The Ancient Maya of Belize: A Review and Summary

Dr. Anabel Ford’s The Ancient Maya of Belize: Their Society and Sites manages to successfully accomplish at least two things for an individual interested in Maya studies. First, it provides the reader with some useful background information on the Maya civilization and their sites, allowing for a more comprehensive contextual understanding of what one may observe as a visitor to the Maya region. Second, it presents the reader with slightly more detailed descriptions of 18 of the more major sites they may be interested in visiting in Belize. As such, this small booklet can be quite a useful addition to the backpack of a traveler wishing to observe the ancient Maya civilization.

According to Dr. Ford, Belize manages to still hold much of the same charm and awe that we often associate with the findings of the early explorers of the New World. It is a place that lives up to the saying that, “You cannot put a spade into the ground without turning up bits of pottery and stone tools” (v). However, Dr. Ford is careful to point out on numerous occasions that as tourists to the area, we must absolutely refrain from pretending to be archaeologists. Archaeology today, she points out, is very “laborious and time-consuming” contrasting with excavation techniques from 100 years ago, which often included the use of dynamite (29). Our curious (and tempting) interference with artifacts could be just as harmful to these sites as the old excavation techniques were. One thing we can note is that all “archaeological excavations are destructive” (7).

As mentioned earlier, Dr. Anabel Ford’s publication gives readers some background information on the Maya. It begins with a short discussion of the different time periods of Maya civilization, and the manner in which Maya civilization was organized. Dr. Ford makes an important point with the latter discussion when she states that, “To understand a complex society like the Maya…you need to move beyond what those at the top were doing and look to the general populace” (4). To look at such issues causes us to try to understand how communities were organized, and what sort of things people valued. We may find, for example, that while most communities or sites may be relatively self sufficient, different areas with different economic advantages may partake in a certain degree of specialization and use their “crafts” for trade purposes—either within their community, or with neighboring sites.

The bulk of this publication, however, lies in addressing some of the particular features of 18 of the more major sites in Belize. Much of what would immediately come to our attention, then, would be the monumental architecture that can be found at these sites. These sites are important when one considers that “for impressive large centers to have grown and flourished…the Maya rulers had to effectively organize and integrate the communities within their domain” (5). Thus, what we have to do is to understand both that the sites we may be visiting are foremost elite guided creations, and that the underlying gears of society, (though guided by elite), are the commoners.

In the course of her discussion of these sites, Dr. Ford manages to portray some of the regional similarities and differences between different Maya sites. Excavations at Cuello, for example, show evidence of the common Maya practice of building and rebuilding at the same location—creating what can be called house mounds (18). Another similarity is that many of the structures at various sites were also covered in stucco. Other sites may be representative of the special requirements or endowments of certain parts of the Maya landscape. The site of Nohmul, for example, was faced with swamplands, causing Maya farmers to seek a solution using drainage with canals and other intensive farming techniques. It is interesting to note that this solution was not done independently by the people of Nohmul, but rather, the farmers “relied on others for their basic farm tools,” reinforcing the notion of specialization for different Maya regions (15).

These regional differences, as just shown, often have the effect of resulting in a certain amount of trade taking place. To illustrate this, Dr. Ford points to the example of the Wild Cane Cay site. This site was not important just because it provided ocean-fishing bases, but also because it helped facilitate trade between the highlands of Guatemala and the Belize lowlands. The highlands were endowed with “durable items” like obsidian, which was used for many utensils. The lowlands, relatively void of such commodities, traded colorful feathers and spices, among other things. These were mostly perishable goods, but were often important for Maya elite society. Wild Cane Cay is a particularly interesting site since there is also evidence that the people of the area partook in long-distance trade activities—thus expanding the influence of- and on Maya civilization.

This brings us back, in a circular fashion, to Maya civilization, particularly regarding the relation between elite and peasant members of society. The elite of the ancient Maya society were not just responsible for the management of their own centers, but were also responsible for the establishment of connections with further removed Maya and non Maya centers. Their intertwining trade helped cement a relationship among elite of other centers, creating what can be termed a prestige goods economy. By the Late Classic Period, the Maya elite had expanded their role and control to encourage further specialization of communities in farming. Communities with land more suitable for maize production produced surplus maize to trade. Those communities with land more suitable for cash crops, such as cacao or tobacco focused their production on those goods. This was a shift from when the Maya peasants of each community would keep “all the basic aspects of daily life going.” They did this not only by providing food for themselves and the elite rulers, but many also manufactured household goods (often for use in the individual household—not meant for trade) (6). In other words, we can notice a bit of a shift from true self sufficiency of Maya communities, to directed interconnected trade among communities based on what they had to offer. What is important to note here is that much of this can be attributed to the actions of the Maya elite interacting with each other.

This is just a representation of some of the information that can be found in Dr. Anabel Ford’s publication, aimed primarily at guiding those who have “a yen to learn something about this civilization” (1). Overall, I found the information provided to be in agreement with the information I have gained from Anthropology 137. While by no means a complete or thorough treatment, Dr. Ford’s publication would definitely serve useful to a visitor to the Maya regions of Belize. As a travel guide, it gives the reader a set of monuments they may wish to take note of, simple maps of each site, a little understanding of the historical role of archaeology in the area, and enough information about Maya culture to give the visitor a greater appreciation of the sites they are visiting.

All quotations are from The Ancient Maya of Belize: Their Society and Sites, by Dr. Anabel Ford, published by the CORI/MesoAmerican Research Center, University of California, Santa Barbara.

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