Archaeology Magazine - Maya Caves of West-Central Belize: Cahal Pech - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Cahal Pech "Maya Caves of West-Central Belize"
June 2000
Text by Jaime Awe
Photographs by Amélie A. Walker

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Large palace-type structure facing the main public plaza of Cahal Pech

Cahal Pech is located on the southern outskirts of San Ignacio Town in the upper Belize Valley region of the Cayo District, Belize (see map). The site center sits on the crest of a steep hill on the west bank of the Macal River. The central acropolis, approximately 900 feet above sea level, provides a commanding view of the Maya Mountains to the south and the fertile valleys of the Belize River to the northeast.

Field Updates:

July 7, 2000

July 23, 2000

Although the actual date that Cahal Pech was discovered is unknown, the first published record of the site dates to the late 1930s. It wasn't until the 1950s, however, that the first archaeological investigations of the site began. At this time Linton Satterthwaite from the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania conducted preliminary mapping and excavation. Except for two brief paragraphs in a 1951 publication, Satterthwaite never produced a detailed report of this work but a copy of his notes were subsequently retrieved from the University Museum and are presently stored in the library of the Belize Department of Archaeology. In his brief summary of this research Satterthwaite concluded:

Cahal Pech is a site with an unpropitious Maya name meaning "Place of the Ticks." This ceremonial center includes pyramid temples, palaces, and a ball court. Five stelae and an altar (plain) show presence of the stela cult. Some major buildings were roofed with the Maya vault, some apparently not. There was a gradual architectural growth, the occupation probably running through the entire Classic Period, and we have ceramic hints of a longer occupation. Though previously unknown to Archaeologists, it is only about a mile from the suspension bridge at El Cayo. Finally, it is on the lands of Mr. Henry Melhado of Belize, an extremely kind gentleman who permits us to dig it.

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Late Classic elite residence

Between 1953 and 1955, Gordon Willey of Harvard University visited Cahal Pech during his settlement survey of the middle Belize River Valley region. He subsequently wrote a brief description of Cahal Pech and incorporated the center in his discussion of settlement hierarchy in the Belize River Valley.

During the 1960s, A.H. Anderson, Belize's first archaeological commissioner, made several visits to Cahal Pech. Because of its easy access and location, Anderson recommended to the government that the site be left unaffected by private lands, and that the center and its immediate periphery be developed as a National Park. Due to financial constraints Anderson's recommendations were, unfortunately, never implemented.

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Late Preclassic temple in the main plaza

Following Anderson's death in 1968, Peter Schmidt became Belize's second archaeological commissioner. A year later (in 1969) he visited Cahal Pech to appraise the damage caused by looters and to conduct small-scale salvage operations within the site core. Unfortunately, Schmidt, like Satterthwaite, never published a report of his investigations, but some of his notes and the artifacts recovered from the tomb are still available in the Belize Department of Archaeology. The grave goods which Schmidt recovered from the two burials indicate that both interments were deposited during the Late Classic period.

During the 1970s the site was pillaged on numerous occasions by looters. In 1978, several of these vandals were caught and arrested by myself and members of the local police force. The looters were tried in court and subsequently convicted under the Belize antiquities legislation.

Except for brief visits by Joseph Ball and Jennifer Taschek in 1986-87, no scientific investigations were conducted at Cahal Pech in the first half of the 1980s. During this time looting continued unabated. The destruction by these vandals, and by the gradual encroachment of the site by an expanding San Ignacio Town, eventually prompted members of the Cayo Branch of the Belize Tourism Industry Association to seek assistance for the preservation of the site. After several requests for help from the latter group, I eventually organized the first major archaeological investigation of Cahal Pech in the summer of 1988. Since then I have worked at the site. Joseph Ball of San Diego State University has also tested and reconstructed several structures.

Excavations during the past 12 years suggest that during the Classic period Cahal Pech and its sustaining area may have encompassed a realm of approximately 10 square miles. The site core consists of some 34 large structures, including several tall non-domestic structures, a number of large range-type buildings, two ballcourts, and possibly a sweathouse. Our work suggests that Cahal Pech contains evidence of some of the earliest Maya settlements in Belize. Data recovered at the center indicates that the first settlers began to occupy the site sometime between 1200 to 1000 B.C. It is believed that these settlers either entered the Belize River Valley from the west in Highland Guatemala, or they may represent incipient cultivators whose ancestors lived in the area during the Archaic period. Between 1000 to 600 B.C., the Cahal Pech community acquired many exotics like jade and obsidian from sources to the east and north of Guatemala City, marine shell from the Caribbean Sea, and appropriated many of the early symbols of the Gulf coast Olmec Culture. Many figurines and carved designs on pottery suggest that these people shared similar ideologies with their counterparts in other areas of Mesoamerica. Indeed, Cahal Pech also contains one of the earliest carved stela (monuments) yet discovered in this region of the Maya lowlands.

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Current excavation of a small residential unit adjacent to the public plaza.
The cut stone being uncovered may have been part of a dwelling's rear wall.

Several caves just upriver from the center contain evidence which suggests that the occupants of the site conducted periodic rituals within these subterranean caverns. Preserved organic remains of corn, cacao, and anato seeds, and the skeletal remains of infants and adults suggest that the rituals conducted in these sites may have included human sacrifice and offerings to deities associated with rain and agriculture.

During the Classic period (A.D. 300-800) the site continued to flourish and many of the large temples and palaces that can be seen at the site today were erected during this time. During the last centuries of the first millennia, however, many of the occupants of this once thriving site began to abandon the center. Often referred to as the Maya Collapse, we are still unsure of the reasons why the site was depopulated, particularly because other centers in the Belize Valley continued to thrive for several more centuries. Present research at the site is attempting to ascertain the cultural history of this crucial period and to assess the reasons for the site's early rise and subsequent decline. The use of the nearby caves by occupants of the site also represents an important research objective of the BVAR project.

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