About
BREABelize River East Archaeology
BREA Research



The Belize River served as a major transportation route, linking settlements in the inland Petén region of Guatemala with the Caribbean Coast, beginning in ancient Maya times and continuing through the colonial period. Extensive archaeological investigations have been conducted in the upper reaches of the Belize River valley around the archaeological sites of Xunantunich, Cahal Pech, Baking Pot, and Barton Ramie. Surprisingly, the eastern part of the Belize Valley, closest to the coast, remains largely unexplored despite the key role this section of the river valley played in the movement of goods and people.


Figure 1 [click to see larger]
The Belize River East Archaeology (BREA) project represents the first comprehensive archaeological survey and excavation to be carried out east of Saturday Creek in the eastern half of the Belize River watershed (Figure 1). The Belize River is a large and navigable waterway with its headwaters in Belize and Guatemala. The river flows 180 miles (290 km) across central Belize to where it drains into the Caribbean Sea and the entire watershed is around 11,000 km2. The mid-to-lower reaches of the Belize Watershed east of Roaring Creek comprises the BREA study area. Measuring roughly 6,000 km2, the BREA study area includes the main trunk of the Belize River and several of its major tributaries, including Saturday Creek, Beaver Dam Creek, Labouring Creek, Spanish Creek, and Black Creek.

Ancient Maya settlements along the Belize River and its tributaries were economically linked with the Petén region and large inland centers like Tikal, as well as eastern coastal trade networks that led up the coast to important Late-to-Terminal Classic centers like Chichén Itzá in northern Yucatán. The New River also served to connect the middle Belize Valley to centers farther north. According to Spanish ethnohistoric accounts a north-south overland route connected the headwaters of the New River to the mid-section of the Belize River and was used by the colonial period friars in their attempts to pacify the Maya living at inland sites, such as Tipu, along the Belize River, and the Itza living farther west in the Peten region of Guatemala (Jones 1989:287-288). Based on shared ceramic assemblages, I suggest this overland route likely dates to Prehispanic times and served to connect the settlements in the middle Belize valley with those farther north, namely the Maya center of Lamanai on the New River (see Harrison-Buck 2010 under “Reports and Publications”). The overland route was said to enter the mid-section of the Belize River near the “hamlet” formerly known as Chantome on the Belize River (Jones 1989:287-288), which I believe may be the ancient site now called Saturday Creek (Figure 2).

Figure 2 [click to see larger]
Within the BREA study area, only the large centers of Saturday Creek (Lucero 1999a, 1999b, 2002), Chau Hiix (Andres 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006; Andres and Pyburn 2004; Pyburn 1998, 2007), and Altun Ha (Pendergast 1979, 1982, 1990) have been previously investigated (Figure 2). The area along the eastern arm of the Belize River remains largely unexplored despite the key role this section of the river valley played in the movement of coastal commodities and luxury goods, like cacao, in ancient and colonial times.

We know that sites in the upper Belize Valley, such as Xunantunich, have yielded evidence of conflict and overthrow of the ruling elite at the end of the Late Classic period (Stanton et al. 2008:240; Yaeger 2010). A similar pattern of conflict and warfare at the end of the Late Classic period also has been found in the upper reaches of the Sibun Valley (Harrison-Buck et al. 2007). In contrast, sites in the lower parts of the Sibun Valley, closest to the coast, seem to flourish during the Late-to-Terminal Classic transition and show the introduction of northern Yucatec traits, such as northern-style circular shrines and ceramics, during the ninth century Terminal Classic period (Harrison-Buck 2007; Harrison-Buck 2012). A similar pattern may exist in the Belize Valley. While sites in the upper reaches more closely affiliated with the Classic Peten centers appear to decline around the end of the Late Classic period, a late florescence with a strong northern influence may occur at sites in the mid-to-lower Belize Valley during the Terminal Classic (see Harrison-Buck 2010 in "Reports and Publications"). If so, we can expect to see an influx of northern Yucatec traits in the local architecture and ceramics, along with some northern imports at sites in the eastern half of the Belize Watershed resembling what I have documented elsewhere in the Sibun Valley. Here, I argue that sites with northern traits may be linked to their proximity to the coast and their allied relations with coastal trading partners, connecting them to prosperous networks in northern Yucatan (Harrison-Buck 2007).

One of the primary goals of the BREA project is to test this hypothesis and further our understanding of the Late-to-Terminal Classic transition or so-called Classic Maya “collapse” period. In addition, our aim is to document other periods of profound change in Maya history—including the Preclassic-Classic transition and later the Spanish Conquest of the Maya during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Through our archaeological investigations, we seek to understand how these profound periods of change impacted the Maya social, political, and economic organization in the Belize Valley and determine how, if at all, settlement patterns and networks of interaction shifted over time. Our overall goal is to develop a more comprehensive settlement history for the eastern half of the Belize Watershed and get a better sense of the settlement density along the main trunk of the Belize River and its tributaries (see extent of BREA study area in Figure 1).

Figure 3 [click to see larger]
Thus far, our investigations of the BREA study area have produced some exciting finds, including several examples of Yucatec-style architecture in just our first season (see Harrison-Buck 2011:105-116 under “Reports and Publications”). Our survey and excavations have revealed a dense occupation and a long history of settlement in the eastern Belize Valley, extending from Formative to Colonial times (see Harrison-Buck, ed. 2011 and Harrison-Buck et al. 2012 under “Reports and Publications”). We have found that settlement along the main trunk of the Belize River is virtually continuous. In prior field seasons, the BREA project identified over 400 mounds representing at least 25 different sites in the middle Belize Valley alone (Figure 3). These sites are primarily located along the main trunk of the Belize River, but some sites also were found along tributary creeks and lagoons to the north of the river. Most are ancient Maya sites dating to the prehispanic period, but several sites that were identified and excavated in 2011 contained artifacts dating to the eighteenth and nineteenth century colonial period (Kaeding et al. 2012 under “Reports and Publications”).

We will continue to build on our prior investigations with further survey, mapping, and excavation of select sites in the BREA study area. We are currently building an interdisciplinary team of scholars in the fields of archaeology, paleolimnology, aquatic ecology, soil science, paleo/ethnobotany, and biogeochemistry. This collaborative effort is aimed at understanding the many dimensions of the ancient environment and how human-environment interactions have differentially shaped the settlement history throughout the eastern Belize Watershed.

Acknowledgments
None of this research would have been possible without the generous funding from the Alphawood Foundation. I am very grateful for their support of the BREA project. Additionally, the University of New Hampshire awarded us an internal grant to conduct some preliminary analyses of material culture collected during our first several seasons of investigations and we thank them for their support. The Institute of Archaeology (IA) grants us permission to conduct field work in the BREA study area and we are deeply appreciative of all their support and encouragement, particularly Drs. Jaime Awe and John Morris.

References Cited:

Andres, Christopher R.
2000 The Chau Hiix Archaeological Project 1999 Interim Report. Manuscript on file with the Institute of Archaeology, Belmopan, Belize.

2002 The Chau Hiix Archaeological Project 2001 Interim Report. Manuscript on file with the Institute of Archaeology, Belmopan, Belize.

2004 The Chau Hiix Archaeological Project 2003 Interim Report. Manuscript on file with the Institute of Archaeology, Belmopan, Belize.

2006 The Chau Hiix Archaeological Project 2005 Interim Report. Manuscript on file with the Institute of Archaeology, Belmopan, Belize.

Andres, Christopher R. and K. Anne Pyburn
2004 Out of Sight: The Postclassic and Early Colonial Periods at Chau Hiix, Belize. In The Terminal Classic in the Maya Lowlands: Collapse, Transition, and Transformation, edited by Arthur A. Demarest, Prudence M. Rice and Don S. Rice, pp. 402-423. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

Harrison-Buck, Eleanor
2007 Materializing Identity among the Terminal Classic Maya: Architecture and Ceramics in the Sibun Valley, Belize. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Archaeology, Boston University, University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, MI.

2010 At the Crossroads in the Middle Belize Valley: Modeling Networks of Ritual Interaction in Belize from Classic to Colonial times. Research Reports in Belizean Archaeology 7:85-94. [pdf]

2011 Excavation of a Circular Shrine at Hum Chaak (Operation 4). In Surveying the Crossroads in the Middle Belize Valley: A Report of the 2011 Belize River East Archaeology Project, edited by E. Harrison-Buck, pp. 105-116. Department of Anthropology, Occasional Paper No. 5, University of New Hampshire, Durham.

2012 Architecture as Animate Landscape: Circular Shrines in the Ancient Maya Lowlands. American Anthropologist 114(1): in press. [pdf]

Harrison-Buck, Eleanor (editor)
2011 Surveying the Crossroads in the Middle Belize Valley: A Report of the 2011 Belize River East Archaeology Project. Department of Anthropology, Occasional Paper No. 5, University of New Hampshire, Durham. [pdf]

Harrison-Buck, Eleanor, Patricia A. McAnany, and Rebecca Storey
2007 Empowered and Disempowered During the Late to Terminal Classic Transition: Maya Burial and Termination Rituals in the Sibun Valley, Belize. In New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society, edited by Vera Tiesler and Andrea Cucina, pp. 74-101. Springer Science + Business Media, New York.

Harrison-Buck, Eleanor, Satoru Murata, and Adam Kaeding
2012 From Preclassic to Colonial Times in the Middle Belize Valley: Recent Archaeological Investigations of the BREA Project. Research Reports in Belizean Archaeology 9:in press. [pdf]

Jones, Grant D.
1989 Maya Resistance to Spanish Rule: Time and History on a Colonial Frontier. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Kaeding, Adam, Eleanor Harrison-Buck, and John DeGennaro
2012 Examining British Colonialism and African Slave History in the Eastern Belize River Valley: Archaeology and Ethnohistory. Research Reports in Belizean Archaeology 9:in press.

Lucero, Lisa J. (editor)
1999a The Second (1998) Field Season of the Valley of Peace Archaeological (VOPA) Project. Report submitted to the Department of Archaeology, Ministry of Tourism Government of Belize.

1999b Testing and Mapping Saturday Creek: The 1999 Field Season of the Valley of Peace Archaeological (Vopa) Project. Report submitted to the Department of Archaeology, Ministry of Tourism Government of Belize.

2002 Results of the 2001 Valley of Peace Archaeology Project: Saturday Creek and Yalbac. Report submitted to the Department of Archaeology, Ministry of Tourism Government of Belize.

Pendergast, David M.
1979 Excavations at Altun Ha, Belize, 1964-1970, vol.1. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.

1982 Excavations at Altun Ha, Belize, 1964-1970, vol.2. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.

1990 Excavations at Altun Ha, Belize, 1964-1970, vol.3. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.

Pyburn, K. Anne
1998 The Chau Hiix Archaeological Project 1998 Interim Report. Manuscript on file with the Institute of Archaeology, Belmopan, Belize.

2007 Archaeological Reconnaissance at Chau Hiix. FAMSI report. http://www.famsi.org/reports/95033/

Scholes, France V. and Sir Eric Thompson
1977 The Francisco Pérez Probanza of 1654-1656 and the Matrícula of Tipu (Belize). In Anthropology and History in Yucatán, edited by Grant D. Jones, pp. 43-68. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Stanton, Travis W., M. Kathryn Brown, and Jonathan B. Pagliaro
2008 Garbage of the Gods? Squatters, Refuse Disposal, and Termination Rituals Among the Ancient Maya. Latin American Antiquity 19(3):227-247.

Yaeger, Jason
2010 Shifting political dynamics as seen from the Xunantunich palace. In Classic Maya Provincial Politics: Xunantunich and Its Hinterlands, edited by Lisa J. LeCount and Jason Yaeger, pp. 145-160. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
BREA RESEARCH
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Eleanor Harrison-Buck, Ph.D.   •   Department of Anthropology   •   University of New Hampshire
Huddleston 311, Durham, NH 03824   Ph 603.862.4742   Fax 603.862.1131   Email e.harrison-buck@unh.edu