Mapping la Milpa: A Maya City in Northwestern Belize

Article excerpt


La Milpa is a major Lowland Maya site in northwestern Belize, close to the frontiers with the Guatemalan Department of El Peten and the Mexican State of Quintana Roo, and in an area until recently relatively inaccessible because of the lack of roads through the rainforest. The research reported here, complementing that by several other projects in the region, follows the acquisition of some 350,000 acres of forest by the Programme for Belize as an ecological preserve and the establishment of a Scientific Advisory Board for Archaeology.

The Boston University-National Geographic Society La Milpa Archaeological Project (LaMAP) began field operations in February 1992: our aim is to build up an holistic picture of an ancient Maya community that appears to have flourished for several centuries, by mapping the pattern of settlement and its relationship to landscape, studying the range of mineral and plant resources available to the inhabitants and by carrying out surface collection and excavations to determine the nature, extent and persistence of Maya culture there and understand the ancient city in its environmental context.

Because of the location of La Milpa in a biosphere reserve, our methods are designed to have the minimum impact on the present forest environment: large-scale stripping of vegetation and topsoil from the temples and plazas of the site core, followed by consolidation or restoration of numerous buildings, such as has been carried out on some other Maya sites in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, is not part of our remit. Such exposure of buildings as we do carry out over the next decade must reconcile the legitimate demands of archaeo- and eco-tourism with the long-term conservation of La Milpa.

The site of La Milpa

La Milpa is located on the eastern edge of the core area of Classic Maya civilization, centred in the northeastern Peten and adjacent areas of Mexico. It lies mid-way between the well-known and recently investigated sites of Rio Azul (Adams 1990) and Lamanai (Pendergast 1981), both with a long history of occupation, from perhaps as early as the late Middle Preclassic (600-400 BC) onwards. The city occupied an upland area between the Rio Bravo escarpment to the east and south, and the Rio Azul to the north; the western side of the site is drained by an intermittent tributary of the Rio Azul which we have named Thompson's Creek. The centre of La Milpa stands about 180 m above sea level (asl) on a prominent limestone ridge, the highest point for some distance around. Rugged forested terrain stretches west into Guatemala and east to the Rio Bravo, where the scarp drops from 160 m asl to the coastal plain at 20 m asl within 2 km.

Loran coordinates for La Milpa are given by Ford & Fedick (1988: 15) as 17 |degrees~ 49 16N and 89 |degrees~ 0321W. We independently obtained a location approximately 1 km farther north at 17 |degrees~ 5006N, 89 |degrees~ 0306 (UTM 16Q BQ 2-82-637E, 19-72-929N), using a hand-held Magellan GPS receiver atop Pyramid 1 on the Great Plaza. The research area of LaMAP is defined as a 6-km radius from the Great Plaza: comparison with existing maps of Tikal, Seibal and other sites suggests that the entire community, including several subordinate ceremonial precincts, should lie within this 113 sq. km.

Previous work

La Milpa was first explored and named by the late Sir Eric Thompson in March 1938. He mapped the main plaza and the locations of 12 stelae therein, and noted the complex of courtyards south of the plaza (Thompson 1938; Hammond 1991). Stela 7 bore a clear CR date of 12 Ahau 8 Pax and the corresponding IS of (30 November AD 780), and the other carved stelae Thompson was able to observe were also Late Classic in style. Thompson thought that the site might be the largest in British Honduras (as Belize then was; neither Caracol nor Lamanai had been explored at this point), but the only other published reference to it (Thompson 1939: 280) simply lists the 'pyramids, mounds, enclosed courts, nine sculptured and three plain stelae, plain altars'. …