The First Steps Towards Revitalizing El Pilar -
BRASS/El Pilar Program
Field Report 1996
CORI/MesoAmerican Research Center
The First Steps Towards Revitalizing El Pilar
BRASS/El Pilar Program
Field Report 1996
EXCAVATIONS IN THE MONUMENTAL SITE CORE
Around Plaza Copal
THE EXAMPLE MAYA HOUSE
Excavations in Tzunu'un (272-025)
Survey and Mapping
Activity Area Investigation: Post-hole Testing
Off Plaza Excavations
Excavation of Structure 1
Excavations at Structure 2
Investigating the possible Chultun: CHT-ONE
PLANTING THE SEEDS OF A MAYA FOREST GARDEN
Be Pukte Forest Garden
Tzunu'un Forest Garden
Caretakers Forest Garden
The Natural Side of El Pilar
IMPLICATIONS OF THE MAYA FOREST GARDEN
THE DESIGN FOR EL PILAR
The First Steps Towards
Revitalizing El Pilar -
During the height of the Classic Period, the major center of El Pilar was the largest of the Belize
River area (Figure 1), serving economic, administrative, and ceremonial functions at the local level
and providing the area's link to political and economic interaction at the regional level. A decade
of research on the dispersed communities that were once part of El Pilar's domain provides an
important context for understanding evolution of the administrative functions at the center.
Building upon this strong foundation of residential survey and excavation that characterize
resources and community patterns in the Belize River area, the long-range research design of the
BRASS/El Pilar Program is aimed at reconstructing the centralization process that underwrote the
Classic Maya civilization.
The research at the center of El Pilar is being accomplished through the careful mapping of
major and minor architecture, the detailed examination of the architectural features and their
construction sequences, and the integration of these important data into a comprehensive
interpretation of the development of the ancient Maya community. The design and sequencing of
the research, conservation, interpretation, and development projects at El Pilar involves critical
management planning. The 1996 field season strategy of low impact investigation provides an
important step towards the greater goal to bring the importance of El Pilar into clearer focus. By
understanding the chronological development of the residential community, the monumental
buildings, burial patterns, and instances of caches at El Pilar, we will be able to determine the
regional sphere of interaction, assess local control of labor, and evaluate ancient community
participation in the function and maintenance of the center. These investigations provide the key
to the conservation program at El Pilar and will make it one of the preeminent ecotourist sites and
a model for resource management for the Mundo Maya.
Figure 1: The Central Maya Lowlands with El Pilar and other Major Centers Indicated
In addition to the fundamental research and conservation initiatives promoted by the
BRASS/El Pilar Program, the program is actively involved in conservation and development
efforts aimed not only at the magnificent architecture of the center, but of its ecological context as
well. The conservation management regime for El Pilar is necessarily focused in the local
communities located adjacent to the reserve. The program, in collaboration with the Government
of Belize, is working with the villagers, and in particular, Amigos de ElPilar, to vest the
community as participants in and beneficiaries of the archaeological reserve. It is the philosophy
of the project that, as with the ancient Maya predecessors, the Maya forest provides an
important basis for sustainable development and it is part of our goal to help determine these
bases and promote them within the community today.
Research and development goals of the 1996 season revolved around three principal field foci:
the investigations of the Maya house, Tzunu'un, along the Lakin Trail; the architectural exposure of
the entrance of the Zotz Na and Plaza Jobo of the H'mena acropolis area and the examination of
accessways to Plaza Copal; and the development of the forest-garden around the Tzunu'un (Figure 2).
Excavations in the monumental core area of the site revealed great complexity and ingenuity of the
architects of El Pilar, a source of interest for the archaeologist and the visitor alike. Attention to the
example Maya house outlines the nature of residential activities and patterns of construction of a
representative residential compound at El Pilar. Work on the revitalization of forest-gardening is a
collaborative endeavor with consejeros from the riverside communities who, with partners from the
Department of Agriculture, are working to better understand sustainability of polyculture in the
The archaeology of El Pilar's monuments, Maya houses, and especially the experimental
forest-garden is forging a connection between the El Pilar Program and contemporary villagers. This is
being fostered by their direct participation in the assessment of the continuities they recognize from
Classic Maya times to the present. Involvement in the exposure of the grand monuments along with
the work at the model Maya house and forest-garden is proceeding with their guidance. This
collaboration and cooperation will help to set a balanced course of conservation for the greater El Pilar
area that is inclusive rather than exclusive.
In addition to these vital field efforts, the BRASS/El Pilar Program also worked at linkages
with professionals in Guatemala with jurisdiction over the protection of that portion of El Pilar that
falls within the Reserva de la Biosfera Maya of the Peten. These international activities were carried
out in an effort to promote a protection plan for the entire site of El Pilar. Towards this aim, the
program in collaboration with the Dept. of Agriculture of Belize is developing an international and
multidisciplinary design of research and development that can serve as a model for conservation and
development in the Maya forest and beyond.
The procedures of the BRASS/El Pilar Program have been consistently developed and
standardized for comparability from year to year. Excavations were conducted by stratigraphic
levels, using a modified version of the Harris Matrix adapted for the program. Collections were
all screened through mesh to maintain volumetric standards for both contexts of fill and middens.
Half-inch screen was routinely employed for collapse and general fill deposits. Activity areas
and suspected midden areas were treated specifically with smaller mesh screens or completely
collected for laboratory sorting and flotation. The exceptions were the special features. These
were either collected in toto or screened using a quarter-inch mesh. All collections were processed
in the field laboratory and cataloged in a lot number system by major artifact classes. These data
were input and stored in computer files for analyses.
Field excavations followed natural stratigraphic levels and records were maintained by
cultural strata. Excavations proceeded with hand tools (shovel, pick, pick-a-hoe, trowel, and
scoops), except where areas demanded a finer touch. All ceramics and lithics larger than 2 cm
were collected in the field from screens for later analysis. All bone, obsidian, and miscellaneous
artifacts were kept as well as any organic samples in quantities sufficient for C14 dating. Strata
were identified visually and described using Munsell colors and an inclusion guide from the
Portland Cement Association (PCA) handbook. Strata were defined in terms of soil type (i.e.,
sandy, loam, etc. from the PCA Soil Primer), dry soil color (with a Munsell Soil Color Chart),
and size, type, and percentage of inclusions (sizes range from boulders, cobbles, gravel and
pebbles; type generally ranged from limestone to chert).
EXCAVATIONS IN THE MONUMENTAL SITE CORE
The 1996 excavations operated with a small crew to focus primarily on a representative
residential sector of El Pilar. Four extensive excavations at the monumental core area of El Pilar
were undertaken and revealed a wealth of well-preserved architecture. These exposures help us
better understand how the structures and plazas of El Pilar work together as an integrated whole.
Two excavations were completed in the acropolis area; 1) a section of the Plaza Jobo
complex, named EP22W below the pyramid EP20 and 2) further excavation in Plaza Subin in
front of the Maya tunnel, Zotz Na (Figure 2). Another excavation opened the southwest room in
EP3 CTR between Plazas Copal and Axcanan. The other two excavations examined the
connection between Plaza Copal, Plaza Duende and a linear feature connected to the eastern ridge
tentatively assessed as an accessway.
Plaza Jobo and EP 22 W
Surface indications suggested that structure EP22, delineating the north side of Plaza Jobo (Figure
3), was a three room-long range building, with a probable passage through it in the center. On the
west, the structure appeared to be built against the center of an apron stairway to the top of
pyramid EP20. Plaza Jobo is representative of the complexity of the H'mena outcrop. It is
outlined by structure EP23 on the east and pyramid EP20 on the west and the pair of range
buildings EP21 and EP22 on the south and north sides respectively. The westernmost third of
EP22, or EP22W, preserved visible surface remains of a corbel arched room and had been
partially filled with rock during the 1993 field season for protection.
Our initial purpose at this excavation site was twofold. The first priority was to excavate
the southwest room of EP22 and assess the viability of consolidating the structure so it could
remain open to the public. Second, the crew was to determine how structure EP22 connected
with the great pyramid, EP20.
Excavation began on March 21 and the rock fill was quickly removed revealing a rough,
but nearly intact, corbel vault. Much of the center of the vault was missing but the two gable
ends continued nearly to the capstones. In the following days it was noted that the structure was
two-thirds filled with sandy loam and a few, obviously collapsed, corbel arch stones. This
structure appears to have been purposely dismantled and then later filled over a period of time.
Some of the larger collapsed corbel stones were standing on end and there were no signs of
distinct strata. It is also noteworthy that there were almost no artifacts recovered from this
Our first discovery was the structure of the southern door (Figure 4). It is a door
approximately one meter wide by 1.8 meters high which the project left filled due to the
deteriorated state of its capstone. The truly interesting part was that it was lined with almost
uniform brick-like stones giving it the outward appearance of a brick mortared arch. Another
discovery was that the north wall had a communicating doorway that was subsequently plugged
to restrict access. Lastly, as the excavations neared the floor, the crew encountered a perfectly
preserved L-shaped plaster bench filling half of the room. This room configuration conforms to
the palace benches of major centers in the region.
In order to assess the structural integrity of the room's south wall as well as pursue the
examination of the relationship of EP22 to EP20, a one meter wide trench was excavated on the
south side of the structure. It was quickly determined that the south exterior wall, with the
exception of the doorway capstone, was in good condition. Continuing with the excavation, the
crew also located the low but well-preserved remains of an east-west running wall [(WL)2213] in
the southeast corner of the trench and a higher north-south running wall [(WL)2212] in the west
end. The floor of Plaza Jobo proved to be unblemished plaster of superior quality. Moreover,
both the exterior of EP22 and wall 2212 had a plaster basal molding. The basal molding on wall
2212 was larger than that of EP22 (23 cm vs. 12 cm) and showed traces of red paint.
The excavations were widened to determine the nature of walls 2212 and 2213 and in the
course of these excavations it became clear that the west end of Plaza Jobo was enclosed, not by
EP20, but by a two room structure with a raised inner room with a large bench. This structure
was given the identification number EP53. A twin to wall 2213 [(WL)2216] was discovered, the
two of which formed the front wall. A great number of collapsed corbel vault stones in both the
outer and inner rooms indicate that they were vaulted. Another interesting discovery is the
plugged area between wall 2212 and structure EP22, possibly originally a passageway (Figure 5).
Structure EP22W is relatively straightforward (Figure 6). The spine wall, built of finely
chiseled 20 cm by 60 cm blocks, was constructed first. The other room walls, which abut the
spine wall and have continuous knit rounded corners in the southeast and southwest, were built
in one later episode. These were evidently intended to be plastered judging from the relatively
poor quality of the masonry work which is comprised of tabular blocks (5-10 cm by 20-60 cm)
and chinking. The western portion of this wall continues west and north one meter from the
spine wall forming a doorway, presumably to the northern room, in the northwest corner. This
door was later filled in and blocked.
The southern door of EP22, on to what was presumed to be Plaza Jobo, also appears to
have undergone a remodeling. A clean vertical seam is visible, both on the interior and exterior
walls, which frame an
opening of two meters, later narrowed to the present doorway (with the brick-like stone, see
Figure 4) one meter wide.
The new structure EP53 complicates the configuration of Plaza Jobo and its relationship
to the EP20. Surface indications would lead one to believe that the pyramid EP20 was accessed
by a stairway from the eastern side and it was with this expectation that we examined the
interface of EP22W and EP20. Instead we found that there was a two room deep corbel arched
structure at the west end of Plaza Jobo directly against the pyramid base. This structure has a
large 2.33 meter front entrance that originally was supported by a perishable lintel. Today these
walls exist to only about one meter in height. The first room has a plaster floor and the basal
molding/step into the next room which is also plastered and shows traces of red paint. The back
room is entered via the 23 cm step and through an inner door approximately 2 meters wide. In
contrast to the front walls, the spine wall is preserved to approximately two meters. The spine
wall is 1.34 meters thick, is built on top of [(FL) 2217] and has a 12 cm diameter ceramic framed
cordholder offset in the jamb, 40 cm from the floor and 79 cm from the front edge.
The back room is mostly taken up by a well-preserved plaster bench. The bench is 65 cm
high and 1.47 meters deep. It wraps around on the north side of the room (only the side that has
been cleared) and has an inset kick with an overhang. The north wall of this room also frames a
1.7 meters high corbel arched doorway that is in very bad shape. The Program did not attempt to
excavate further to the north due to the condition of the doorway. Many of the stones in the
doorway's corbel, and possibly in the rest of the room, seem to be held near their original
positions by collapse material from the structure and a careful excavation of this area in the future
may enable us to piece it back together.
Structure EP53 is constructed with a finer masonry style than EP22W. The blocks are
large (20 by 60 cm) with fine mortar joints as opposed to the tabular stone and chinking style in
EP22W. The spine wall [(WL)2212] of EP53 adjoins the facade of EP22W and it appears that
this section between the structures [(WL) 2223], 80 cm across, was filled in at some later time.
The doorway in the inner room of EP53 is in line with the edge of this filled area.
The objective of the EP22/Plaza Jobo excavation was to determine the access of EP20. So
far what is known of the relationship between EP53, EP22W, and the pyramid EP20 is mostly
conjecture. We have found a small area of plaster above EP53 at what once may have been roof
height (40 cm wide by 1 meter long). This plaster surface adjoins a two meter high vertical wall
which ends at the top surface of EP20. It is hypothesized that access for EP20 was gained from
the roof surface of the buildings but it is still unknown where the roof area was accessed from.
At the close of the 1996 season, structures EP22W and EP53 were protected by placing a
20 cm layer ofbackdirt over all horizontal plaster surfaces, a rock and plywood brace for walls
2209/2204 and a tin and felt roof over the unit. This structure will protect the excavation from
rain damage and allow quick access during the next season for a consolidation team. This area is a
stunning representation of the labyrinth of the H'mena area. The complex of interconnected
rooms and the shifts and changes in the construction history need to be carefully studied and the
well-preserved rooms, doors, and benches need to be conserved for visitors viewing. The
ultimate goal is to be able to leave these two rooms open to the public for education and
Zotz Na (or "bat house" in Mayan) is a 10.3 meter corbel arched tunnel which once led from
Plaza Ixim to Plaza Subin, bypassing the structures on the acropolis (Figure 7). The tunnel was
sealed by the ancient Maya with rough stones and lime mortar and restricted movement west of
Plaza Subin into Ixim. In the Terminal Classic to Postclassic periods the ancient inhabitants of El
Pilar began to use the tunnel interior for disposal of materials, thus a series of broken vessel
pieces have been recovered from its floor. The tunnel itself was first excavated during the
Program's 1994 field season. The initial excavation, outside of the tunnel mouth and down to the
floor of Plaza Subin, had been rather small and it was felt a larger excavation would make it more
accessible for public viewing of this dramatic vaulted room.
It was immediately noted upon inspection that the previous excavation had stopped 10
cm short of a wall on the south side of the doorway. A part of this wall, running east-west and
adjoining the western wall of Plaza Subin, had been exposed through fill and collapse erosion. A
new excavation of the area in front of Zotz Na had two goals; first, to widen the entrance
excavation to expose more of the tunnel door facade and facilitate the installation of a new access
stairway and, second, to pursue the southern wall east to its conclusion. After clearing the 10
cm of soil from in front of the southern wall, [(WL)Z09], a one meter wide trench was dug three
and a half meters to the east along the wall (see Figure 5). Wall Z09 is slightly inset (18 cm) and
abutting [(WL) Z06]. It had been determined in 1994 that wall Z06, which is battered (750) and
has a thick plaster layer on it, was a lower platform of pyramid EP19 to the south. Wall Z09
was a surprise because it was thought that EP19 had inset corners, as indicated by remnants of
walls above wall Z09 in the southwest corner of Plaza Subin.
Wall Z09 is also battered (750) and has been heavily damaged by collapse from the
pyramid above. The wall continues 4.5 meters to the east gradually decreasing in height from 1.7
meters to one course of limestone blocks due to damage. No definitive corner was reached but
the floor of Plaza Subin began to fall off and a small parapet wall or foundation along Subin's
eastern edge was uncovered. This wall [(WL)Z14] was one to two courses of limestone block
high and approximately 1 meter wide and bears a great resemblance to the wall excavated along
the northern edge of Plaza Manax in 1994. There was also a gap of 10 cm between walls Z14 and
An extension of the old excavation to the north brought the unit to 1.8 by 2.6 meters
overall and exposed more of the facade of the Zotz Na. Upon completion of this excavation a
new stairway was constructed making Zotz Na more accessible to the public.
With technical support from Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Antropologia y Historia
(INAH), the front facade, parts of wall Z09 and a number of looter's holes just inside the
doorway were consolidated. Each consolidated area was marked out by the use of small
polished limestone tiles, or "rejuelos," manufactured on-site. This team (Archaeologist Alan
Maciel Vallejo, Construction Technician Norberto BeKu and Santos Humberto Cavic Huchin)
worked with members of the El Pilar staff. This experience was an on-site workshop designed to
expose the El Pilar Program crew to the methodologies used in reconstruction as well as
excavation of monumental structures so that, in future years, we will have an in-house capability
for consolidation and stabilization.
Around Plaza Copal
EP3 CTR SW
Once again we returned to structure EP3, excavated previously in 1994 and 1995 (Figure 9). In
1994 the passage through the structure was located and a one meter wide trench along the eastern
jambs was excavated through the structure. During the 1995 season this excavation was widened
to include the entire area between the southern exterior room's jambs and the jambs of the spine
wall. The northwest jamb was left unexcavated due to the presence of a large tree.
It was decided that, during the 1996 field season, the Program would excavate one half of
one of the rooms at EP3 CTR and leave it open for public access. The southwest room was
chosen for ease of excavation and the humus and collapse were quickly removed. This exposed a
1 by 2.5 meter room off the central passage filled primarily by a 1.67 meter plastered bench 62
cm high. Preservation of the walls was good, especially for the spine and partition walls which
were standing to approximately three meters. The walls were of a masonry style similar to that
of EP22W. They were fashioned of tabular blocks and chinking liberally covered with plaster.
There are at least two layers of plaster on the walls totaling four centimeters in total. The plaster
floor also proved to be characteristically fine and unblemished, as is that of the entire
The passageway in EP3 CTR shows some striking similarities to that in structure A13 at
Xunantunich (see Jamison and Wolff, 1995).1 In A13 the outer rooms contained benches along
their back walls, inset from the passageway and against the spine wall, while the inner rooms
opened directly on the passageway and were primarily taken up by large benches.
1Jamison, T.R. and G.A. Wolff
1995 Excavations In and Around Plaza A-I and Plaza A-II in The Xunantunich Archaeological Project:
1994 Field Season.
This excavation was planned to examine the access relationships between Plazas Copal, Duende
and a linear feature on the east side of the site core (see Figure 2). The area is intriguing Plaza
Duende appears to wrap around Plaza Copal to the east and south in this corner. In addition,
Plaza Copal itself has an unusually large open area on the eastern side of EP8 and a passage
between EP8 and EP7. Also, the Plaza Copal platform wall, while elsewhere well-defined
vertically, is considerably lower-sloped in this spot. In addition, there is a linear stone feature
stretching from this point across a swale to the eastern ridge and a group of structures there (see
Figure 2). This linear feature is thought to be an accessway into Plaza Copal from the east.
The initial unit was a simple 1 by 1 by 3 meter trench north-south across the linear
feature at a point approximately 3.6 meters east of the edge of Plaza Copal. This excavation
revealed finely chiseled stone with some plaster in an apparent wall. The strata on either side of
the wall were dramatically different. That to the south was a brown sandy loam while to the
north were several layers of a gray loam, possibly part of a ramp construction. The bedrock in
this area was only a little over one meter down and had been heavily worked in the past in large
step-like excavations. A connecting trench reaching from the edge of Plaza Copal to the initial
excavation was started next. This excavation found yet another strata, a rough step-like
configuration of limestone and consolidated lime reaching down to the bedrock in the first
The evidence seems to support our theory that there was egress in this area. The
excavation could not tell us, however, if this access was just to Plaza Duende via this "backdoor"
or whether it connected to something further east. Unfortunately, the upper reaches of the linear
structure were not well enough preserved to determine whether this was a causeway or wall. It is
hoped that future field seasons will be able to examine the wall more closely in several places,
where it appears to be better preserved.
The 1996 excavations in the site core have added to our knowledge of the complexities of El Pilar.
Although much is now known about Nohol (the southern section) Pilar, we are only beginning to
reconstruct the ways that the complicated northern structures were related. The excavation of a
large part of the Plaza Jobo complex, for example, suggests that the acropolis had even more
restricted access than originally thought. Pyramid EP20, the highest point in the eastern section
of the site core, was the most restricted access that may involve an elevated entrance or hidden
stair. These obstacles to reaching the great pyramid of EP20 highlights its importance.
This season of field work also raised a number of questions. In the south, the excavations
at DWALL underscores the importance of determining the nature of the linear feature and its
relationship to the group of buildings on the ridge east of the site core. In the north, the excellent
preservation of the Plaza Subin floor and western wall needs further attention. As there are no
visible structures in Plaza Subin it is surmised that there are rooms off of the plaza extending
under the upper western surfaces of the acropolis.
Our extensive excavations also bring us face-to-face with decisions of stabilization and
consolidation. The BRASS/ El Pilar Program has charted a strategy for research with the ultimate
aim of presenting El Pilar in its best light. The plan is for the research to inform the consolidation
efforts, and the consolidation efforts to spotlight the unique features of El Pilar. In considering
the presentation of the monuments of El Pilar, we would leave open for public viewing only
those areas that are representative examples, and can also be properly protected and maintained
in the future. Since the BRASS/El Pilar Program is a partnership, the achievement of our
objectives involves a balancing act between eco-tourism concerns and the resources of both the
Program and the Government of Belize. We must determine not only what we can consolidate
today but must also consider whether a current solution is maintained long after the Program has
left Belize. It is with great enthusiasm that the Program greets the participation of technical
experts from INAH (Mexico) and the introduction of consolidation at El Pilar in the 1996 season.
THE EXAMPLE MAYA HOUSE
Excavations in the Tzunu'un(272-025)
A major thrust of the 1996 field season was the survey and excavation of a large and presumed elite
residential compound of El Pilar. The site 272-025, or Tzunu'un, was among the originally tested
residential units of the survey phase of the BRASS (Belize River Archaeological Settlement Survey)
project. The selection was based on the overall composition of the site as a representative example of
the residential component at El Pilar. The residential group includes 5 major structures surrounding an
open plaza area, with ancillary platforms and / or structures noted on the west side. In addition, its size,
proximity to the site center, and location along an established reserve trail added to its potential.
Tzunu'un is located just east of the southern portion of the monumental site core of El Pilar (see
Figure 2). In between the site core and the plazauela compound, lies a large ancient aguada and the
modern Pilar Yaloch road. Tzunu'un consists of five principal structures on a raised courtyard
platform approximately 1 meter in height (Figure 10). The structures are arranged around a square open
courtyard space. Two of the structures are large stone buildings defining the southern and eastern sides
of the courtyard. The other three main structures are low mounds, each less than a meter in height. Two
are positioned on the northern edge of the courtyard and one on the western edge. In addition, there are
less defined construction features to the west, in association with the plaza courtyard. The
excavations of Tzunu'un were conducted employing the same methods as used the intensive residential
unit excavation phase of the BRASS project in order to facilitate comparison. There were three phases
to the work at Tzunu'un: 1) mapping and survey, 2) activity area post-hole testing, and 3) structure
excavations. The household courtyard compound was first mapped and tied into the El Pilar site grid.
Then, the area around the household compound was investigated by post-hole testing to define activity
areas. Activity areas tentatively identified outside the plazauela courtyard in the post-hole tests were
further probed with 2x2 meter test units. The final phase of the season's excavations focused on the
two principal stone structures. Large units, opened in 2x2 meter grids, were excavated at each of these
structures within the compound. These excavations defined the perimeters of the two large structures on
Survey and Mapping
During the 1995 field season, as part of the project to set the Reserve boundaries, the survey crew
established a site grid. The 0 north, 0 east point is located at an Interamerican Geodetic point (E 10) in
the center of the south parking lot. This point was used as the origin of a traverse to plot the site 272-
025, Tzunu'un. The instrument used was a Topcon GTS 203 and the survey crew consisted of 3 people.
The survey was conducted following the Lakin Trail north, up to Tzunu'un. The residential unit
was entered from the southwest corner of the courtyard platform and a benchmark was placed in the
center of the plaza. The crew then surveyed west to the Pilar road. To close the traverse, two more
points were shot, one further south and west down the Pilar road and the second from the Pilar road
back to the geodetic point in the parking lot. In total 8 traverse points were used to link Tzunu'un to the
El Pilar grid.
Topographic and structural survey was conducted within the Tzunu'un courtyard compound
during the field season. At the initial phase, the residential unit was tied into the larger El Pilar map with
a permanent concrete benchmark (TN5). This data point was placed within the courtyard of Tzunu'un.
The next phase of mapping involved the placement of a second permanent benchmark just outside the
plaza to the southeast (TN 8). Using these permanent benchmarks, mapping points were taken around
Tzunu'un over the rest of the field season recording topographic aspects as well as excavation unit
locations and structural components exposed in the excavations (Appendix I).
After the plazauela compound of Tzunu'un was mapped, a transit point N 162 E 29 was shot 12
meters from the northern edge of the plaza to establish a grid over the site. This grid is linked to the
overall site grid used by the El Pilar map and was used to locate the post-hole tests investigated to
identify activity areas. Stakes were placed every 4 meters on the grid using a tape and a Brunton
compass. The metric grid coordinates were used to identify each of the units excavated around 272-025.
Activity Area Investigation: Post-hole Testing
In keeping with strategies developed in the intensive excavation phase of the BRASS project, post hole
tests were investigated within a circumference of 12m surrounding Tzunu'un courtyard. Post-hole
testing were conducted at Tzunu'un to identify areas of concentrated cultural activity, middens, and use
During this phase of the field work, field crews varied from 3 to 6 people. The procedure was:
the establishment of the grid; set the test areas with stakes; and then to proceed with the post-hole
testing phase. Post-hole test units were placed every 4 meters within the 12 meter circumference of the
Tzunu'un courtyard. As with all excavations, an effort was made to excavate until bedrock or, as in the
case of post hole tests, where the unit became too deep to extract materials.
All excavated soil from the post hole tests was screened through 1/4" mesh and all artifacts were
classified, itemized, and counted in the field. The depth of each post-hole was recorded and any unusual
features were noted. Given the small nature of the units it was impossible to discern any but the most
conspicuous changes in stratigraphy.
A preliminary examination of the artifact densities highlighted two areas for further investigation.
The first area, off the southwestern corner of the courtyard platform, had a cluster of obsidian artifacts
recovered in testing. The second, off the southeastern corner of the courtyard, revealed a high
concentration of both ceramic and lithic artifacts. The results will be discussed below in the section on
Further analysis of the artifact densities in the post-hole tests highlighted absences as well as
presence. To the north of the plaza group, there were very few artifacts recovered within the 12 meter
use area surrounding the residential unit. The soil there is a rich mix of loam and clay, with the clay
content increasing towards the western-most test units. It is posited that this area may have been
utilized for the cultivation of a household garden and to provide separation from the plaza's nearest
Off Plaza Excavations
Two units were excavated based on the data derived from the post-hole tests (see Figure 10). The first
OPSE9, was excavated in the southwest corner where a cluster of obsidian artifacts was recovered. The
second, OPSE47, was excavated in the southeastern corner where the post-hole tests indicated a high
concentration of ceramic and lithic artifacts. This latter area had the greatest potential of revealing a
midden area for study.
OP SE 9
This unit was located in the center of the obsidian artifact concentration, in the southwestern part of the
test area near the corer of the plaza courtyard. The unit excavated had a post-hole test in the center of
it, so the artifacts from the post-hole test were considered part of the findings from the unit as a whole.
There were 6 strata identified in the course of excavation. The first 2 strata were the humus [0-
01] and a dark, loamy soil that showed an increasing amount of limestone rock inclusions [0-02]. A
cultural feature covered nearly 75 percent of the 2x2 meter area. This feature was a shelf of compacted
limestone cobbles in a very solid matrix of soil approximately 11 centimeters from the surface [stratum
0-04]. It was not present in the southwestern quadrant of the unit. Two more strata were excavated
before hitting bedrock [strata 0-03 and 0-05]. The bedrock in the southwestern quadrant was deeply
pitted and uneven and had clearly been altered by the ancient Maya (Figure 11). To further investigate
the cobble shelf, part was removed from the southeastern quadrant to determine the artifact content and
to determine what lay underneath. The entire stratum was only 7 centimeters thick and was directly
overlying smooth, unworked limestone bedrock. It appears that the ancient Maya excavated into the
bedrock to create the cultural features of the unit (Figure 12).
As expected from the post-hole tests, a concentration of obsidian artifacts was found. It was
noted that more of the obsidian artifacts were located in the eastern half of the unit in strata 0-01 and 0-
02, while in stratum 0-04, there were no artifacts at all. It was also noted that as the excavation neared
the worked bedrock in the southwestern part of the unit, the artifact density decreased. The obsidian
artifacts recovered from the unit were all pieces of broken prismatic blades. There were 17 pieces of
obsidian recovered from this unit, including one from the post-hole test. There was no evidence of
manufacturing of the obsidian artifacts in this activity area. The broken prismatic blades may have been
dumped in that area because it was out of the way of normal foot traffic.
OP SE 47
The second 2x2 meter unit to be excavated at Tzunu'un was located on the southeastern side, just off the
plaza area. The unit was located based on the high concentration of both ceramic and lithic artifacts (see
Figure 10) recovered during the post-hole test phase.
In the 3 strata excavated above the bedrock, there were no discrete cultural features. The strata
were so similar that after the humus was cleared, an arbitrary level determination of 15 centimeters was
used for excavation.
Despite the uniformity of the soil matrix, a number of interesting artifacts were recovered during
the excavation. There was a large volume of both ceramics and chert lithics. The ceramic assemblage
includes mainly body sherds (large and small), but also some diagnostic forms (rims, bases and necks),
and a variety of vessel pastes from Mars Orange (Middle Preclassic) to Ash Temper (Late Classic).
Analysis of the diagnostic ceramics will help to place Tzunu'un within a chronological framework.
A number of obsidian artifacts were recovered, ranging from broken prismatic blades to a part of
a core and pieces of debitage. One of the prismatic blades was made from Pachuca obsidian. The
distinctive green colored volcanic glass is perceived to be an indicator of the Early Classic period, when
the center of Teotihuacan purportedly controlled the source and traded it widely throughout
Mesoamerica. Other exotic artifacts included, shell (aquatic, probably marine), hematite (part of a
mirror?), and a small black unclassified stone that is mostly smooth with some small pitting on one side.
Excavation and preliminary analysis of the material from OPSE47 suggest that this area may have
been a midden. The terrain slopes slightly away from the elevated plaza courtyard and so their trash
would wash down hill. Furthermore, the presence of large ceramic sherds indicates that this area was not
subject to heavy pedestrian traffic.
Excavation of Structure 1
Structure 1 of Tzunu'un is the largest structure in the compound. It consists of a large platform nearly 12
meters long, 5 meters wide, supporting a collapsed stone structure about 2 meters high. This north facing
building defines the southern border of the plazauela courtyard compound. Near the southwestern corer
of the building, there is a large looters' trench that exposed three floors and two walls of an interior room.
The trench also revealed that part of the platform base was constructed of clean cobble fill. At the
beginning of this season the looters' trench was cleaned and a detailed profile was prepared.
This important structure was investigated to determine the nature of the construction at
Tzunu'un. This would help to define the form and function of Structure 1 to help place its part within
the larger context of the plazauela compound. Investigations were confined to the last occupation of the
This excavation began as a 2x2 meter unit and extended to uncover most of the north, wall of Structure
1. The excavation covered an area of approximately 17 square meters and was accomplished in 22 levels.
The original 2x2 meter unit was placed at the base of Structure 1, slightly east of the center of the
structure. The purpose of the unit was to determine the number and condition of the plaza floors and the
depth of bedrock. The unit subsequently grew in size in order to delineate the northern exterior of
During the initial excavation three plaza floors were uncovered, [(FL) 1-04], [(FL) 1-06], and
[(FL) 1-07]. Floor 1-07 was the cleared surface that had been smoothed out by the Maya. This was the
earliest plaza surface uncovered for Tzunu'un. Floors 1-04 and 1-06 were made of compressed cobble
and soil matrices and had scant remains of plaster on them. Once the first floor was uncovered, [(FL) 1-
04], it was followed south towards the center of Structure 1 in an attempt to identify the front wall of
the building. Almost immediately a fourth plaza surface [(FL) 1-09] was identified and subsequently
The unit was extended 7 meters to the south proceeding in an effort to define the north face of
the structure. A small platform riser wall [(WL) 1-20] was uncovered approximately 2 meters from the
north wall of Structure 1. The wall was a low platform and made of large, rough, chert cobbles.
Eventually the northern wall of Structure 1 was identified, [(WL) 1-24] (see Figure 10). Excavations
followed the wall down to the first floor [(FL) 1-26], which was in relatively good condition when
compared with the plaza floors north of the structure. The floor [(FL) 1-26] and the wall [(WL) 1-24]
were followed to the west to isolate the northwest corner of Structure 1. Floor 1-26 remained in good
condition for most of the length of Structure 1. Fifty centimeters before the corner, the remains of yet
another floor and fill complex were uncovered approximately 21 centimeters above floor 1-26. This
complex [(FL) 1-28 and 1-29] is very small and in poor condition. The details of the northwestern corner
will be discussed more fully in the section dealing with unit 1 BK W.
There were few interesting artifacts recovered in the 1 CTR excavations given its extent. As
expected in any residential group, the majority of the ceramics and lithics recovered were (in the
preliminary analysis) domestic in function; manos, parts of metates, ollas, and fragments of other basic
ceramics vessels. There were a number of broken obsidian prismatic blades represented in the sample,
marine shell and two pieces of jade (a fragment of a bead and 1 piece of debris) which is in keeping with
the presumed elite status of the residents. Due to its rough texture and buff color, Late Classic ash
tempered pottery is easily noted and a considerable amount of ash tempered pottery was recovered
during excavation. Other ceramic temporal indicators, more difficult to identify in the field, will be
determined in the laboratory analysis.
This unit began as an extension of the 1 CTR excavation., and ultimately covered an area 10 square
meters in extent. The crew used the same datum as that of 1 CTR and began the unit by following the
northern exterior wall and floor of Structure 1 [(WL) 1-24, (FL) 1-26] to the east. They excavated to
floor FL1-26 and followed it and [(WL) 1-24] to the northeastern corner of Structure 1. At this corner of
Structure 1 floor FL1-26 disappears from evidence and all that is left is compressed cobble ballast. The
poor state of preservation extended to the northeastern corner of Structure 1, where walls WL1-24 and
WL1-30 intersect. These walls were not in good shape. Several large blocks from the structural collapse
[1-10] seem to have pulled away portions of the corner and the exterior eastern wall [(WL) 1-30].
Excavations proceeded to follow the poorly preserved eastern wall [(WL) 1-30] south along
Structure 1. There was no evidence of floor FL1-26 or any other floor found along the eastern side of
Structure 1. By the end, the excavations exposed the easternmost wall of Structure 1 to the point where
the eastern and southern walls joined.
There were very few artifacts found in this unit compared to other areas around the structure.
Nonetheless there was one partial granite mano found that was in fairly good condition. The absence of
artifacts may relate to the midden identified in the activity area tests off the plaza area nearby in
Unit 1 BK W was opened to expose the western exterior wall of Structure 1. A looter's trench in the
south west corner of the mound had exposed a corner of the structure and what seemed to be the exterior
wall [(WL) 1-18].
There was very little humus visible over this part of the mound probably due to looter activity.
It was decided to remove the humus [1-01] and collapse [1-10] as one level. The excavations followed
wall WL1-18 and floor FL1-11, both originally identified in the looter's trench, to the north and west.
This exposed a concentration of human bones on the floor [(FL) 1-11]. Excavation was halted and the
top layer of the collapse was removed so that the bones would not be disturbed. Once the area of the
possible interment was defined, and the extent of the deposit was considered of a manageable size, we
proceeded to document and remove the bones.
The remains were collected as Burial 1, [(BU)1-23]. The location of this interment was in a 85
cm x 60 cm oval pit cut into floor FL1-11. Immediately over the top of the burial was the fill [1-22]
between two floors, [(FL) 1-11 and (FL) 1-21]. Floor FL1-21 was identified after the burial was
discovered and lies approximately 31 cm above the burial. It is postulated that the floor was a cap placed
over the burial.
The excavation of Burial 1 took three days. The bones were removed from the deposit in three
distinct layers using a trowel and soft brush. The fill was very fine and friable which made it easy to
delineate the bones. All of the soil directly associated with the burial was kept for fine screening and
flotation. There were very few fragments of ceramic and lithic artifacts associated with the remains and
none were reconstructable. Prior to removal, the bones were photographed and mapped. Each of the
fragments were collected after the assignment of a location number for identification purposes, as the
associations of the bones were mixed.
A preliminary laboratory analysis of the bones suggest that the remains represent one adult
individual, age and sex as of yet undetermined. The material consisted primarily of paired long bone
shafts with no epiphyses, or unfused bones present. There was no evidence of teeth, phalanges, ribs,
vertebrae, mandible or maxilla. In this preliminary analysis, it is difficult to determine any signs of
pathologies, intentional damage, or post-mortem trauma due to the deteriorated state of the bones.
As the recovery of small bones, such as teeth and phalanges, usually suggests a primary burial,
the absence of this material suggests a secondary inhumation. Further evidence of a secondary interment
is that the placement of the bones were not in a pattern associated with an articulated skeleton. The
bones were scattered in an small area within the pit (roughly 50 cm square), close to wall WL1-18. The
bones closest to the wall were in better condition than those further away from the wall. This suggests
that the wall acted as a protective force in some point in the interment process. Finally, the burial pit is a
small area, and an articulated adult skeleton, even in the most flexed position would take up a larger
amount of space.
After the burial was recorded and removed for analysis, the excavation of the structure continued.
The crew followed wall WL1-18 and floor FL1-21 approximately 30 centimeters more until they hit a
wall that runs east-west [(WL) 1-25]. As excavation moved further north, the condition of the floor FL1-
21 improves dramatically in preservation. Wall WL1-25 extends for 1.85 meters east-west. It was at this
point that it became clear the wall [(WL) 1-18] was not an exterior one. Wall WL1-25 is in good
condition and is made of cut limestone block. There was no plaster remaining on the surface of this wall.
In the northeast comer of the wall WL1-25/1-18 interface, there is a narrow doorway that has been
purposely sealed with well-cut stone. Adjacent to wall WL1-25 on the west side is wall WL1-27, the
actual exterior wall of Structure 1. This wall was followed along the outside of the structure and along
the length its condition deteriorated. The faced blocks had been placed three courses wide and were
cemented together with limestone mortar. Over time, and with collapse of the upper portions of the
building, the outer layers of blocks had started to peel away from the side of the structure. The remains
of the wall [(WL) 1-27] were followed north until they reached the northwestern corner. The corner had
been partially destroyed by the collapse of the structure, however, enough remained to determine its
This area of the excavations, like those on the east side, yielded few artifacts. It appears that the
exterior rear and sides of the structure, particularly the upper portions, included few artifacts of note.
There was some obsidian, but only a few small fragments of ceramics and lithics. It is likely that the
majority of the artifacts washed down to the lower elevations towards the plaza floor.
This unit was begun as an extension of unit 1 BK W. Following the interpretations from the profile of
the looter's trench, which indicated where floor FL1-11 contacted the southern most exterior wall [(WL)
1-31], we continued the task of delineating Structure 1. We followed wall WL1-31 and floor FL1-11 to
the east. First, the humus layer was removed across the 1x6 meter trench. Identifying wall WL1-31 in
the process. This wall was followed down approximately 1 meter to the floor [(FL)1-11]. The wall
[(WL) 1-31] was cleared all the way to the southeastern comer of Structure 1 where it joins with wall
WL1-30. The south structure wall is generally in good condition along the excavation length. The
exception is in the last 3 meters near the southeastern corner which has slumped out southward due to
the collapse of the upper portion of the structure.
During the excavation few artifacts were recovered in the collapse [1-10]. However, near the
surface of the floor the number of artifacts increased slightly. Artifacts recovered include fragments of
tools and utilitarian ceramics, as well as some of the finer wares associated with the elite.
Excavations at Structure 2
Structure 2 is located on the eastern side of the plaza and defines that side of the residential unit. The
excavations at Structure 2 were begun to define the covers of the structure. This structure is roughly
square, limestone building; 7 meters long, 6 meters wide and 1.19 meters in height situated on a
foundation platform. To the south and west is Structure 1 and to the north and west is Structure 3 and
Structure 4 (see Figure 10). There appears to be a low mound-feature that connects the southern end of
Structure 2 with the northeastern end of Structure 1. It is possible that this feature represents a wall
that restricts access to the plaza platform from the east side.
Excavations at Structure 2 were modest in extent. There were four 2x2 meters units, one on each
of the corner areas of this squared structure. Efforts were made to define the perimeter of the structure in
order to plan for more in-depth excavations. Data from these units will help define future investigations
and consolidations of Structure 2.
The northern units exposed comers that were in poor condition. Three walls were identified in
these units. Two that run north-south, wall [(WL) 2-03] on the west side, and wall [(WL) 2-08] on the
east. The third wall extends between the latter two walls and runs east-west [(WL) 2-05]. The two
north-south walls appear to have been constructed using the same technique as in wall WL1-27 of
Structure 1. The walls are two courses wide and bound together with a limestone mortar. As in Structure
1, this mortar is allowing the stones to peel away from the side of the structure.
On the other side of Structure 2, the southeast corner is better defined. In this corner it is evident
that the back of the structure was raised on a platform on the east side to make it level with the western
face in the courtyard plaza. There was a high concentration of artifacts in the southwestern side of this
unit, suggesting another possible midden location.
The fourth unit did not uncover the southwestern corner of Structure 2. Wall WL2-03, first
encountered in the northwestern unit, also ran through this unit. However, the 2x2 meter unit was not
placed in such a position to easily encounter the comer. Another complicating aspect was the presence
of possible human bone in the northwestern portion of the unit wall. The bone was encountered in the
area suggested as the doorway to the structure. Given the time constraints faced at the end of a season
and the unknown extent of the bone, the feature was covered in situ, to be investigated sometime in the
Artifacts recovered from Structure 2 were similar to those of Structure 1. Overall, there was a
high proportion of utilitarian vessel sherds and stone tool fragments. There was also obsidian present as
well as a piece of coral. These findings were expected and consistent with the materials from the rest of
Investigating the possible Chultun: CHT-ONE
One of the more unusual units excavated this season was CHT-ONE (Figure 10). It was investigated
because there was a possibility that it had been a chultun ancient Maya storage unit although it was in a
state of poor preservation. Since one of the goals of excavating this domestic group was to determine
activity areas, it was important to know if this was indeed a chultun.
The mouth of the aperture was cleaned of debris, and was smoked-out to prevent ambush from
creatures from within. Then a 1x2 meter unit was staked around the opening and the fill to the south was
removed to obtain a clear view of the opening. As the opening seemed to continue, both down and to the
north, the excavation was continued.
There were 4 strata identified and very few artifacts recovered from the unit. Strata [ch-01] and
[ch-02] were defined as humus and a layer of soil and limestone rocks (cobbles, pebbles and gravel).
Stratum [ch-03] was defined as a hard matrix of chunky limestone (possibly decomposing bedrock). This
stratum was first identified as a shelf approximately 1 meter in length taking up the southern half of the
unit (Figure 13). This stratum was later found to continue in the northern part of the unit, where it
extends northeast beyond the parameters of the unit (under a tree). However, the continuity of [ch-03] is
interrupted by stratum [ch-04]. Ch-04 is an area nearly 80 centimeters in length and 70 centimeters in
width of very fine sandy loam (10 YR 6/2). Stratum [ch-04] continued for at least 1.10 meters with few
artifacts at the top of the strata but almost none towards the bottom. In the absence of cultural features
or a significant amount of artifacts, the unit was closed.
A preliminary analysis of the findings from CHT-ONE suggest that the opening was a fissure in
bedrock and the presence of artifacts are explained by the natural processes of the tree growth, animal
activity and weathering over the millennia. It is a possibility that the fissure was enhanced by the
ancient Maya, although there is little evidence that it was a chultun. Either possibility would explain the
scant presence of artifacts.
The work conducted at Tzunu'un during the 1996 field season presents several preliminary findings. The
post-hole tests and the 2x2 meter test units have illuminated three distinct use areas. The first, to the
north of the plaza, is an area of very few artifacts and may have been used for a forest garden. The
second area, to the southwest, was defined by the deposition of broken obsidian blades. This expanse
was limited by the aguada to the west and the household group to the east. The third, and final, area
identified was a scattered midden to the southeast of the compound. The southeast open area off the
plaza represented a dramatic density in artifact fragments with a wide variety, size and amount of
The excavations on Structure 1 defined the extent of the building, identified four plaza floors, six
structural floors and one room with one secondary burial. The excavations on Structure 2 served to identify
the covers, and to define a better plan for future excavations. The excavations and artifacts recovered from
both Structures 1 and 2 have helped to document the hypothesis that zunu'un served a primarily as a
domestic compound and the diversity of status goods, such as obsidian, marine shell, jade pieces, and vase
substantiate the elite aspect of the residential unit. Future excavations may reveal other functions at the
Data from the 1996 field season will help direct future work planned for Tzunu'un. Further
excavation is necessary to define the form and function of the remaining three structures as well as the
interiors of Structures 1 and 2. Soundings within the structures will help to develop the construction
chronology of the group and to relate it to the community and center. Finally, further excavations both
within and outside the plazauela courtyard compound will help define the activity areas in an ancient May
elite household and also define the planned reconstruction of these excavated structure will demonstrate to
visitors the many facets of the ancient Maya community of El Pilar
PLANTING THE SEEDS OF A MAYA FOREST GARDEN
The idea of a forest garden encompasses a variety of disciplines including archaeology,
agroforestry, agriculture, ethnobotany, and community development. The El Pilar Program is in
the preliminary steps of recreating the Maya forest garden and the Tzunu'un residential group.
This forest garden will reproduce an aspect of ancient Maya life with the hope of incorporating
this system into practical use today.
Contemporary forest gardens are found scattered throughout the Maya world providing
an important source of traditional botanical knowledge. The El Pilar program has decided to take
advantage of this remaining knowledge to recreate a forest garden in the El Pilar Archaeological
Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna. The forest garden project has been constructed with
collaborative efforts from the El Pilar Program and the Amigos de El Pilar, under the auspices of
the Dept. of Agriculture.
The program has envisioned a forest garden based on extensive archaeological research of
household and settlement data in the Maya region. This data suggests a continuum of resource
management strategies from intensive polycultural systems within densely settled communities
such as El Pilar to scattered extensive fields within forest settings in sparsely settled areas. In an
effort to explore the relationship between humans and nature and understand the effects of this
interaction as part of indigenous concepts and conservation strategies, a team headed by
Constanza Ocampo and Sharon Watson began the project of developing a Maya forest-garden.
The first step to create a forest garden was to develop a relationship with the adjacent
community. The village community Bullet Tree Falls is located at the riverside south of El Pilar.
The program has had extensive contact with this village over the years. In the area there are still
several well kept forest gardens, which we recognized as an important information source. These
are beginning to be carefully documented with a focus given to their structure and composition.
The contacts with the village were developed through the Amigos de El Pilar (AdEP)
community based organization. AdEP is a volunteer organization supporting the El Pilar
Archaeological Reserve For Maya Flora and Fauna. Among those in the group, two members
have been of invaluable help, guiding us with their knowledge through the process of reviving the
Maya forest garden: Carmen Cruz (currently a caretaker at El Pilar), a life-long milpero and
chiclero, and, Heriberto Cocom, also a milpero and a respected Maya elder. Heriberto Cocom
has an immense knowledge of plants and maintains a forest garden of his own.
The first part of the season was spent exploring the El Pilar Archaeological Reserve and
learning about the plants and uses in the area. Much time was spent walking around the different
trails with Carmen Cruz collecting seeds and tagging trees and plants that were encountered.
Trees were identified by their botanical name and labeled with aluminum tags in the start of the
long and continuing process of identifying the flora of the site. The tags contained Maya,
Spanish, Creole, English, and botanical names of the plants along with, when space permitted, a
brief description of its use, and finally the botanical family to which they belong. This task was
not completed and will be an ongoing task for the project.
This time we briefly had a botanical illustrator, Carlin Moyer, working together with us.
She drew plant species we believe were particularly important, interesting, and beautiful, such as
Jackass Bitters (Figure 14). She collected samples and photographed examples from the
surrounding area. This helped by focusing at the microscopic level on the botanical structure of
plants thereby aiding the future classification and recognition of important families and species.
During this time, Ernie Bury, a retired contractor interested in lime production using the
corozo palm and local limestone quarries began his investigations. Through interviews with
Carmen Cruz, Bury hoped to reproduce the lime-production process and obtain information on
lime-kiln efficiency. This knowledge was supported by Bury's experiments. The experiments
yielded useful insights into lime production processes as well as valuable time to discuss with
Carmen Cruz the nature of the forest, building a vital resource of information.
While acquainting ourselves with the flora of the area, we had the opportunity to tour the
Lakin trail with Feliz Tzul, head of the Department of Agriculture, Cayo Extension; Gumercindo
Mai, extension officer for the Department of Agriculture; and Francisco Tzul, from the Belize
College of Agriculture. Their experience provided information beyond the scope of medicinal
usage. The information collected with Carmen Cruz, Heriberto Cocoom, the Tzul brothers and
other members of the community has produced a list of over 200 species (Appendix II).
The plants which were documented were those of economic value relevant to all aspects
of human use. As a result, an initial household inventory of forest products with associated uses
has been compiled. The uses cover a range including construction, toys, food, spices, medicine
and fibers. Due to the current worldwide interest on natural medicinal materials, it was initially
difficult to obtain information on other useful plants. However, as the study progressed the
informants began to understand the concept we were trying to recreate and little by little we have
recorded the natural supermarket not just the pharmacopoeia found in the flora and fauna of the
Maya forest. The forest garden project of the El Pilar Archaeological Reserve is designed to
awaken interest in the community and reincorporate this knowledge into their everyday life.
This garden can provide a direct food source, and if well developed in the future, has the potential
of being exploited economically. Thus, while conducting ethnobotanical research, the project
started the community development aspect of the forest garden. We believe that people today
are slowly forgetting their knowledge of plants, consequently abandoning such traditional
practices as forest gardening. In Bullet Tree Falls, only a few families are currently practicing
the polycultural system of a forest garden.
During each AdEP meeting (every Sunday at 3 PM) the group attentively discussed the
concept and importance of the forest garden. Since AdEP has participated in several workshops.
These included presentations by the El Pilar Program on relevant themes of biodiversity and the
benefits of retaining and using traditional knowledge. The first workshop was followed by
another on flora and fauna given by the Director of the Belize Zoo, Sharon Matola. Through
these workshops we began the process of education focusing on the necessity of resource
The immediate plan for the forest garden experiment is to create three separate forest
gardens. These separate gardens would represent the variety found within the Maya forest
today. One garden would be located atBe Pukte, the AdEP community lot in Bullet Tree Falls.
This garden would be entirely a creation of the organization and will grow to fill the lot as a part
of the village ecotourism strategy. The Tzunu'un of El Pilar is strictly planned to contain only
traditional indigenous species as a demonstration of the heritage of the ancient Maya. The third
garden is that around the caretaker house at El Pilar, which will reflect the needs of the caretakers
and house the nursery for the gardens.
Be Pukte Forest Garden
The forest garden at Be Pukte, the meeting site of AdEP, has a strong component of community
involvement. Together, the plan is to construct a garden that will be representative of the
potential of forest gardens for the future. Consequently, the garden will contain all the plants and
trees found useful to villagers, including introduced and endemic species of the area. It will serve
as a model for villagers, something that could be adopted in their homes. Also, once the garden
matures, it will serve as a plant bank for AdEP members, a resource of seeds and cuttings for
their own use. The garden will also aid in landscaping the area since, at the moment Be Pukte is
barren, containing the modern galeria and ancient Maya mound as the only attractions.
The landscaping is important, as this area is proposed to be a tourist stop as a gateway to
El Pilar. AdEP wants to be able to sell tropical fruit products obtained from the garden along
with local arts and crafts to visitors. The Be Pukte galeria garden could also serve in providing
local information about the area and the archaeological sites.
Tzunu'un Forest Garden
The forest garden at Tzunu'un is the most traditional of the garden sites as it will have only
endemic flora; therefore recreating a view of an ancient Maya forest garden. This forest garden is
being revived to surround an ancient elite household compound Tzunu'un, a total combined area
of 3215 m2 Tzunu'un is a residential compound covering an area of approximately 1440m2.
The area designated for the forest garden has been Carmen Cruz's milpa in the recent past,
including an area that has a patch of old secondary growth forest, estimated at about 25 years old.
Don Carmen has explained that he did not cut it down because he found the area charming and
full of useful trees. This has been confirmed by other informants, including members of the
Dept. of Agriculture.
The first step in creating this example of a traditional garden was to remove all the trees
smaller than 5 cm diameter at breast height (DBH). This process of thinning has been
traditionally used and is documented for gardens in the Yucatan peninsula. During the thinning
we learned much from our Belizean co-workers about plants and the milpa system. After
thinning was completed, the area was divided into sections (30 total) and within the sections each
tree was given a number, tagged, described, identified (when possible), given an x and y
coordinate and DBH. This provides the basis of a floral inventory that will serve as basis to a
monitor succession in this portion of forest through time.
After the floral inventory was completed, a nursery was established near the caretaker's
house at El Pilar. The nursery, which consists of a Corozo champita, took several days to
construct and provides the shade needed for the seedlings and plants. Also it provides a place to
prepare good soil for the new plants. To prepare planting soil, starter soil was gathered from the
nearby areas and mixed with cow manure from the Santa Familia Monastery to create enough
fertile planting mix for all the transplanting bags as well as the seeding bed.
Plants were collected for the El Pilar nursery. First, the team searched the reserve for
specific plants to include in the garden. New plants were tagged for later collection, then
transferred to bags, and taken to the nursery. Several saplings were collected of each species in
order to have enough for the gardens as well as compensate for those plants that did not survive.
Second, Heriberto Cocoom would bring bundles of plants from his own forest garden near Bullet
Tree Falls and we would place them in bags to include in the nursery. Seeds and cuttings were
also obtained from duPoolys, a local resort with extensive gardens. Together these provided our
first resource base for the new forest gardens.
Caretakers Forest Garden
The forest garden around the caretakers' house is part of a developing garden that the caretakers
have started. This garden will take longer to achieve maturity as, at present, it is planted in an
area that was recently completely cleared. The composition of the garden, however, will be
similar to that at Be Pukte in the sense that it will contain a mixture of endemic and exotic species
aimed to meet local needs and palate. The caretakers' garden will contain a variety of introduced
species that are currently heavily used in the area such as mangos, citrus, bananas, and star apple.
Selected plants and trees will have the important role of providing shade for young seedlings,
species such as papaya and banana would be excellent choices due to the recent clearing.
The process of recreating a Maya forest garden has had the help of a variety of people
from a wide range of disciplines. Jan Meerman and Tinika Boomsman, both ecologists living in
Belize, have contributed valued knowledge and helped with plant and animal identification. They
have also been an invaluable source of information and expertise. They will continue in
collaboration with the natural aspects of El Pilar. Carlin Moyer, a botanical illustrator, devoted
time to the drawing of plants from the garden and Paul Bailly, an architect from California, spent
a week obtaining photos of plants and drawings for his schematic representation of the Maya
forest garden. Ken duPlooy shared his experiences of building a garden and explained the
processes of grafting, cutting, and germinating, as well as general care for the plants in our
nursery. We have also been greatly helped by Brother Benedict from the Santa Familia
Monastery who has contributed with countless seeds and has collected saplings from the
Monastery's garden which he donated for the project.
The Natural Side of El Pilar
The plan for planting the rooted plants and sprouted seeds follows basic permacultural concepts
obtained from books by Bill Mollison adapted to a tropical forest ecosystem. We also had the
expertise of permaculturalist Bill Roley, of the Permaculture Institute of California, who aided in
the landscape design. As the seedlings are planted, consejeros will continue to monitor the
progress of the forest garden in El Pilar. They will keep a log on fauna observed in the garden,
prevent attacks from the ferocious leaf cutter ants, and undertake of the overall maintenance of
the area. Efforts such as the El Pilar forest-garden will prove valuable since a forest garden not
only provides food but also serves as a refuge for animals and plants. The El Pilar forest garden
represents an opportunity to directly unify traditional knowledge, adequate land management,
and practical use.
Part of the goal for the El Pilar Program is to present a unique approach to archaeology,
incorporating different disciplines to produce results relevant to today's problems. The forest
garden brings this goal one step closer by integrating the importance of humans in an
IMPLICATIONS OF THE MAYA FOREST GARDEN
Many tropical areas are relics of human habitats and nowhere is this more obvious than that of
the Maya forest. The integrated relationship between environment and culture that lasted more
than four millennia is etched in ancient Maya settlement patterns and is well documented at El
Pilar. These ancient patterns take on significant implications when we consider the future of this
area and the people. Clearly the Maya forest provided rich, diverse resources that nurtured the
Maya civilization, with the same potential waiting for contemporary villagers.
Traditional resource management and conservation in the Maya forest supported the
elaborate ancient civilization and provides a template for the demonstration Maya forest-garden
that spotlights biodiversity as part of a sustainable polycultural model. No reserve exists within
a vacuum and, in order to survive and thrive, the local population must assume a stewardship
role. Towards this goal, strong collaborative ties are being forged between the El Pilar Program
and the adjacent community, through Amigos de El Pilar, to develop innovative resource
management strategies that revive the ancient Maya model.
The ecological research at El Pilar is multi-disciplinary, addressing the interplay between
the natural and cultural domains. Efforts are underway evaluating the flora and fauna of El Pilar
as the foundation for land use models that represent an alliance with nature. An extended growth
botanical study is monitoring a test plot of undisturbed forest to gain insight into local
biodiversity. Agricultural studies are beginning with the help of local farmers. In all aspects of
the research, the program is encouraging the villagers to participate and stand as partners and
beneficiaries of future developments of El Pilar.
The plans for El Pilar are to develop a strategy that will provide short-term benefits for
the villagers as well as bring long-term solutions to the environmental and economic concerns of
the area. Through an ecotourism approach, the Maya center of El Pilar will feature the daily life
of the Maya and their methods of coexisting with the environment by developing the
polycultural model. This model is based on an eclectic mix of crops that depend on available
labor, rather than scarce capital. The scheme includes nitrogen fixing legumes such as acacia and
beans, and phosphate generating palms such as the corozo or cohune, that together regenerate
soils that are depleted by grains such as maize.
At El Pilar, the innovative polycultural design is based on a small-scale household plan
and includes indigenous and introduced annuals and perennials interspersed with tree crops. By
considering the appropriate combination of cultigens and native economic plants, the polycultural
planting system will be a model that is adaptable to a variety of local conditions: forest cover,
soil fertility, and proximity to population. As a demonstration of an effective strategy for
survival, the Maya forest garden at El Pilar will be an ongoing source of innovation for the
community, fostering resource conservation and community development that allies with the
Biological corridors aimed at promoting biodiversity are only as effective as the
intervening links, and those links are the local populations. The forest garden design at El Pilar
recognizes the contribution of traditional village communities towards strategic management of
their own resources. Experiments within the reserve will document failures and underscore
successes and, with community involvement, will provide a vehicle for transmitting the successes
within the reserve to beyond its boundaries, converting extensive monoculture into biologically
diverse polyculture. This will simultaneously promote biodiversity and demonstrate a
sustainable mixed-management approach to the contemporary economic landscape of the Maya
forest. As a model conservation program, El Pilar will be a monument to the past and convincing
evidence for the future.
THE DESIGN FOR EL PILAR
The Belize River Archaeological Settlement Survey (BRASS) has compiled regional settlement
data, identified local community patterns and investigated aspects of household organization
evident in the archaeological record of the central Maya lowlands. The ancient Maya economic
landscape reflects a continuum of land use strategies from densely settled, intensively used
uplands, dispersed and extensively used transitional zones, to unsettled swamps. City centers,
such as El Pilar, were surrounded with an average of 1 structure per hectare or 2 per acre,
clustered around courtyard patios. These data elucidate the subsistence patterns that imply social
interactions at the residential and community levels but do not include the civic realms. Directing
attention to the civic components is critical for understanding the social and political integration
of Maya civilization. As a representative major civic center, the monuments of El Pilar cover
more than 100 acres or 40 hectares. The construction histories of El Pilar's temples, plazas, and
palaces reveal clues to the development ofMaya civilization, and the examination of surrounding
residential components will help to elucidate the nature of the ancient economic landscape. The
reconstruction of example Maya houses in their forest gardens along with the conservation of the
major monuments will be a novel attraction for the ecotourist. The reconstruction of the ancient
traditions of El Pilar will provide the context for a new perception of Maya prehistory, one that
takes into account the complexity and continuities of the Maya forest and its peoples.
The BRASS/El Pilar Program is rooted in the anthropological study of the human/
environment relationship. It draws on the foundation of cultural ecology, interpreting
evolutionary changes in strategies for survival. The composition of the Maya forest today
exhibits the imprint of ancient human habitation and resource management. This resource
relationship is characterized in the Mayan language among contemporary farmers and
underscores the subtleties and ranges of their economic and cultural alliance with the forest. For
example, the Mayan word for climax forest, K'ax, is used in significant combinations which
suggest complex adaptations and interactions with the environment. Kanan K'ax describes a "well
cared for" forest, evoking a concept of stewardship; K'ax il kab refers to a forest with beehives;
and Ka'kab K'ax indicates a forest with good agricultural soil quality. These linguistic terms
describe a continuum of economic qualities of the forest and denote long-term human coexistence
with the environment. The goal of the El Pilar Program is to evaluate continuities and shifts in the
evolution of this relationship through time and across space.
Today, the ancient Maya center of El Pilar stretches over the political boundary of Belize and
Guatemala, and a protected core area for the site is now in the process of legislation. In addition,
collaborative efforts between the El Pilar Program in Belize and Mexico's Instituto Nacional de
Antropologia e Historia (INAH) seek to introduce a new conservation standard for El Pilar.
Endeavoring to build on the wealth of archaeological experience in Mexico and Guatemala,
combined with the growing regional ecotourism agenda of Mundo Maya, Belize has spearheaded
the move to bring El Pilar under governmental protection as a new tour destination. This is being
followed by Guatemala. The goal of the BRASS/El Pilar Program is to build a collaborative
consensus strategy for research and development at El Pilar that has ramifications for the Maya
area as a whole.
Working towards a consensus that takes the unique vision of the El Pilar Program, the
Belize Department of Archaeology can bring this vision into a clear resolution. The goal for El
Pilar is to craft the theoretical, technical, structural and institutional basis for charting the research
and development program for the whole of El Pilar that can create a community basis for natural
and cultural resource management and conservation. El Pilar is destined to be a novel ecotourist
destination that features ancient community life of the Maya and provides adjacent villagers with
sustainable alternatives and opportunities that conserve cultural and natural resources of our