The findings at Blue Creek, Belize, have been the subject and background for my reports on archaeological findings of this summer.
The particular project that I worked with this summer, Maya Research Group, has been of major interest to many people I’ve talked with and it seems like the history and findings there would be a fitting object for this post. Much of its story has been told in academic papers, and I will excerpt from a major one, ‘Scorpions, Wetlands and Jade, 20 Years of Research at Blue Creek, Belize’, here.
By the end of the Late Preclassic period (a.d.150–250) and through the Early Classic period(a.d. 250–600), Blue Creek became a wealthycity. We found a building (Structure 9) with a set of plaster masks of the image of an Early Classic ajaw or king, along with a unique set of dedicatory caches, which identified the site’s axis mundi or symbolic central place. These included nearly 1,000 jade artifacts, the fourth largest collection of Maya jade ever found. More accurately known as jadeite and nephrite, these were prized in the Maya world and, like many naturally sourced products of great value, came from a restricted area and were available only to elite members of society. Other prestige goods have been found,including metamorphic grinding stones, obsidiantools, and sponges from the Caribbean, indicating that Blue Creek was considerably wealthier than other comparable cities.
Blue Creek’s wealth derived from two equally important factors. The frst was the availability of some of the richest and most extensive agricultural soils in Central America. Blue Creek encompassed an area of approximately 150 square kilometers, more than half of which was used for agriculture. This was simultaneously used for different agricultural practices, from small household gardens to the large-scale production of upland non-irrigation and lowland drained field farming. Blue Creek produced far more food than its population could consume. A wide variety of crops were grown, including kakaw (cacao) which was used as money.The second factor was its extraordinary access to trading markets. Blue Creek is at the headwaters of the Rio Hondo, the northernmost river draining into the Caribbean Sea, a three-day canoe trip. It was possible to export goods on canoes bound for cities in the north, which had lesser agricultural potential and a higher risk of crop failure. Blue Creek would have also been the final port of call for canoes traveling from the Caribbean en route to the interior. From here commodities were most likely conveyed overland to Petén sites such as Tikal and Uaxactún.
By the end of the Classic Period, construction activities in the central precinct and adjacent residential areas, such as Kín Tan, came to an abrupt halt. Ultimately, the Terminal Classic is marked at Blue Creek by the abandonment and termination of sacred structures, both within the site core and within its most elite residences.
The director of the program and author of this report, Dr. Thomas Guderjan, explained that findings at Blue Creek Center showed that termination included massive broken pottery and sealing off of the occupied parts of the temples. An article entitled ‘Blue Creek; Rise and Fall of a Maya Center’, he describes the findings.
By the Terminal Classic, Blue Creek’s political structure had been dramatically and negatively transformed. Construction activities within the site core and adjacent residential areas, such as Kin Tan, had come to an abrupt halt. Ultimately, the Terminal Classic is marked by the abandonment and termination of sacred structures – both within the site core and within its most elite residences.
In the central precinct, large quantities of broken ceramics and other portable goods were deposited on the front of a shrine associated with Structure 3. This represents the final cultural event within the site core and the central precinct was subsequently abandoned.
During this same period, large deposits of broken ceramics and broken portable objects such as manos, metates, obsidian blades, and bifaces were deposited against the baseline of buildings within the Structure 13 Courtyard. In addition, smaller terminal deposits have been recovered from the Structure 19 Courtyard. Again, these deposits mark the final cultural event within these palace complexes and these groups too were subsequently abandoned.
The symbol or logo of the Maya Research Program is a Mayan mask which was excavated at the original Blue Creek dig, and described with its surroundings below;
The facade of the outset is adorned with a complex five paneled, deep relief stucco frieze which included at least two and probably three anthropomorphic masks. Two of these are in excellent condition but the left face has been destroyed. Despite their Early Classic style, these were originally dated these to the Late Classic based on confusing ceramics from an associated cache and argued that this was an archaizing trait (Grube, et al. 1995). However, after the 1995 season, it was recognized that this was not correct and that these masks actually date to the Early Classic period.
Both faces have chin straps or bib motifs. The center image has closed eyes, hollowed cheeks, a slack jaw and a protruding tongue. The face is wearing an elaborate head-dress decorated with volutes shaped like an Ahaw glyph. The volutes represent smoke or foliation and may be the Early Classic form of the phonetic symbol ya (Thompson’s T126) Grube (1990) has shown the Ahaw sign, when not used as a day sign, is a logogram for the word nik or “flower”. This was interpreted as marking the building as a nikteil na or “flower house” (Grube, et al. 1995). These are specific houses for dancing and counsels (Freidel, et al. 1993: 257-263) and may have also served as accession houses for rulers.
Another element of the stucco facade supports this interpretation as well. A single glyph is located above the recessed panel between the two masks. This is interpreted as representing a sky or earth band with the phonetic value ki, meaning “heart” or “center” (Grube, et al. 1995). This glyph may represent the axis mundi (Grube et al. 1995), which Freidel (1992:127) associates with Ahaw (kingship) and political authority.
The presence of a nikteil na at Blue Creek is strong evidence that the community was ruled by an independent, local royal lineage.
The Blue Creek Center has been returned to the state in which it was found, and its treasures have been made available to the Belizian government for display and research.