Exploring Archaeological Sites in Belize with Dr. Jaime Awe

Hundreds of archaeological sites have been discovered in Belize, but with half this small country covered by dense, tropical rainforests, there are secrets still to be unearthed. We caught up with a leading authority on Maya culture in the region, archaeologist Jaime Awe for a tour of Cahal Pech and Xanantunich.
 

Cahal Pech, photo by Al Argueta/Alamy

“People here are proud of the fact that the first Belizeans developed this incredible civilization that formulated and advanced agriculture, astronomy, mathematics and language. We want to share this with the rest of the world.” —Jaime Awe

 

Dr. Jaime Awe embarked on his very first archaeological expedition in the late 1960s. Ten-year-old Awe set off with his older brothers to explore the ancient mounds behind the family home in the town of San Ignacio, Belize. Armed with a couple of old machetes, the brothers hacked their way through the Cayo District’s jungle and began to dig one of the mounds.

In a couple of hours, the backyard archaeologists had unearthed a cache of Maya artifacts: ancient fragments of pottery and obsidian blades, and pieces of a mano and metate—a grinding stone, similar to a pestle and mortar, still used today for grinding corn and cocoa beans.

Awe’s experience uncovering more than 1,500-year-old remnants of Maya civilization spurred a lifelong curiosity and appreciation for the history and culture of the community that once inhabited the land in and around his hometown.

It is estimated more than a million Mayas—made up of the Yucatec Maya from Yucatán, Mexico, the Mopan from Guatemala’s Petén area, and the Kekchi from Guatemala’s Verapaz region—once occupied the region now known as Belize. In excess of 600 Maya sites have been identified across this small country bordered on the north by the Yucatán Peninsula and flanked by Guatemala to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east.

“These sites are symbols of our national identity,” says Awe, who received his PhD in archaeology after studying in England. During a career spanning more than 30 years, he has uncovered some of Belize’s most-prized national treasures and is considered a leading authority on Maya culture in the region.

 

Cahal Pech

Jaime Awe at Cahal Pech, photo by Diane Bolt

 

The ancient ball court in the western end of the ruins of Cahal Pech is a hive of activity as people shovel earth into buckets. The contents are tipped onto large, flat sieves—hung between trees—which are shaken back and forth to separate the fine earth from any archaeological remains. Some buckets come up empty, while others reveal potsherds (pieces of pottery), obsidian fragments or jute—the skinny, coiled shells of freshwater snails the Maya considered a delicacy.

 

Excavation of the West Ball Court is underway at Cahal Pech, photo by Diane Bolt

 

Meaning Place of the Ticks, Cahal Pech began as a small village more than 3,000 years ago and is one of Belize’s oldest sites. This collection of structures, set on a steep hill overlooking San Ignacio and the Macal River, was once home to an elite Maya family. It was first discovered in the 1950s but did not begin to take shape until Awe began excavating the site in 1988. To date, 34 structures, including temples, administration buildings and palaces—many were erected on top of previous structures—have been uncovered and conserved at the centre of Cahal Pech.

“Our team could work here for generations and we’d still be discovering new things,” says Awe, who divides his time between work as the co-director of the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project (BVAR) and as an associate professor of anthropology at Northern Arizona University in the U.S.

As the day unfolds, the team is still hard at work at Cahal Pech, where sections of the site have been staked into grids and marked with brightly coloured string. BVAR archaeologists work alongside a team of students to carefully peel back the layers of earth to uncover the small ceremonial ball court.

 

The East Ball Court at Cahal Pech, photo by Diane Bolt

 

“Cahal Pech isn’t all that huge and we’ve concentrated on it for 31 years, but there’s still more to uncover,” says Awe. “There’s always next year.”

 

Xunantunich

The view while climbing to the top of El Castillo at Xunantunich, photo by Diane Bolt

Xunantunich, meaning Stone Lady, is a 30-minute drive southeast of San Ignacio and, like Cahal Pech, work to uncover more of this ruined city continues. To view the entire site—and neighbouring Guatemala—it is a steep but worthwhile climb up the steps of El Castillo, which, at 130 feet, is the second tallest Maya ruin in the country. At the top, you’ll be able to see the ruined city through the eyes of the elite Maya family that once occupied this imposing stone pyramid. After you carefully descend, explore the rest of the site, including a burial chamber Awe uncovered in 2016, which has now been expertly conserved.

 

“Luck has nothing to do with it. I dig where everyone should dig.” —Jaime Awe

 

Despite previous excavations of Xunantunich by other archaeologists, this chamber had somehow remained undiscovered. Awe’s colleagues often joke he has a golden trowel, as he seems to have a sixth sense for knowing exactly where to dig. “Luck has nothing to do with it,” says Awe. “I dig where everyone should dig.”

Now fully excavated, this burial tomb is partially covered with a piece of corrugated Plexiglas fitted over the top, but there is still enough room to crouch down and peer inside. New plant life has quickly begun to take root since the site was first excavated. “Nature always wins,” says Awe.

 

Inside the burial tomb discovered in 2016, photo by Diane Bolt

 

Two hieroglyphic monuments, gifted to Xunantunich’s Maya elite rulers as war booty, were discovered on each side of the staircase of the tomb. Fibreglass replicas of these monuments, also known as Panels Three and Four, sit in their place, as the originals are now housed in the site’s museum and visitors’ centre. Awe has already moved on to his next project at the site; a structure that, when compared to the rest in this ruined city, is an anomaly.

 

Awe with one of the hieroglyphic panels he discovered in 2016, photo by Diane Bolt

 

Unlike Cahal Pech, evidence points to Xunantunich being a more recent Maya city, as many of the buildings only have one or two phases. However, Awe’s golden trowel has again led him to uncover a building that is actually stacked on three earlier structures, all of which predate Xunantunich’s other structures.

 

[This story appears in the November 2018 issue of WestJet Magazine]