Journey to Belize: Field Work

This post continues the retelling of my recent time in Belize: performing archaeological field work and learning about jaguar conservation. Entering “Belize” in this site’s search bar will bring up the other entries in this series.

A crested guan (Penelope purpurascens): one of the bird species I saw on May 28, 2017. Crested Guan by Steve Harbula. CC BY 2.0

Sunday, May 28 marked the end of the mandatory rest period following my severe bout of dehydration. I was finally able to return to the field.

I was excited about heading back into the jungle, but also somewhat wary. Therefore I made no attempt to keep up with the fastest members of our group during the 3 mile (4.8 km) trek to our field sites. This made the journey less strenuous than before, even though I was now carrying six liters of water (as opposed to the previous four).

A sample of the foliage near Structure 130. Note the abundant sunlight.

Today I would be working at a location called Structure 130. It was a pretty site, consisting of a small hill that looked natural to the untrained eye. The forest here was more open than much of the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management area, allowing considerable sunlight to reach the ground. This made for a pleasant, albeit warm, working environment.

Our site supervisor showed me the proper way to dig. She turned a trowel on its side and began to scrape away the dirt: little-by-little. It was a slow, methodical process. At times we would use a brush to sweep dirt off of rocks, helping to reveal hidden details. The debris was all scooped into buckets, which were dumped onto screens that were held aloft by a stick at each corner. We then sifted the dirt with our hands, encouraging the smaller particles to fall through the cracks. This left only the larger objects, which we sorted through for ceramic or lithic (stone) artifacts.

I was assigned to work in a rectangular unit that was near the bottom of Structure 130. There were a number of cobbles (piles of rocks) here, and we wanted to find out why. I thus spent several hours performing the routine described above: scraping, sweeping, dumping, and sifting.

The sifting portion presented challenges for me. This was my first time partaking in archaeological field work, and I had a difficult time distinguishing broken ceramics from pieces of limestone. The artifacts I was finding at Structure 130 were also quite degraded, which made them harder to identify. As such, I frequently had to ask for help.

These ceramics look similar to the ones I was finding at Structure 130, although they have been cleaned. Medieval Ceramic Midlands White Ware Jug Handle Fragments by Caroline Johnson. CC BY-SA 2.0

My excavating continued to reveal cobbles in the unit I was working in. In fact, it began to seem like we were looking at stairs. There would be one set of limestone blocks, and then another slightly below or above them – at similar spacing. Though I did not realize it at the time, I may have been one of the first people to glimpse the exposed stones of Structure 130 for hundreds of years. That is quite a thought.

At approximately 2:30 pm it was time to head out. Walter, who was conducting his master’s research at a nearby water feature, swung by to pick me up. I would be walking with him, since he did not like to rush.

The return journey proved easier than I expected, but there was some excitement. At one point Walter spotted a large bird, either an ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) or a great curassow (Crax rubra). I saw it walking away into dense brush, so I thought little of it. But when I stopped to adjust my snake guards (essentially shin guards for snakes), the bird rushed me loudly from behind. Walter and I walked away quickly, and the bird did not follow us.

A great curassow, one of the bird species that may have charged me on May 28. Unfortunately I did not get a good look at it. Great Curassow by Coralie Mercier. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A few minutes later we were startled again. A black, chicken-sized bird noisily landed in a branch above us. It had a crest on its head and a distinctive red chin-strap, and consultation with Dr. Brokaw revealed that it was likely a crested guan (Penelope purpurascens). It was non-aggressive, but our previous encounter had made Walter and I suspicious of large birds.

When we returned to camp, I was satisfyingly tired and dirty. I finally felt pleased with what I had accomplished during the day, which was a welcome change. The situation was improving.

27 Thoughts

    1. As far as we could tell the stairs were part of some sort of building. Our main task, which I should’ve explained, was to figure out what sort of structure Structure 130 was. We never completely figured it out :P

      There are LOTS of remnants from old Mayan structures in the jungles of northwestern Belize. But you wouldn’t know it, because most of them are buried and look like natural hills/bumps in the ground. So finding stairs there isn’t all that unlikely :)

      Liked by 1 person

        1. No problem Chape, you can ask as many questions as you want! I never saw any fully excavated structures where we were working. I think the goal is to eventually restore some of the archaeological sites so that tourists can come and see them, but that’s a long ways in the future. Right now we’re excavating methodically and carefully, so that we can gather as much data as possible about the Maya who used to inhabit the Rio Bravo area.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Thanks, Josh! In Galicia we have celtic settlements (called “castros”) and other prehistoric monuments. Tourists and locals love them and there are always people visiting these places.
            Now that you say it´s a long-term goal there, I realize I have no idea how much time took to restore all these settlements and monuments!
            I was wondering if any of the 130 structures was “finished” and you already could see part of the settlement :)
            You are an important part of an amazing project, my friend! I know you wanted to study your loved jaguars but this is an awesome second option :D

            Liked by 1 person

          2. This is an awesome option indeed! And I still might be able to study something related to jaguars ;)

            I’m not sure how long it takes to fully excavate and restore archaeological sites. We weren’t trying to reveal all of Structure 130 when I was there. Rather, we were just trying to study the architecture. That involved establishing rectangular “units” in which to dig, and slowly excavating downwards. There will be more details later, but in some of our units we dug quite deep. We know that Structure 130 had exquisite plaster floors, but when I left we hadn’t figured out what the building was for.

            Liked by 1 person

  1. The crested guan and great curassow are so unique ! I am seeing such birds for the first time. You are lucky to have seen them with your naked eyes :) Thank God, you got saved from the attack of the great curassow as I got saved the other day from that little kitten purring at me :P

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Es como decís, cuando uno se pone a pensar que está trabajando con estructuras que hace muchiiisimos años que nadie las vio o tocó, o lo que sea, la cabeza explota! jajaja
    Y las aves que pudiste ver (o casi) son hermosas <3 la biodiversidad allí es super amplia y única!
    Un beso Joshh :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sí Ani, fue increíble ver y tocar las estructuras antiguas! No me di cuenta eso en el momento, porque estuve concentrado en mi trabajo. Pero estoy muy afortunado de haber estado allí.

      Y sí de nuevo! La biodiversidad en Belice es super! Y solo vi un poco del país!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Your experiences sound so unreal, it’s amazing you were able to see this fascinating part of the world! And I don’t mean only geographically, also the research aspect is very new to me. Thank you for sharing this with us. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Now that I look back on it, I was very fortunate to be able to participate in real archaeological excavations. It’s a very different science to how it’s often portrayed in the mainstream media, and I’m glad I was able to see how it’s actually done. Hopefully I’ll be able to communicate the reality of archeology field work through this blog!


      1. I think you’re able to communicate it really well! I love that you accompany your words with pictures to visualise what you saw for us. It’s indeed something we don’t see very often and it’s awesome you allow us a glimpse into this world.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a long story. To summarize, the dig was part of an archaeological field school that my university participates in. I was initially planning on going to Guyana this summer to do my master’s research, but as time progressed it became increasingly clear that I was in over my head. So I scrapped that idea and, having a free summer, applied to the field school. This post provides more details:

      Liked by 1 person

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