Journey to Belize: Unexpected Lab Day

This post continues the retelling of my recent trip to Belize: performing archaeological work on Mayan ruins and learning about jaguar conservation. The rest of this series is located in the Travel category of this blog.

On June 10, 2017, I once again worked in Texas Camp’s field lab – pictured here.

On June 10, 2017, I returned to work at the archaeology school. As I was getting ready to head into the field, I learned that the lab was short on helpers today. So I volunteered to work in the lab.

My motivation was not entirely selfless. For the past two weeks, I had been trying to connect with a group of jaguar researchers who were operating camera traps in the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area. I hoped that staying behind would increase my chances of running into them, since they said they would be passing through Texas Camp at some point. Lab work also provided opportunities to learn about different aspects of Mayan archaeology.

I have described our usual lab procedure here. To summarize, we began by fetching water and setting up screen tables on the porch of our field lab. Next, we took carefully-labelled bags of artifacts and sorted them on the tables. While doing so, we made detailed maps to record where we put the contents of each bag. Once the initial sorting was done, we rinsed the artifacts with water. We then left the artifacts on the screens to dry, so that we could re-bag and store them for analysis.

One of the table maps that I drew in my notebook on June 10, 2017. Notice how the mud stains add to this piece’s artistic perfection.

We had a great team working on June 10, and we quickly finished with the day’s artifacts. Therefore, our lab director brought out a set of ceramics from Colha for us to clean.

As I wrote in an earlier post, Colha is a special site. The Maya who inhabited it were expert craftspeople, and the artifacts that have been found at Colha are exceptional.

The ceramics we cleaned that day did not disappoint. Many of them were coated in a red-orange finish (known as a “slip”), and they were decorated with intricate black patterns. We had to rinse the artifacts cautiously, to avoid damaging those designs.

Instead of submerging the ceramics (our usual procedure), we had to dip our fingertips in water and let a few drops fall onto the artifacts. We also had wooden skewers for prying off the more stubborn bits of dirt.

While I was scraping the dirt off a large pot, Dr. Valdez came to visit. Dr. Fred Valdez was the head of the Programme for Belize Archaeological Project, and the ceramics we were cleaning were unearthed by him and his team.

Many of the ceramics we cleaned on June 10 had red-orange slips and intricate black designs, similar to the bowl pictured here. Nothing we handled was this exquisite, however. ES Joya Ceren Museum 05 2012 1520 by Mario Roberto Durán Oritz. CC BY-SA 3.0

Dr. Valdez took a few minutes to talk to me about the pot I was cleaning. He told me that its flat bottom indicated it was old; I believe he said the pot was likely made between 800 – 900 A.D. This most closely aligns with the Late Classic period of Mayan history. Several Mayan settlements in what is now Belize grew significantly during this time, including Colha. Lamanai, which I visited on June 9, also thrived during the Late Classic period (Hammond, 1982).

After dinner that evening I talked to Luís, one of Texas Camp’s caretakers. Luís and I had developed a habit of chatting by the laundry station after dark, where he liked to hang out until it was time for him to turn off the generator.

Tonight we talked about local working conditions. Luís said that the dominant employers in the region were Mennonite farmers, who hired local people as agricultural workers. Many of the farmers were hard bosses. They only allowed 15 minute lunch breaks, and would fire anyone caught sitting down. However, it is important to note that not all the farmers were this strict.

Luís continued to explain that it was much better to work for the Programme for Belize (PfB). The PfB paid better than the farmers, and archaeological workers spend much of their day sitting down. Luís’ comments eased some anxieties I had about how our Belizean workers were treated, and made me feel good about working with the PfB.

Following our laundry-side chat, I went to bed. By now, I had become quite accustomed to sleeping in a tent in the jungle. I would find out just how comfortable I was in this environment in five days, when I had to leave it.


Hammond, N. (1982). The prehistory of Belize. Journal of Field Archaeology, 9(3), 349-362.

6 Thoughts

  1. A very interesting installment, Josh. You have been very lucky to work directly within Maya excavations and the unearthing and cleaning of Maya pottery fragments. Recently I have been playing with the idea of returning to Belize at some point. Perhaps when I do I would see if I can get involved in a voluntary project related to archeology. I’m looking forward to hearing if you managed to make contact with the jaguar researchers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really was very fortunate, and I’ve come to realize that more and more since I’ve been back in the US. I highly recommend you return to Belize one day. The Programme for Belize Archaeological Project, which I was a part of, does take volunteers. But there are fees involved, and I’m not 100% sure what the best way is for you to initiate contact. If you like, I could ask the Humboldt State professor who directed our portion of the project how you can start looking into volunteering.

      About the researchers, you’ll have to wait and see. Hopefully now that I’m done with classes I can post much more frequently on this blog.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the information Josh. I’m not sure exactly how my plans are going to work out for 2018 yet, so perhaps I could contact you if there’s a definite possibility that I am going – at that point I could get in touch with you again and perhaps you could inititiate further contact – thanks for making this offer. In the meantime I will keep an eye open for your next posts to learn about what had transpired further.

        Liked by 1 person

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