Born in Belize in 1954, Dr. Jaime Awe grew up exploring the Mayan house mounds located behind his parent’s home in San Ignacio in the Cayo District of western Belize. From the age of nine, Awe spent many summers digging for potsherds (ancient pottery fragments) and wondering what had happened to the people who had constructed the buildings beneath the mounds and who had used the pots and tools he found.
After studying and then teaching abroad, Awe returned to Belize in 2000. Since then, his career has included major excavation and conservation projects with Belize’s Institute of Archaeology. Awe is also an assistant professor in the department of anthropology at Northern Arizona University and director of the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project.
Last summer, while excavating the remains of the Mayan city of Xunantunich, one of the top archaeological destinations in Belize, Awe and his team uncovered a royal tomb along with two hieroglyphic-engraved stone panels. While the tomb is a rare find, the discovery of the panels is even more exciting. They are the missing pieces of a ceremonial staircase, originally erected in the ancient city of Caracol, which tell the story of the Snake Dynasty and Lord K’an II of Caracol’s military victory at Naranjo, Guatemala. When Caracol was later overthrown by Naranjo, the staircase was dismantled and the panels scattered throughout the region. One theory is this was an attempt to destroy the legacy of the empire, another is that the panels were distributed as “war booty” to allies.
“I’ve been fortunate to find a number of tombs in my career, but, as an archaeologist and as a Belizean, it’s a dream to make these kinds of discoveries,” says Awe.
What do you love about your role as an archaeologist?
I love unfolding and breathing life into the ancient past of Belize. We know the Mayan people, who lived in Belize, Guatemala and Mexico, achieved one of the most incredible civilizations. They developed a 365-day calendar, incorporated the concept of zero and were among the world’s greatest astronomers, but that civilization ultimately failed. It’s exciting to explore the successes, challenges and failures of the first Belizean people and I’m proud to be able to contribute to the heritage and identity of Belize.
What does an average day in the field look like?
You’re excavating, bugs are biting you and you’re sweaty and dirty. You find potsherds or you might find remains of collapsed buildings.
Tell me about your recent find at the Mayan site of Xunantunich in western Belize.
We were excavating large temples and palaces at Xunantunich. We began excavating a small pyramid and came across a cache of offerings at the base of the building. A few days later, we found a large limestone panel with hieroglyphic inscriptions and another on the other side of the stairway that went up to the summit of the building. About midway up it appeared as though the stairs had collapsed inward and the only explanations were that the ancient Maya had destroyed them or there was a cavity below. A cavity would mean a burial tomb, so we started to excavate and, we found the first royal tomb discovered at the site.
What did you find in the tomb?
We found the remains of a male individual between 20 and 30 years old. There were about 30 ceramic vessels and obsidian blades [a type of volcanic glass], jade beads and jaguar and deer remains. Jaguars were held in high regard and often associated with rulers.
So this person had royal lineage?
Almost certainly. There were other indicators, too, like the large size of the tomb.
What is the significance of the two hieroglyphic panels?
It’s like finding a rare, ancient book in which the Maya provide information about historical events in their own words. Finding these hieroglyphic inscriptions allows us to fill in historical and political gaps in our knowledge of the Snake Dynasty and the elite who ruled some of Belize’s ancient cities.
How does it feel to make this kind of discovery?
It’s an incredible privilege. It’s not every day that one makes these kinds of discoveries.
Three archaeological attractions in Belize
In the lush Chiquibul Forest Reserve, this Mayan site is the largest in Belize, featuring a 43-metre-high temple and dozens of tombs.
Accessible by riverboat, this Mayan city on the New River Lagoon also features the remains of two Christian churches and a sugar mill.
Its name means “Place of the Ticks,” which belies its beautiful setting and former stature as the hilltop home of a Mayan family.