Scripps Center for Marine Archaeology




MISSION: We aim to acquire a better understanding of the archaeology of the Classic period in and between coastal and ancient Maya cities in southern Belize to help clarify the relationship between climate change and culture in two important periods: ca. 150 AD (when people first moved to the area) and 800 AD (the Classic Collapse of the Maya).

BACKGROUND: The five ancient Maya cities of southern Belize are located approximately 15 to 30 miles inland from the Caribbean in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, and two of the most important—Lubaantun and Nim li Punit—are located on or near major rivers that provide canoe access to the sea. Previous surveys off the coast and in the mangrove estuaries have located small sites related to trade and ancient salt production. Moreover, coastal resources, especially Strombus sp. shell, fish, and manatee bones have been found at both Lubaantun and Nim li Punit. Evidence to date indicates that access to coastal food resources may have allowed these two sites to survive for a time during the great Maya Collapse of the late 8th and early 9th centuries.

Despite the demonstrated connection to the Caribbean, there has been no attempt to survey along the Rio Grande (from Lubaantun) and Golden Stream (from Nim li Punit). It is not known which of the small coastal sites is connected to which city, nor has anyone studied how the coastal savanna and its riparian environment were exploited by the ancient Maya. Our survey—from hills to reef—is designed to fill this missing knowledge concerning ancient Maya adaptations to the environment. At the same time, we hope to connect one important source of climate information (the reef) to another (the caves of the Maya Mountains).

Stratigraphic excavations at Nim li Punit were set to resume in Spring 2017 to better understand its chronology and to collect materials demonstrating exploitation of the coast and wetlands. Our goal is to be able to date that exploitation and better determine its nature. We also will begin an opportunistic survey along Golden Stream. Since nothing is known about ancient occupation of the savanna plain above the mangrove estuary, we will look for settlements along the river on the assumption that access to water and a canoe route were critical to settlement choice. Our goal is to conclude the survey in 2018 in a more systematic fashion and turn to the Rio Grande, which connects the coast to the city of Lubaantun (where previous excavations have been completed).


Pottery, jade plaque, and eccentric chert from Tomb 5, Nim li Punit, Belize

Mario Borrero, UCSD graduate student, excavating Classic Maya palace at Nim li Punit, Belize.

Excavation of ancient Maya Tomb 5, Nim li Punit, Belize, dating to A.D. 800

Ancient Maya jade pectoral with a long hieroglyphic text dating to A.D. 672, Nim li Punit, Belize.