Squaring Off: Late Middle Preclassic Architectural Innovation at Cuello, Belize. (News & Notes)

Article excerpt

Excavations at the early Maya village site of Cuello, Belize, intermitted 1993-2000, were continued in 2002. One objective was to complete investigation of the north-side structures of the Middle Preclassic courtyard group which formed the focus of the Cuello community from before 900 to c. 400 BC (Hammond 1991: figures 3.4-3.9), the Late Preclassic structures above them having been excavated in the previous season (Hammond et al. 2000). A second aim was to uncover the western section of the sweathouse or pib na, dating to c. 900 BC and thus antedating other known Preclassic Maya sweathouses by half a millennium (Hammond & Bauer 2001). A new 5x5-m trench, south and west of the catercornered areas investigated in 2000 and thus linking them, was taken swiftly down through the successive plaster floors of the Late Preclassic Platform 34 and the massive rubble courtyard infill beneath them (FIGURE 1); from the courtyard floor down, excavation was as a single 11x5-m trench.


At its north end was the eastern portion of Structure 315: the remainder had been excavated in 1976 and 1990, and we expected its final phases (Str. 315d-e) to be subrectangular and some 10 m long, with the axial front step and doorway bisected by the 40E section (Hammond 1991: figures 5.12, 5.14-16). We were wrong: Str. 315 extended only 2 m east, making it almost square in plan, with the projecting `step' being a low platform attached to the southeast corner (FIGURE 2), and the `doorway' an inset niche forming a step up on the platform surface. We confirmed that the rectangular plan was initiated with Str. 315d, probably in the early 5th century BC, which had been severely truncated before receiving a new fill and final floor; these were in turn slighted when the courtyard's flanking structures were ceremoniously destroyed and buried below Platform 34 c. 400 BC.


Str. 315a-c had an apsidal plan, like Str. 320a-f below and slightly south on the smaller courtyard which existed before 600 BC: the innovations of a square-cornered plan and a higher basal platform, two of the defining traits of later Maya ceremonial architecture, seem to have occurred around the middle of the millennium. Str. 315d-e was partnered by Str. 314 on the western side of the courtyard and Str. 334 on the east (Hammond et al. 2000: figure 2), the latter replacing the apsidal-ended Str. 339 but set further back.

The progressive enlargement of the Middle Preclassic courtyard between 600 and 400 BC was documented by the horizontal stratigraphy of its floors (FIGURE 3). The white floor 8057 (left foreground) ended at the southern margin of Str. 320; the yellow floor 6146 (left rear) was carefully lapped over it, the older floor being shaved down to achieve a level surface, and abutted the front of Str. 315. When the latter was squared off, a further floor extension (6142) was laid down (far right in FIGURE 3: the northern portion has already been excavated), wrapping round 6146 to abut the eastern side of Str. 315d, and extending eastwards over the demolished Str. 339 to rise up the front terrace of Str. 334.


Laying of this last floor had sealed a grave cut into the dark earth and sheet midden that lay outside the floored courtyard area. The grave cist for Burial 186 was 1.16 m long, a dimension appropriate for a subadult, as with Burial 181 found in 2000 (Hammond et al. 2000: figure 3); the skeleton within was, however, that of a robust adult female in her 20s, who had been c. 1.70 m tall. …