Norton publishers, paperback) is my general overview book of the ancient Maya, written to be accessible to the reading public.

There are several articles on my web site that can be downloaded by individuals under “fair use” at www.ga.lsu.edu/mckillop.html: Here are some of the more readable articles:

McKillop, Heather, 2009  “Mapping Ancient Maya Wooden Architecture on the Sea Floor, Belize.” ACUA Underwater Archaeology Proceedings 2009: 277-286.

McKillop, Heather, 2007 “Ancient Mariners on the Belize Coast: Salt, Stingrays, and Seafood.” Belizean Studies 29(2): 15-28.

McKillop, Heather, 2005 “Finds in Belize Document Late Classic Maya Salt Making and Canoe Transport.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102: 5630-5634.

McKillop, Heather 1994 “Traders of the Maya Coast: Five Field Seasons in the Swamps of South Coastal Belize, 1988-1993.” Mexicon 16: 115-119.

You can also see images and my report on mapping at K’ak’ Naab’ (“Fiery Water Place”) on the FAMSI web site at http://famsi.org/reports/05032/index.html

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