Accessible Navigation.

Adventures Abroad

Field School, excavations offer archaeology education in Belize

The so-called “crystal maiden” in a Belize cavern that UM’s Ashley McKeown discovered was actually a teenage boy. Now it’s called the “crystal lad.” (Photo by Jaime Awe)


By Erika Fredrickson

Imagine a scenario in which the entire population of Missoula can no longer survive. Drought has decimated crops, the economy has bottomed out, and, as a result, residents flee the valley in search of a better life. In the aftermath of the evacuation, a small group of people attempts to fight the odds. They band together in the center of town, pilfering bricks from crumbling buildings to create makeshift structures, hoping to perpetuate the society they once knew. On a television series, this scenario might portend the beginning of a zombie apocalypse. But in the real world, it’s the story of almost every civilization collapse in history.

John Douglas researches the collapse period — called the “Terminal Classic” — for Mayan ruins in Belize. The UM professor and anthropological archaeologist directs a field school located at a Mayan ceremonial site called Cahal Pech, near the town of San Ignacio. Each January, Douglas departs cold Missoula to lead 12 UM students to the warm lands of Belize, where they experience hands-on field training, evening lectures and field trips. The site is located in a national park where busloads of tourists visit each day. In that sense, the students are not only contributing to an important Mayan project — they’re creating a relationship with Belize that helps fuel its economy.

Cahal Pech was occupied for 2,000 years by the Mayans. It sits on the banks of the Macal River and overlooks the confluence of the Macal and Mopan rivers. In its prime, it was a hilltop home with elegant temples and grandiose housing occupied by an elite Mayan family. There is evidence that its collapse in the ninth century was the result of drought. The Terminal Classic denotes the aftermath, when some Mayans held on for just a while longer, repurposing the elite’s temples and gravesites, patching together a society with the only resources they had.

“A lot of people think that after the collapse, everything disappeared,” Douglas says. “But, in fact, there are some really interesting things that happened over a century or more afterward.”
UM Archaeologist John Douglas climbs through a narrow point in the entrance of the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave. Douglas first went to Belize in the 1990s to teach for four months. That experience sparked his interest in the Mayan sites, but it wasn’t until he met Belizean archaeologist Jaime Awe in 2010 that the field school idea evolved. Awe, who teaches at Galen University in Belize and runs the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project, was visiting his wife’s family in Missoula when he heard that Douglas had been to Belize. The two of them struck up a friendship and hatched a plan to connect UM with Awe’s archaeology work. And in recent years, Awe has become a faculty affiliate for UM.

Awe has worked at Cahal Pech since 1988 and wrote his doctoral dissertation on it.

“As I tell people, it’s my Hotel California,” he jokes. “I’ve checked in, and I haven’t checked out. But it’s a good place to be stuck.”

UM students at the Cahal Pech site in BelizeThe site within Cahal Pech that UM students focus on is in the outskirts of the center, outside the grand plaza and the royal residences. Douglas and his students have discovered a stone wall and a raised plaza, as well as old structures encased by newer ones. They’ve also unearthed pottery and other beautiful objects buried with the dead.

“This is like Russian dolls,” Douglas says. “It’s one inside of the other. I love it because it’s a spatial puzzle of how all of these things fit together.”

Design is key in differentiating the Terminal Classic from the classic. Mayans built refined walls and sophisticated monuments, but the Terminal Classic Mayans — out of necessity — created cruder versions with stones sticking upward to heighten the wall.

“It’s a cheaper way to go and takes less labor,” Douglas says.

One of the most exciting discoveries for Douglas’ students was the staircase they found going into a tomb. The tomb had not been excavated on the east side, but when the students started digging there they found steps — something unusual for a tomb at Cahal Pech.

UM students also visit the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave where the Mayans offered sacrifices to the gods during the Terminal Classic period. The cave is not part of the field school, but Douglas brings his students there to add context to their studies. There’s a romantic, adventurous element to the cave, like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. (In fact, Actun Tunichil Muknal translates to “Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre.”)

The entrance to the cave is a 45-minute hike. Once there, you swim through a natural pool and then hike the riverbed inside the cave, where stalagmites glimmer and passageways narrow and expand. The ascent to the top of the cave reveals chambers employed for ritual activities that now house skeletons and pottery. The skeletons are cemented to the cave via calcium carbonate, and the deposits give them a crystalline appearance.

UM Professor Ashley McKeown (top) and Belizean archaeologist Gonzalo Pleitez work in a Central American cavern. (Photo by Kirsten Green)UM Professor Ashley McKeown studies the human remains at the cave and from other BVAR sites. She also met Awe in Missoula, and she recently began working for BVAR as the assistant director responsible for bioarchaeology and curating the human skeletal collection.

“My responsibility is dealing with human remains,” she says. “I take my Ph.D. students, and we excavate burials that have been discovered by the archaeologists.”

McKeown isn’t directly involved with Douglas’ field school, but her work at the cave and at Cahal Pech complements the students’ study of the Terminal Classic period. The cave’s skeletons are thought to be sacrifices made to the rain gods in order to alleviate drought, which eventually would drive the population out of Cahal Pech.

McKeown’s job is to look at the human remains to see who these skeletons might have been in life and how they died. It’s clear that the sacrificial victims run the gamut, all the way from infants to elderly. But how were they chosen, and how did they fit into the Mayan society?

McKeown studies a tomb deep within a Mayan structure.The technology for answering these questions has advanced in recent years. Archaeologists can conduct chemical analysis of bone to see what the deceased ate, which can indicate social status. Fish and meat might point to elites, and a mostly corn diet might indicate a lower-class individuals. The isotope analysis also might hint whether the sacrificed victims were from the immediate community or a foreign settlement. Knowing that information would help tell the story of Actun Tunichil Muknal, and McKeown is looking for funding to make that happen.

McKeown has been able to help untangle one story of the cave that had been, initially, thought to be a closed case. At the back of the cave are the remains of a complete skeleton on its back in an awkward position. For years, cave tour guides called it the “crystal maiden.” At the time it was first inspected, the crystalized material on it covered a lot of the morphology. The brow ridges weren’t defined. It seemed like the story of the sacrificed female virgin we’ve all heard before. McKeown, however, inspected the body and discovered that it was a teenage boy. The crystal cave formation had begun to break away, revealing open growth plates, and she identified features that were distinctly male.

“So now what used to be the crystal maiden, the tour guides, I think, are calling the crystal lad or crystal prince,” she says.

McKeown says that Belizean guides are eager to have accurate information about the archaeological sites. This isn’t just a job for them, it’s a heritage, especially for those who are of Mayan descent and have solid archaeological backgrounds. The work UM students and faculty are doing helps to further Cahal Pech as a prime tourist destination.

UM’s Belize connection has started to find its way back to UM’s Department of Anthropology. McKeown is cataloging and curating the BVAR human remains collection, which will be housed in UM’s Randall L. Skelton physical anthropology lab. The anthropology department also is looking to introduce Mayan bioarchaeology — studying the close relationship between biology and culture from human burials — into the curriculum. Bioarchaeological projects involving students are not that common in the states because Native American burials rarely are excavated and historic burials usually are protected by cemetery laws, so the new program promises to bring students back to places such as Belize again and again.

For Douglas’ students, the field school offers an experience that can be translated into archaeology jobs all over the world, as well as a variety of careers. One student, for example, ended up working on public health issues in Belize.

“For some people it’s not obvious how it affects them,” Douglas says. “But I think getting students out of the classroom, working as a team on a real-world project that they’re invested in and understand why you’re doing it, is great experience no matter what they end up doing.”

Awe agrees.

“I think it also makes them great world citizens,” he says. “As they grow and become adults, that exposure of meeting people of a whole different ethnic background and cultural background makes them a better person.”

For more information email john.douglas@mso.umt.edu or ashley.mckeown@mso.umt.edu.

Next >