Archaeology Magazine - Maya Caves of West-Central Belize: Pook's Hill - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Pook's Hill "Maya Caves of West-Central Belize"
Summer 2000

Located in the Roaring Creek Valley, just 3 miles north of caves investigated by the WBRCP, is the plazuela group known as Pook's Hill. The term "plazuela" is spanish for "small plaza." As used in archaeological terminology, it refers to small residential structures built around and enclosing a small square or patio. Typically four buildings comprise plazuelas, and the patio is aligned along the cardinal directions (see plan of site). Frequently the eastern building is a miniature temple, or shrine, while the remaining buildings are residences. The shrines are thought to have served as places to practice ancestor worship. This interpretation is based on the presence of numerous burials incorporated into these shrines during the various phases of architectural refurbishment. At the important site of Caracol (located in the Southern Cayo district of Belize) these plazuela shrines have been referred to as "mausoleums" in keeping with the ethnohistorically documented importance of ancestor worship in Maya religion.

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The eastern structure at Pook's Hill, excavated in 1999

In 1999, the WBRCP launched a program investigating residential sites located in the Roaring Creek Valley. Ceramic chronology constructed from the stratigraphy of surface sites can be used to assess the time periods during which Roaring Creek Valley caves were used. Data from the surface sites is also used to define the specific artifactual components of ritual cave deposits. This is accomplished by contrasting and comparing artifacts recovered from surface sites (residential) and cave sites (ritual). Of major importance to our objectives is defining the artifacts used in cave rituals versus those used in rituals conducted at surface site temples.

In 1999 the eastern ancestor shrine of the Pook's Hill plazuela (Structure 4A) was excavated, and all artifacts recovered were subject to detailed comparative analysis with materials from cave sites of the Roaring Creek Valley. Although concrete links are difficult to establish between cave sites and surface sites, certain artifacts can provide clues as to who used caves and when. One of these markers are Terminal Classic to Early Postclassic ceramics (A.D. 830-1000) referred to as Belize Molded-carved (see Actun Nak Beh Update, June 20, 2000). These ceramics are found at numerous sites in central Belize and the eastern Petén of Guatemala. Analyses conducted over the past five years indicate that these were used by a particular social segment. In addition, at least five caves in Belize (including Actun Tunichil Muknal and Actun Nak Beh contained Belize Molded-carved sherds. Based on the vases recovered from these caves, we know of a specific (non-royal elite) social segment which used caves. The six sherds of these vases recovered from Pook's Hill plazuela strongly suggest that the inhabitants of that group may have used Actun Tunichil Muknal and/or Actun Nak Beh as places for ritual.

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Artistic reconstruction of the eastern
ancestor shrine (Christophe Helmke)

A more concrete link between ancient Maya surface sites and caves is the presence of speleothem fragments at the former sites. These occur quite frequently at surface sites, contrary to what intuition would dictate. To list only a few examples, speleothems have been recovered at Cahal Pech's eastern ballcourt, at the peripheral group known as Melhado (north of Cahal Pech), at Xunantunich in association with its largest pyramid, at Baking Pot in association with stelae, and associated with one of the ballcourts at Cahal Uitz Na (the major center of the Roaring Creek Valley). Specimens tentatively identified as being of speleogical origin have also been recovered from Pook's Hill's eastern ancestor shrine. This piece of evidence again suggests intimate ties between the inhabitants of the Pook's Hill group and the caves of Roaring Creek Valley.

The 2000 investigations at Pook's Hill focused on the western building of the group (Structure 2A), along with some additional excavation on the eastern shrine (Structure 4A).

Excavation at Pook's Hill in 2000 was supervised by Christophe G. Helmke (ceramics and architecture), a graduate student at the Institute of Archaeology of the University College London; Megan L. Bassendale (human osteology), a recent graduate of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver; Harri J. Kettunen (survey & logistics), graduate student at the University of Helsinki; and Rafael A. Guerra, a surveyor for the WBRCP and a Belizean tour guide. Special assistance by Jennifer Piehl (human osteology), a graduate student at Tulane University; Norbert Stanchly (faunal osteology), a graduate student at the University College London; David F. Lee (architecture), a graduate of Trent University; Eric White (geology), a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire; and Christopher Mooreheart (paleoethnobotany), a gradute student at Florida State University.

Field Updates:

August 21, 2000

Structure 4A

Structure 2A

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