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Next summer will mark the tenth consecutive season that AFAR will teamed up with the highly reputable Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance project to work at the ancient Maya site of Cahal Pech. This two-week archaeological field school will allow students to obtain hands-on training from leading archaeologists while excavating in a very special space once occupied by the citizens of ancient Cahal Pech. Over the course of the field school, students will take part in virtually every step of the archaeological field process and will work to master steps such as excavation, mapping, illustration, artifact processing, and scientific journaling. Students who choose, will even have the opportunity to co-author professional reports and present their findings at academic conferences.



site map Cahal Pech

Cahal Pech is located on the southern outskirts of San Ignacio Town, in the upper Belize Valley region of western Belize. The site core sits on the crest of a steep hill on the west bank of the Macal River, two kilometers upstream from the latter’s confluence with the Mopan, and some 200 river kilometers from the Caribbean coast. The central acropolis is approximately 270 meters above sea level and provides a commanding view of the Maya Mountains to the south, and the interfluvial bottomlands between the Macal and Mopan Rivers to the north (Awe 1992).

Settlement survey and investigations at Cahal Pech indicate that during the Classic period the site and its sustaining area may have encompassed a realm of approximately 16 square kilometers.  At the nucleus of this territory was the central precinct or site core.  This area consists of some 34 large structures which are densely compacted on an imposing acropolis slightly larger than one hectare in size.  The architecture of the central precinct includes several tall non-domestic structures, a number of large range-type buildings, two ballcourts, and possibly a sweathouse (Awe and Campbell 1988, 1989).

Most of the structures in the site core are located around seven plazas.  The largest of these is Plaza B, or what Satterthwaite (1951:22) previously referred to as the Central Plaza.  The principal Classic period courtyard, however, is Plaza A.  Together with Plazas D and E, it is located on the western half of the acropolis.  All of the structures bordering Plazas A, D and E are tightly clustered, they completely enclose their courtyards, and they provide limited access to and from the other plazas within the central precinct.  The other courtyards (Plazas B,C,F, and G) are relatively more open and mounds are less clustered, but the structures are located in a position that would have provided limited access to the site core in general.  There are, in fact, only two areas which provide access into the site core.  These are located to the north and south of the juncture between Plazas B and C. This configuration, plus the acropoline nature of the central precinct, suggests that during the Classic period the site core may have served for defense in times of conflict, or for limiting public access into areas that had been exclusively set aside by and for the elite (Awe, Campbell and Conlon 1991).


The BVAR/AFAR program is working on its eighth season as a project. Dr. Jaime Awe, the Director of the Belize Institute of Archaeology, dictated all of the research questions that each season had. In 2006, Mr. Saunders talked to Dr. Jaime Awe about having a group of high school students excavate at Cahal Pech alongside college students that were involved with the larger BVAR project. After much consideration Dr. Jaime Awe agreed. The group that Mr. Saunders brought that first year consisted of four students and they excavated structure C1. The goal of that season’s excavation was to try and expose the terminal phase architecture of the structure.

In that next year’s excavation, 2007, Dr. Jaime Awe allowed the BVAR/AFAR program to do their own operations. They were given two units to excavate. One was a plaza unit in front of Structure B4 and the other was an exploratory unit on Structure F3. The goal of the unit in front of B4 was to try and define the layers of the plaster floor, while the goal of the unit on Structure F3 was to define the terminal phase of the architecture. In the third year of the program, 2008, the program set up a plaza unit to the west of Structure F2. During the season’s excavation, they discovered an earlier phase of F2 that contained stucco armatures that were potentially used to hold decorative masks.

2009 was a big year for the program. This was the first year that that project had a very clear research design for the exploration of Cahal Pech, which was independent of the larger BVAR program. The program decided to excavate at Structure C4, which lies south of the ball court. When they chose to excavate at this location they were hoping to find a relationship between Structure C6 and the ball court. Through this investigation, they discovered a structure without stair access, having had its facing stones removed. This was the first evidence for abandonment or defensive measures at Cahal Pech. In the next excavation season of 2010, the program completed the excavation of Structure C4 and they were able to conserve the structure with a generous donation from the Archaeological Institute of America Site Preservation Grant. They also wanted to further define Plaza C to see if they could find more evidence of structural modifications for defensive purposes. They decided to place test units on Structure C6 as well as Plaza H. They were able to expose a small platform structure and the corner stair that lead from Plaza B to Plaza C.

In 2011, the Tilden Family Trust gave a generous donation, which allowed the project to further explore the transition space between Plaza C and Plaza B by excavating the structures separating the two, Structures B1, B2, and B3. The excavations allowed for tomb exploration at the top of B1. Also in 2011, the terminal phase of architecture was discovered on the western side of structure B1, B2, and B3. But that was not it. The previous excavations on Structure C6 were expanded to the west and also conserved.

2012 was another big year for the BVAR/AFAR operation. They continued their work on the royal tomb, finding several burials, a turtle shell with hieroglyphs, as well as jade figurines. The program also excavated the transition space and backside of Structures B1 and B3. The findings from the transition space between B1 and B3 included preserved plaster façade. This finding was extremely special because it showed exactly what the structure looked like when it was actually in use over a thousand  years ago. This concluded the 2012 excavating season. Work continued on Structure B1 in 2012 and the team also began exploring Structures B6 and B7 in the B Plaza. Another burial was discovered in the central staircase of B1 and the terminal phase of architecture was exposed on B6/B7.


Our team will continue to the G Plaza of Cahal Pech. We hope to determine the function and design of the structures and further investigate its occupational history. We will execute our research plan during the month of July 2015.