Laguna de On

post-classic Mayan archaeology

The Mayan ruins in Central America sparked my first interest in archaeology and in 1997 I finally participated in a Mayan project. Mayan history is divided into three phases – pre-classic, classic, which is the peak of Mayan civilization, and post-classic. It was a post-classic site we excavated near Orange Walk Town in Belize.
There I was, under the jungle canopy on a small island in a small lagoon far inland in northern Belize, traveling 800 years back in time as I dug. I experienced the strange sensation of finding pottery sherds and fragments of obsidian blades, items used by Maya of the declining post-classic age, while working with and talking to people who were descendents of these Maya. Screening for finds

The ballcourtRain forest has completely overgrown the island in the centuries since the Maya left. Several small structures have been excavated there over the last two years, including a modest shrine and a boat dock. Dr. Marilyn Masson, the project director, believed Maya living on the shore of the lagoon used the island for ritual purposes.  This interpretation is somewhat clouded by the discovery of a domestic dwelling on the island and a shrine on the shore, but archaeology and looking into the past is never easy.  Although there were no large structures, there is substantial evidence the island was leveled and extended during this period. It is possible that this depression (photo left) on the northern end of the island was a ball court.  We found a headless skeleton in the center of the depression. The ball game had important ritual meaning in Mayan culture and is often associated with sacrifice by beheading.

The island apparently served as a cemetery for important people. We found a number of skeletons interred in a characteristic "seated, flexed" position facing west. Marilyn photo-documents one such burial at right.  Some of these burials had filed teeth, a sign of a high status individual. There were other burials found closer to the surface, lying on their sides.  These seem to represent another phase of the culture. Remember that archaeology looks back into time. Generally, older information is deeper in the ground. Part of the science and art is to distinguish and interpret the layers of history in an excavation. seated,flexedburial
Reading the stratigraphy Dr. Tom Stafford, a geochronologist, looks far into the past as he reads the stratigraphy in the side of this eight foot deep trench where he spent many hours (photo left).  Near the bottom he found highly calcified flint artifacts. These were worked by human hands three or four thousand years ago, indicating the site was occupied long before the rise of Mayan civilization.

We found other artifacts during the excavations. Most common were ceramic pottery sherds.  These seemingly common little fragments are extremely important to the archaeologist because their characteristics provide valuable dating information.  We also found fragments of obsidian blades.  Ritual bloodletting was an important aspect of Mayan culture.

Click the graphic to see some of the more interesting other artifacts we discovered.

Click to see some artifacts

We visited another site the last afternoon of the project. This is Caye Coco, a small island in Progresso Lagoon which is several miles to the north of Laguna de On.  The hill in the picture to right is actually a tall, buried structure, one of many on the island.  Marilyn believes this may be the regional capital of Chanlacan.  Historically described as "a fortress on the water", it led a rebellion against the Spanish in the 16th century.  Excavation of this site will be an important part of the continuing post-classic Maya project for years to come. A large buried structure


See more photos from the Laguna de On Island project at these Belize Post-Classic Project web pages:
Photo and Map Archive of Recent Research
Photo Archive of Recent Research

Belize Post-Classic Project

Visit the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamaerican Studies web site for some project reports.    FAMSI
The Earthwatch project is complete.  If this is something you'd like to do, visit Earthwatch Institute for similar projects.

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Click to learn more about Mayan culture

The classic Maya are known for their monumental architecture inscribed with glyphs. Learn more about their culture and maybe learn how you can see your name in Mayan glyphs.

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This page and its contents Copyright 1997,1998 Michael & Karen Crisafulli. All rights reserved.