No Slow Dusk: Maya Urban Development and Decline in la Milpa, Belize

By Hammond, Norman; Tourtellot, Gair et al. | Antiquity, December 1998 | Go to article overview

No Slow Dusk: Maya Urban Development and Decline in la Milpa, Belize


Hammond, Norman, Tourtellot, Gair, Donaghey, Sara, Clarke, Amanda, Antiquity


'. . . and each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds'

WILFRED OWEN Anthem for doomed youth 1917

La Milpa is a medium-sized Maya city in northwestern Belize. Discovered by the late Sir Eric Thompson in 1938, it has been investigated since 1992 by Boston University (Hammond 1991; Hammond & Bobo 1994; Hammond et al. 1996; Hammond & Tourtellot 1998; Tourtellot et al. 1993; 1994; 1996), research which has elucidated an unusual though not unique developmental trajectory, culminating in an explosive expansion of population and both monumental and domestic architecture in the period AD 750-850.

La Milpa is roughly equidistant from the very large cities of Tikal and Calakmul, some 90 km to the southwest and northwest respectively, about 20 km east from the major centre of Rio Azul in northeast Guatemala, and 40 km west of Lamanai, on New River Lagoon in the coastal plain of Belize (see Tourtellot et al. 1993: [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]), and covers an estimated 78 sq. km. The site core lies 190 m above sea level on a limestone ridge dissected by ravines, at 17[degrees] 50[minutes] 06[seconds] N, 89[degrees] 03[minutes] 6[seconds] W (UTM 16Q BQ 2-82-637E, 19-72929N). Monumental architecture, with buildings up to 24 m high and 90 m long, covers some 650x400 m (26 hectares), in two areas linked by a sacbe causeway spanning the narrow neck of land between the eastern and western drainages [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED].

The northern sector includes the Great Plaza (Plaza A), covering nearly 20,000 sq. m and bordered on the east by three major temple-pyramids, Structures 1-3. Within it is a fourth pyramid, Str. 10, and two ball-courts, Strs. 6-7 and 11-12, unusually aligned on opposite axes (Schultz et al. 1994). Str. 10 faces south towards the 90m-long 'palace' Str. 8: their construction as an ensemble seems to have occurred late in the history of the Great Plaza, partly blocking Str. 3 and access to the raised court behind Str. 9. Strs. 9 and 2 are also axially aligned across the plaza; like most other structures there, they date in final form to the Late/Terminal Classic period between AD 750 and 850, during which numerous and rapid modifications were instituted and a number of stelae dedicated (Grube 1994). The lack of buildings on the north and northwestern sides of the plaza suggests that the final redevelopment remained incomplete when La Milpa was abandoned. Occupation deposits and plaster floors of the Late Preclassic (400 BC-AD 250) in almost every excavation to bedrock (Hammond et al. 1996) suggest an initial settlement covering at least 1.5 ha., and looters' trenches into most major buildings show a complex, though modest, construction history in the Early Classic period (AD 250-600).

At least four stelae were dedicated in the Early Classic (Grube 1994), indicating a claim to rulership by the lords of La Milpa, so this lack of architectural substance is intriguing; part of our objective in 1998 was to flesh out the bare bones of the site's Early Classic history. In 1996 a royal tomb of c. AD 450 was found close to Stela 1 and the northwest angle of Str. 1: since symmetrically positioned elite burials of this period are known from the nearby site of Rio Azul (Adams 1990), we sought its putative partner southwest of Str. 1 (Op. A23, A32). Although no tomb was found, we located a line of Early Classic cached offerings in front of the building, coeval with its buried initial phase. There continued to be a paucity of Early Classic pottery, and also of early Late Classic (Tepeu 1 equivalent) ceramics from La Milpa in general, indicating that this elite activity took place not only within a fairly modest community, but in one that rapidly faded into insignificance for at least two centuries. We believe that this decline, and the subsequent repopulation and florescence of La Milpa in the 8th century, are linked with the wider geopolitics of the contest between Tikal and Calakmul adumbrated by Martin & Grube (1995). …

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