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New Mexico State University students excavate Maya sites in Belize

With help from students in a university field school, New Mexico State University anthropology assistant professor Lisa Lucero began this spring to excavate a previously unstudied Maya ceremonial center in the jungle of Belize.

New Mexico State University anthropology assistant professor Lisa Lucero, left, talks with Sonny Hartley, a graduate of New Mexico State's anthropology bachelor's degree program, and Jane Arie Baldwin, a graduate of New Mexico State's anthropology master'

When the excavation is more complete, Lucero hopes it will help her prove a theory about how the earliest ruling classes were able to establish their authority.

Lucero, her staff and 12 New Mexico State University students in an archaeology field school spent Jan. 19 to May 5 in Belize, a country on the Central American coast between Mexico and Guatemala.

They were in the country to work on an on-going excavation of Saturday Creek, a small Maya site on the Belize River near Balmopan, Belize's capital. But while they were there Lucero received permission from Belize's government to excavate Yalbac, a larger site about 10 miles northeast of Saturday Creek, in an area almost completely covered by jungle.

Lucero said officials from Belize's Commission of Archaeology were amazed when workmen cleared undergrowth from Yalbac's two central plazas revealing, among other buildings, a 60-foot-tall palace.

Lucero's staff and the New Mexico State students dug two test pits in the plazas, collecting bits of pottery and plaster from the plaza floors to date Yalbac's age and length of occupation. Preliminary analysis suggests Yalbac was occupied at least from 300 B.C. to 900 A.D., during and after the classic time of Maya rulership, Lucero said.

Accompanied by local workmen, teams of students hacked their way with machetes through the surrounding jungle to survey the site. Once plotted, the surveys will result in the first systematic map of Yalbac, she said.

"In comparison to Tikal, a large Maya site in Guatemala, Yalbac is a small major site, but it was a ceremonial center occupied by a ruling class. I think studying it, in comparison to Saturday Creek, will help us understand why some Maya sites became ceremonial centers and others did not," Lucero said.

At Saturday Creek, Lucero and the students excavated four mounds that included part of a compound that was the residence of an elite member of the community, two single structure residences and a temple ball court.

They turned up large numbers of obsidian blades, pieces of stalactites and stalagmites from area caves, which were sacred to the Maya, pottery, both whole and broken pottery, and 12 burials from beneath the floors of the residences.

Lucero said the artifacts are evidence of Maya household rituals. The obsidian blades, unbroken pottery, stalactites and stalagmites were part of dedication rituals, buried beneath the floors of buildings when they were first built. Broken pottery and evidence of burning above floors are evidence of termination rituals, used when buildings ceased to be occupied.

There may be an intimate connection between the household rituals carried out in a simple farming community like Saturday Creek and the rise of a Maya ruling class like the one at Yalbac, Lucero said.

"My argument is that the rise of leaders was through ritual and the control of land. Many agrarian societies have household rituals, often related to ancestor worship. I argue that the earliest rulers expanded the household rituals to larger, more public levels," she said.

At Yalbac, Lucero said, she expects to find evidence of the same types of rituals carried out on a larger scale in public areas.

According to scholars, classic Maya society was a collection of small kingdoms, each with its own rulers. Lucero said a comparison of Saturday Creek and Yalbac may help explain why some communities developed a ruling class, while others did not. One explanation may be that some sites lent themselves to centralized control, while others did not, she said.

"Saturday Creek was more spread out, thus its people were more dispersed. Yalbac was in the uplands and its land was in a more concentrated area. Its people lived closer together, making it easier to integrate them, through ritual, into a political system," she said.

Lucero said she plans further excavations at Yalbac and hopes to hold New Mexico State field schools there in the summers of 2002 and 2003.

Photo is available at http://kiernan.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/belizedig.jpg.
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