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UCL Home  /  Geography  /  Blog  /  Blog Entries  /  Mangroves, mosquitoes, skeletons and mild terror; Belize Fieldwork August 2013

Mangroves, mosquitoes, skeletons and mild terror; Belize Fieldwork August 2013

Posted by ucfaam0 at Sep 20, 2013 09:00 AM |

by Simon Turner

“A couple of metres from the mangrove edge, I spot in the corner of my eye a large shape rising out of the water. I scream, in a manly way, to assure my machete wielding assistant that I am clearly not afraid of crocodiles and have only up-ended a sunken tree branch with my makeshift raft...”

Following a successful application for funding from The Leverhulme Trust, I and colleagues from UCL Archaeology went to our research site in Ambergris Caye, Belize. We are investigating the landscape scale effects of long term human activity over the last 1000 years in coastal Belize. The site (named Marco Gonzalez) supported occupation and activity since Preclassic Maya times (ca. 300 B.C. and probably earlier). Although activities fluctuated in kind and in intensity over time, there is no evidence at Marco Gonzalez of the collapse that depopulated a number of mainland sites between ca. A.D. 750 and 1000. Instead, far-flung trade and exchange activity flourished during this period and set the stage for the seaborne commerce which so impressed Spanish conquerors in the 16th century.

The field site from the air, approaching Ambergris Caye, Belize

The field site from the air, approaching Ambergris Caye, Belize. The site is marked by a difference in vegetation. Note azure coral sea and barrier reef in background and  scatter of mosquito friendly pools.

Prior to collapse, during the Late Classic period between ca. A.D. 550 and 750, when mainland cities such as Tikal reached the height of their power, inhabitants of Marco Gonzalez were producing salt on an apparently large scale. They cleared vegetation, collected salt, and, as a final step, heated brine in ceramic vessels in order to drive off water, which resulted in deposition of pyrogenic carbon—presumably the remains of the fuel used in heating the brine. When salt production ceased, sometime between about A.D. 750 and 800, buildings of local reef-stone and wood were constructed over salt production sites, settlement expanded, and people were buried (as is Maya practice) beneath the floors of successive structures.  About A.D. 1200-1250, inhabitants drifted away from the area, although a few families continued to live at Marco Gonzalez until the 16th century. The decision to abandon the site was likely to have been also influenced by changes in coastal evolution that led to back barrier sedimentation and mangrove expansion.

Of key interest at Marco Gonzalez are the dark soils, or anthropogenic black earths, that developed during occupation of the site. Pyrogenic carbon comprising the salt processing debris is thought to play a pivotal role in dark earth formation. The site consists of large mounds of dark soil and waste products from the processing of marine resources, underlying, covering and forming the core of structures related to the phases of Maya occupation. The anthropogenic soils and processing materials also spread out from the site and mixed with the coastal and mangrove sediments as they in-filled the back barrier lagoon.

Core retrieved from the mangrove margin at Marco Gonzalez

Core retrieved from the mangrove margin at Marco Gonzalez. The dark brown mangrove peat (left) sits on top of lagoon mud and artefact detritus from the site.  Is this core recording the end of occupation at the site when the mangroves blocked access to the open sea? We will have to wait and see once all the analyses have been completed.

My role in the project is to investigate how the soils and archaeological stratigraphy found at the site relate to the coastal wetland and lagoon sediments found around the periphery of the occupied area.  The multidisciplinary and cross-departmental (Archaeology and Geography) project will run for the next 18 months analysing the sediments and soils we retrieved.

“With the core tube well and truly stuck in the mud, and not visible beneath the surface of the milky tea coloured water, the pond around me has started to writhe with fish, with some of them hitting the underside of my raft. Something brushes my arm. Screaming, in a manly fashion, happens again…”


Hitting the headlines in the San Pedro Sun (apologies for neckerchief):


Simon Turner is a Research Fellow at UCL Geography.