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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
Andres, Christopher R.
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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.
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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.
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]
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