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 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.
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.
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.