The Ancient Maya of the Belize Valley: Half a Century of Archaeological Research

By Simmons, Scott E. | Southeastern Archaeology, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

The Ancient Maya of the Belize Valley: Half a Century of Archaeological Research


Simmons, Scott E., Southeastern Archaeology


The Ancient Maya of the Belize Valley: Half a Century of Archaeological Research. JAMES F. GARBER (ed.). University of Press of Horida, Gainesville, 2004. xiii + 417 pp., 85 b&w illus., 4 maps, 14 tables, notes, biblio., index. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8130-2685-7.

Reviewed by Scott E. Simmons

In the half a century that's passed since Gordon Willey's groundbreaking work in the Belize Valley, the pace of archaeological research there has accelerated rapidly. The results of numerous, tightly focused research projects in the valley over the last five decades have greatly improved our understanding of the complex dynamic development of ancient Maya society. As Chase and Garber note in the first chapter of this edited volume, Willey's work revolutionized Maya archaeology by forcing researchers to reexamine their traditional elite-centric focus on Maya sites. This, in turn, lead to the development of settlement pattern studies and what has become an important subfield in the discipline today, household archaeology.

Prior to his passing, Gordon Willey wrote chapter 2 of the volume, titled "Retrospective." Willey's retrospective is a brief, anecdotal history of his work on settlement patterns in the valley and how he became involved in that research. This chapter is an invaluable contribution as it comes from the perspective of a pioneer of the kind of work that is now taken as essential in helping researchers understand the complexities of human social organization.

Chapter 3 is a review of the Formative period history of the Maya site of Blackman Eddy. The work done by James Garber and his associates is important because up until their work beginning in the 1990s, little was known about the Formative period history of the Belize Valley. Specifically, this work is important in documenting the rise of cultural complexity during the Jenny Creek phase (900-300 B.C.), our understanding of which had been limited prior to excavations at Blackman Eddy.

Garber and his associates' research at Blackman Eddy is also discussed in chapter 4. Their research suggests that the site was the seat of administrative power in the central Belize Valley by Middle Preclassic times. As Conlon and Powis point out in chapter 5, several centuries later there appears to be a relatively high level of interaction and integration between minor and major centers, such as Blackman Eddy, during Middle and Late Classic times.

Lucero and her colleagues evaluate the relationships between Maya settlement and agricultural potential in the Valley of Peace area in chapter 6 using Fedick's (1995, 1996) predictive models. The authors found there was a high correlation between soils having great productive capacity and high settlement density, elaborate architecture, the presence of exotic trade items and overall site complexity. In chapter 7, Paul Healy and his colleagues discuss the Middle Formative period at Cahal Pech, an important administrative center in the upper Belize Valley. Research at Cahal Pech has demonstrated that the Middle Formative period witnessed tremendous growth in the scope of Maya cultural complexity, laying the foundation for the spectacular fluorescence we see at lowland Maya sites by the close of Formative times.

David Cheetham presents information on the roles of "terminus groups" in lowland Maya site planning in chapter 8. His research is important in that it demonstrates that structure groups linked by causeways to site core areas were only spatially peripheral entities yet were functionally integral in the social and religious lives of the larger communities of which they were a part. In chapter 9, Joseph Ball and Jennifer Taschek present a developmental history of the important upper valley royal ceremonial center of Buenavista del Cayo. Ball and Taschek discuss Buenavista's long developmental history in the valley, from its Middle Formative origins to its abandonment by the end of the twelfth century. …

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