Ancient Mayan Wood Architecture Found

Dr. Heather McKillop, William G. Haag Professor of Archaeology at Louisiana State University, has been investigating the ancient sea trade of the Maya civilization for 25 years, in the 1980s and 1990s with the help of Earthwatch volunteers. But her recent find of the remains of wooden structures and even a wooden paddle, perfectly preserved under the water of a Belize lagoon, was a turning point in Maya research.

Her discovery, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, confirms that the area was once a thriving zone of salt production that was largely swallowed up by rising seas during the last millennium.

“This marks a turning point in Maya studies, since never before have such complete ancient Maya buildings been discovered,” said McKillop, former principal investigator of Earthwatch’s Maya Traders project. “We have a wealth of information on stone architecture – the temples, palaces, and elite residences in ancient Maya cities, as well as the stone and earth foundations of the houses of the common Maya. These new structures add to our knowledge of the Ceren structures in El Salvador, preserved by a volcanic eruption.”

Wading through silty, shallow waters of Punta Ycacos Lagoon, on the southern coast of Belize, McKillop and a group of graduate students and helpers first found a long, wooden post that turned out to be part of the only known surviving wooden structures of ancient Maya civilization. Soon thereafter, they would come across a long wooden paddle, more than a thousand years old and neatly preserved by the “peat bog” at the bottom of the lagoon.

Earthwatch teams on Bermuda Shipwreck, in 1999 and 2000, were instrumental in the investigation, including underwater recording of the ship’s details and the collection and use of documents.

Ultimately, McKillop and her group would find hundreds of other posts, providing solid evidence of Maya structures that were once large salt-producing facilities. She had previously found only four sites for salt production along the coast, but exploring beneath the water has led to the discovery of 41 additional, submerged sites. Some 23 of these involve wooden structures. The finds help show that the region supported the salt trade throughout the Maya Empire, as suggested in her recent book, Salt: White Gold of the Ancient Maya.

McKillop said the wooden finds were “totally unexpected.” In her 25 years of previous research, she said, she had discovered many underwater sites that were submerged by rising seas, but had never before found wood preserved in a peat bog. In the tropical rainforest setting of most ancient Maya sites, wood structures are prone to decay. Indeed, she said, wooden objects have been recovered from only a few ancient Maya sites, in particular, those that had unusual environmental conditions, such as dry caves or dry temple rooms.

While researchers had previously suspected that the Maya had used canoes to move the salt produced along the coast to the interior cities, the paddle – which was radiocarbon dated to between 680-880 A.D. – represents the “first primary evidence of waterborne navigation of the ancient Maya,” said McKillop. Indeed, images of Maya gods in canoes, holding paddles exactly like the one found by McKillop, have been found on carved bones in a temple of the Tikal Maya site.

McKillop plans to continue surveying and mapping wooden structures in the Belize lagoon this summer, with grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and FAMSI (Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies). Earthwatch is also hoping to resume supporting her research through its new Belize Conservation Research Initiative.

From Earthwatch Institute

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