This week I had an opportunity to attend a public talk about underwater Maya. I was invited by the Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA) to attend a kick-off meeting about an archaeological find called Underwater Maya. The meeting on the morning of March 15 was to provide the BTIA with materials that can be used to inform the public, as well as to invite us all to the formal public talk given at Garbutt’s Marina on the edge of town later in the evening at 7:00 p.m. on the 15th. The presenter was Dr. Heather McKillop, who is a noted scholar on Mayan archaeology. She specializes in ancient Maya coastal trade routes and the long-distance exchange of commodities. She is also, originally, from Stratford, Ontario.
The title of the public talk was “Underwater Maya: Archaeological Tourism to Preserve Paynes Creek National Park Sites, Belize”. In essence, the subject matter was that of an archaeological find in Paynes Creek. As many of you know, Belize is riddled with archaeological sites, at least 14, with some of the sites being quite large. Paynes Creek is another in this long list, but it is with one difference. It is the only archaeological site where wooden ruins have been preserved and found.
According to Dr. McKillop, the Maya set up a factory to create and trade in salt in the Paynes Creek lagoon and were quite successful for several hundred years. In the process of their activities they removed the mangrove trees from the waters’ edge and along with rising seas, the landmasses ended up submerged in the Caribbean Sea. Dr. McKillop and her team were searching for any ruins they could find, (not sure how they picked this particular location) but during their search they came across wooden structures. These wooden structures were buried in the silt and because of this were protected from the natural degradation process that must take place in nature. Upon removing a piece or two of the wooden structure you could see that these beams were man-made – the ends were chopped to a point. I wish I had a picture to show of that.
Interestingly, because the wood is subject to degradation, Dr. McKillop used technology. The artifacts along with some of the wooden beams were recovered and scanned into a computer. The scanned 3D image was then taken to a 3D printer where replicas of the artifacts were generated. The wooden pieces were then put back into the water where they will remain protected for several hundred more years. The clay artifacts have been sent to the government of Belize for addition to its national archives. The replicas will be placed throughout the Toledo District with various businesses as well as at the BTIA.
It is thought that the Maya villagers took sea water, in some cases filtered it to concentrate the salt even further and then boiled the concentrated brine solution over fire. The salt was then used in trade. Artifacts were found that were known to be from Guatemala at this Paynes Creek site possibly indicating a barter system for salt.
Dr. McKillop received a research grant from the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and one of the goals of the team is to set up a sustainable archaeological tourism site. The site, with an information board at the BTIA, as well as a learning platform built at Paynes Creek, will be dedicated to providing ongoing information about the history of this particular Mayan find. With this goal in mind, Dr. McKillop created fact sheets to be given to tour guides and school teachers. Fact sheets have been given to a number of businesses in the area to provide information about this find.
It will be interesting to follow this discovery and the tourism outcome. I learned that it may be possible to participate in the archaeological “dig” with Dr. McKillop’s team and I am going to try and go along. (The reason the word “dig” is in quotations is because it really isn’t a dig. The archaeological team floats ,and wearing masks and snorkels, they look for the wooden structures in the water.)
I definitely came away from the evening presentation smarter than when I went in.