The Nature of an Ancient Maya City: Resources, Interaction, and Power at Blue Creek, Belize

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For two millennia, the site now known as Blue Creek in northwestern Belize was a Maya community that became an economic and political center that included some 15,000 to 20,000 people at its height. Fairly well protected from human destruction, the site offers the full range of city components including monumental ceremonial structures, elite and non-elite residences, ditched agricultural fields, and residential clusters just outside the core. Since 1992, a multi-disciplinary, multi-national research team has intensively investigated Blue Creek in an integrated study of the dynamic structure and functional inter-relationships among the parts of a single Maya city. Documented in coverage by National Geographic, Archaeology magazine, and a documentary film aired on the Discovery Channel, Blue Creek is recognized as a unique site offering the full range of undisturbed architectural construction to reveal the mosaic that was the ancient city. Moving beyond the debate of what constitutes a city, Guderjan's long-term research reveals what daily Maya life was like.

About the Author:
Thomas H. Guderjan is president of Maya Research Program, a non-profit research organization

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Clearly written, substantive, and well-organized, this volume is a summary of the most important aspects of the research and is designed to alert the discipline to the major discoveries and interpretations."
—David Freidel, Southern Methodist University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780817354268
  • Publisher: University of Alabama Press
  • Publication date: 12/9/2007
  • Series: Caribbean Archaeology and Ethnohistory Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 244
  • Sales rank: 1,087,380
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas H. Guderjan is the president of Maya Research Program, a non-profit research organization. He received his Ph.D. from Southern Methodist University and has been a faculty member at St. Mary’s University and Texas Christian University.

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Read an Excerpt

The Nature of an Ancient Maya City

Resources, Interaction, and Power at Blue Creek, Belize
By Thomas H. Guderjan


Copyright © 2007 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5426-8

Chapter One


The primary purpose of this book is to examine the spatial and structural organization of the ancient Maya city of Blue Creek in northwestern Belize. These are archaeologically observable variables that directly reflect the nature of power, legitimacy, and authority. Other questions of importance include, What were the economic resources of the city? Who controlled them? How did the persons in power interact with each other and with other cities? While there is debate about whether ancient Maya communities were cities or not, I take the position that we cannot impose models of urbanism developed elsewhere onto the Maya. Instead, to understand Maya cities, it is necessary to create models of them in their own terms. In other words, the semantic wall created by the "cities or not" debate does little to enhance our understanding of ancient Maya life. Whether we call them "cities" is less important than whether we can understand what Maya life was about.

Another goal of this volume is to introduce the reader to the archaeology of Blue Creek, a Maya community that existed for two millennia. Over time, it became an economic and politicalcenter of some 15-20 thousand people. Since 1992, Blue Creek has been the focus of a multidisciplinary, multinational research effort. This research has created new insights into the Blue Creek Maya and the ancient Maya in general. However, many new questions have been raised and remain unanswered. This is, of course, the nature of archaeological research and all scientific inquiry. Therefore, I hope that Blue Creek as a case study provides the reader with a better understanding of what we know and what we do not about this fascinating part of humanity's past.

Finally, this is a case study of the complexity of large-scale archaeological research. How archaeologists come to know about the past is often an obtuse process, unlike that in most sciences. Further, understanding this process has become a justifiable obsession of many scholars in the field. Some of our best-known scholars are not known for their "great discoveries" but for their contributions to our methodologies. Most fieldworkers are like myself-we focus on understanding the past but are still deeply concerned with the approaches taken to research. Typically, we express this concern in a research design written prior to undertaking fieldwork. As years go by, especially in large-scale field projects, research designs tend to change and grow with our knowledge about our subject. So, this book is also an appraisal of more than a decade of research design change and growth as each year's fieldwork caused our perceptions to change.

Most books on archaeological projects are written after the completion of the fieldwork. In this case, that is not so. The Blue Creek project is designed to incorporate 20 years or more of intensive study of a single part of the Maya area in northwestern Belize. I directed the project for its first decade (1992-2001) and Jon Lohse succeeded me from 2002 to 2005. During these years the project took a regional approach, leaving most additional work at Blue Creek to me when I returned in 2006. During my second directorship, my colleagues and I will be addressing very different questions than we did in the first decade. This book documents some of the first decade of fieldwork and brings its disparate parts together into one integrated whole.

While doing these things, I make the assumption that the reader already has a familiarity with the subject. It is not within the scope of this book to introduce a new reader to the fundamentals of Maya archaeology. At the same time, I did not attempt to write this book at a level only understandable to scholars who specialize in Maya studies; that role is for articles in scholarly journals. So, I hope to walk the line between these two positions in a way that will make our work understandable to the nonprofessional and meaningful to the professional.

The Role of Research Designs

Going about the business of archaeology requires much more than just going out and digging. Where one excavates is a function of what one wants to know. Part of the creative process is to ask a question of the archaeological record, then to determine how to best collect data to address the question. Research designs are simply another way of stating the purposes of fieldwork. Research designs keep us focused on our goals and explain the process of understanding the past that we intend to use. Then, research designs give us baselines to compare what we did with what we intended to do. In the case of the Blue Creek project, our research design has been a constantly dynamic document that changed with what we learned and with what we realized we could learn from the site. However, as the project evolved there came to be a single central theme to our research.

The Blue Creek project was designed with the intent that it would be an integrated study of the dynamic structure and functional interrelationships among the parts of a single Maya city. Just what was a Maya city? How did its constituent parts interact? How did it change through time? We have been only partly successful at answering these questions. While this is an inherent part of archaeological research, I am constantly impressed with the level of success in understanding Blue Creek that we have achieved.

Like all other people, archaeologists bring the baggage of their own background when initiating any field research. This can be seen as an individual's intellectual capital that has accumulated over years of being a student, researcher, teacher, or whatever the individual's professional and personal background may be. Our theoretical interests, those of our mentors, and our own experiences shape our research. So, knowing something of my background may be useful for the reader as it may help explain some of the rationale for how the Blue Creek project developed.

While in graduate school at Southern Methodist University, planning doctoral work on Paleo-Indians in the southern United States, I was diverted for a semester by David Freidel to assist in the final season of fieldwork at the site of Cerros. Cerros lies on Corozal Bay on the Caribbean coast of Belize and was a Late Preclassic period trade port. While at Cerros, I was involved in conversations regarding how ancient Maya trade could be studied on Ambergris Caye. Ambergris Caye is actually a peninsula that protects Chetumal and Corozal bays from the open Caribbean. Not long afterward, I discarded my plans regarding the Paleo-Indians and initiated a research project on Ambergris. My colleagues Jim Garber and David Glassman at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University) and Herman Smith at the Corpus Christi (Texas) Museum and I spent three summers (1986-1988) excavating small sites on Ambergris Caye, learning about patterns of Classic period Maya coastal trade.

After that experience, having become a Mayanist by a circuitous route, I wanted to gain experience working with the large-scale centers of the interior rather than have my experience just be limited to the small-scale sites of the coast. That opportunity presented itself when Barry Bowen, a Belizean businessman, offered the opportunity to visit his "farm," which actually consisted of nearly a million acres of forested land. As our relationship developed, I received a Fulbright Fellowship to map and study the many Maya centers on the property and spent most of 1990 undertaking this survey. By then, the property had been divided into several sections, including Barry's Gallon Jug Ranch, Yalbac Ranch, the Programme for Belize's Río Bravo Conservation Area, and a large tract purchased by Coca-Cola. I worked in these areas and the area north of the Río Bravo Conservation Area owned by the somewhat isolated Mennonite community of Blue Creek.

By the end of 1990, I had experience on the coast and surveying large sites in the forest, but I now wanted to study a single site intensively. While many of the other sites in the area were larger than Blue Creek and more romantically situated in the forests of northwestern Belize, Blue Creek offered many distinctive advantages. First, it was accessible. Blue Creek is only a few miles from the main, though unpaved, road to Orange Walk Town and Belize City. Further, the contemporary community of Blue Creek provided access to housing and two small stores. The Maya site of Blue Creek has the advantage of having attributes of much larger sites, such as a ballcourt and large pyramids. However, it is not so large as to pre sent the massive excavation jobs that very large sites would. Finally, it is located at the headwaters of the Río Hondo, which drains into Chetumal Bay, connecting it to places where I had previously worked: Cerros and Ambergris Caye. I was excited by the prospect that trade and commerce, which I believed provided an economic glue inter connecting Maya polities, could also be studied at Blue Creek. So, in 1992, the Blue Creek project began.

Initially, the research design for the Blue Creek project was quite simplistic-and naive. Blue Creek is located at the top of the Bravo Escarpment, overlooking the headwaters of the Río Hondo (Figure 1.1). This location is literally on the edge of the Petén physiographic district where it meets the Belize coastal plain. The ethnohistorian Ralph Roys had mapped the locations of Maya languages during colonial times, and his division between the Yucatec- and Chol-speaking areas followed the Bravo Escarpment, running precisely through Blue Creek. Further, there are distinctive differences in the architecture and artifacts of the Classic period between the Petén and the coastal plain. So, I saw Blue Creek as a perfect location to study the interaction between these two physiographic and cultural zones. Additionally, Blue Creek's location at the terminus of the riverine-coastal trade system offered a fruitful research setting. Further, while I was unsure of whether it was true, I postulated the "straw dog" hypothesis that Blue Creek was a satellite or daughter site of the larger center of La Milpa, approximately 20 kilometers to the west. I saw Blue Creek as La Milpa's access to neighboring polities and the riverine trade routes. While this point has clearly been demonstrated to be incorrect, it was a mechanism for framing our efforts. Most amazingly to me today, I believed that I would spend three field seasons at Blue Creek, then move to its eastern neighbor, Kakabish, in order to compare the architecture and artifactual material with that of Blue Creek. At this early time, our efforts focused only on the research domain of understanding monumental architecture and the information that could be gained from it regarding ancient political organization.

For the most part, the first several seasons were devoted to excavations in Blue Creek's central precinct or core area. However, by 1996, we located the first ditched agricultural fields at Blue Creek and also realized that the ease of access to the "settlement zone" meant that survey and excavations outside of the central precinct could be easily conducted. Consequently, our research goals expanded as well.

Overview of Blue Creek

The vision of a Maya site that comes to most people's minds usually has tall, graceful pyramids rising out of the tropical rain forest. To an extent, this vision is true. The monumental center or site core of a Maya site does, indeed, have such buildings. However, a Maya center, whether it is Blue Creek or Tikal, is much more than that. The surrounding areas were once complex communities consisting of a variety of structurally and functionally different components. Blue Creek's monumental core area is not very different from the first vision in most people's minds. The site core sits on top of the Bravo Escarpment, rising 100-150 meters above the lowlands of the adjacent coastal plain. It was the central place for discrete communities above and below the escarpment. This setting is similar to that of Palenque, overlooking the Tabasco lowlands.

Blue Creek's setting was important to its residents and is important to our ability to understand its larger regional role. We have named the Maya site of Blue Creek after the local Mennonite community of Blue Creek, which itself was named for its location adjacent to the Río Azul, which forms the contemporary border between Mexico and Belize. However, much of the Río Azul is a seasonal stream that generally flows only during the rainy season. Not only is it otherwise dry, but it is also difficult to even detect in some locations. The dominant landscape feature in the Blue Creek area is the Bravo Escarpment, rising approximately a hundred meters above the relatively fl at coastal zone of Belize (Figures 1.2 and 1.3). At the base of the escarpment, the elevation is 20-40 meters above sea level. Above the escarpment, the terrain is marked by karstic hills, 40-60 meters high, with elevations in the range of 180-200 meters above sea level. The escarpment runs generally south to north, then abruptly turns to the east- northeast and continues along the Belize- Mexico border. The Río Azul descends the escarpment in a deep canyon. In this canyon it is fed by numerous springs and becomes a permanent stream known as the Río Hondo. The Río Hondo follows the base of the escarpment for about four kilometers, then joins the Río Bravo. Downstream from this location to the mouth at Chetumal Bay, the river is easily navigable throughout the year. Blue Creek's location at the headwaters of the Río Hondo has been likened to the first cataract of the Nile. Despite maps showing the river continuing upstream, upstream canoe traffic was not possible and the site of Blue Creek certainly was central to the termini of both the Río Hondo and the Río Bravo.

Further, canoe travel on the river was blocked by a dock and dam complex in the canyon. This complex feature not only necessitated a portage but also apparently functioned as a water divergence and a fish weir and possibly was used for on- and off-loading goods.

Blue Creek's site core or public district consists of two large plazas, Plaza A and Plaza B, each with a number of associated buildings (Figure 1.4). Plaza A covers an area of about 100 x 125 meters and is surrounded by six buildings, Structures 1-6. Structure 1, on the plaza's north side, is the largest at Blue Creek and is more than 12 meters tall. Behind and north of Structure 1 is a large platform with a ballcourt on it. Plaza B and the buildings arranged around it are about two hundred meters northwest of Plaza A.

Plaza A is a typical arrangement for a Maya site but Plaza B is very atypical and reflects a regional expression of site planning and organization. Plaza B, covering about 35 hundred square meters, is also much smaller than Plaza A. On the north and south sides, it is flanked by residential compounds. On the west side, it is bounded by a long, narrow building, and the plaza is open to the east. The two flanking residences, the Structure 13 Courtyard and the Structure 19 Courtyard, were the most central in the site and were probably the residences of some of Blue Creek's rulers. The Plaza B area then extends north and south along a ridge system and terminates at both ends with high pyramids, Structures 9 and 24.

The buildings in the public sector reflect Blue Creek's peak of political and economic power and authority. The first of these were constructed at about A.D. 100 or so. For the next four hundred years, construction projects continued at a rapid pace. I mark A.D. 500 as a pivotal point in Blue Creek's life for reasons that will become clear later. However, A.D. 500 was by no means the end of monumental construction at the site. During the early part of the Late Classic period, perhaps until A.D. 700, both Plaza A and Plaza B saw large-scale renovations of existing buildings and even construction of new buildings. While there was no decline in construction, there was a shift in its nature after A.D. 500.

Surrounding the public sector are bounded residential groups that were themselves surrounded by agricultural lands. Each of these groups or residential components had its own character but shared some commonalities with the others. I estimate that elites who lived in the core area of Blue Creek ruled over an area of approximately 100-150 square kilometers and something in the range of 15-20 thousand residents. However, one of the sticky methodological problems of archaeology in the southern Maya lowlands is deciding where one site begins and another ends-or, as the problem applies to this case, how big was Blue Creek? In my years of work in northwestern Belize and in my colleagues' experience throughout the region, it has become clear that Classic Maya habitation covered the region like a blanket. Population densities were extremely high during the Classic period, with estimates ranging up to 20 million persons for the Maya region and several, if not many, cities of more than 100 thousand persons.


Excerpted from The Nature of an Ancient Maya City by Thomas H. Guderjan Copyright © 2007 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations....................vii
1. Introduction....................1
2. Public Architecture, Ritual, and Temporal Dynamics....................19
3. The Spatial Arrangement of a Maya City....................49
4. Diversity of Power and Authority in a Maya City....................69
5. Agriculture as Blue Creek's Economic Base....................91
6. The Importance of Trade and Commerce at Blue Creek....................102
7. Power and Authority at Blue Creek....................119
8. Addressing Some Large and Small Issues....................129
References Cited....................147
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