Archaeology of Cahal Pech

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Pre-History

Archaeological investigations from 1988 to 2002 indicate that Cahal Pech was first settled sometime around 1200 B.C. and abandoned around 800 -900 A.D. The site is particularly important for the information it has provided on the earliest Maya settlers of western Belize. Early cultural remains, for example, suggest that the site’s first inhabitants were relatively sophisticated. They built large circular platforms that were used for ceremonial purposes, they carved many Mesoamerican or Olmec-like symbols on their pottery, imported jade and obsidian from Guatemala, modeled many figurines in the form of female individuals, and produced decorative beads that were made from Conch shells brought from the Caribbean coast.

During the Late Preclassic period (300 B.C. – 300 A.D.) Cahal Pech became one of the most important centers in the Belize River Valley region. A relatively large temple (Structure B-4) from this phase has been conserved and can be seen at the site. Also at Cahal Pech, and dating to this phase, is the earliest carved stela yet recovered in Belize. The stela depicts a human individual within the maw (mouth) of a jaguar or monster and may represent one of the early rulers of the site.

During the Classic period (300 – 900 A.D.) growth continued unabated and today's visitor can see many of the large palaces and temples that were built at this time. The architecture of this period is particularly interesting with its many interconnecting passages that link enclosed courtyard groups with the larger plazas.

Unlike most of the other large sites in the Belize River Valley, Cahal Pech was abandoned sometime during the latter part of the 9th century A.D. Why did this decline occur earlier here than at other regional centers? Possibly because the site was conquered by a more powerful neighbor and its inhabitants were forced to switch allegiance to their new overlord. Despite its fall, however, it appears that during the Terminal Classic (A.D. 900-1000) some people either continued living in the main courtyard or periodically visited the once sacred and important center to conduct rituals in the plaza. The latter is indicated by large deposits of effigy whistles, ceramic vessels, projectile points, and deer bones that were discovered flanking the stairways of all the buildings in Plaza A.

The Site

During its occupation, the site would have looked very different than it does today. The buildings would have been covered in stucco (plaster) and painted predominantly in red and white. The courtyards would have also been thickly plastered and similarly painted. Like modern cities, there would have been few, if any, trees in the site core and heavily populated areas. During market days and for important ceremonies, many of the inhabitants living in the valley would likely have congregated in Plaza B to participate in the events. Important visitors to the site would have been received in Structure A-2.

Buildings outside the site center were predominantly made with pole and thatch superstructures erected atop stone platforms or directly on the ground. These structures would have been covered with plaster on the floors and walls in a similar fashion to those buildings in the site core. Painted and stucco decorations on these houses, however, were either absent or very crude.

Cahal Pech Map

Population

Cahal Pech supported a substantial population from the Middle Preclassic to the Late Classic period. It is estimated that during the Late Classic between 10,000 – 15,000 people lived in the city and its' immediate periphery. The rest of the valley was also densely populated during this time, and residents of Cahal Pech undoubtedly traded and communicated with their neighbours at the nearby cities of Xunantunich, Baking Pot, El Pilar and Buena Vista.

Architecture

The architecture at Cahal Pech is similar to other sites in the southern Maya Lowlands and particularly with those sites in the upper Belize Valley. The Maya cut limestone blocks from nearby quarries and used lime plaster to bond them. In the site core many of the structures have vaulted (or corbelled) roofs. This type of arch is not as strong as a true arch and can only span narrow spaces. Consequently, the majority of rooms in their buildings are long and narrow. This did not preoccupy the Maya for like all tropical cultures they probably spent most of their time outdoors. 

altPalace Structures

Cahal Pech has a number of palace groups in the western section of the site. Most of the elite residences have masonry superstructures with vaulted roofs, long rooms and large benches. The rooms were used for both domestic and administrative purposes. Access to areas used by the ruling elite was also extremely limited. Plaza A, for example, can only be accessed through the central doorway of Structure A-2 (an elite residence and administrative building), or via two narrow vaulted passageways to the south and west of the courtyard.

Trade and Commerce

Cahal Pech is known to have actively participated in both short and long distance trade. As early as the Middle Preclassic period (1000 B.C.) its inhabitants began acquiring Conch shells from the Caribbean, obsidian from the highlands of Guatemala, jade from the Motagua River and probably salt from the Yucatan Peninsula. Short distance trade included goods produced locally and may have included ceramics, copal incense, feathers, and cacao. The location of the site, at the confluence of the eastern and western branches of the Belize River, also placed the city at the crossroad of an important network for exchange and communication.

Graffiti

Several examples of graffiti have been uncovered at Cahal Pech. On structure F-2 archaeologists found two examples of graffiti carved onto ceramic sherds. One of these depicts a ruler sitting in his temple, arm outstretched and finger pointing. The second displays the image of the rain god, Chac. These images were produced by someone skilled in drawing and suggest that those living at Structure F2 may have been artisans.

Figurines

Hundreds of Middle to Late Preclassic figurines have been found at Cahal Pech. These figurines consist of three basic types, including anthropomorphs (human forms), zoomorphs (animal forms), and figurine whistles. The figurines are all hand-molded and with the exception of the whistles, are all solid. Figurines and whistles dating to the Late Classic period have also been found at the western base of Str. A-2. Most of these artifacts were discovered in a post-abandonment cache that included partially complete ceramic vessels and chert arrowheads. The whistles and figurines are stylistically similar to those found at the island of Jaina, (a Terminal Classic necropolis) off the Yucatan Peninsula.

Ballcourts

There are two ballcourts at Cahal Pech, one just west of the acropolis, and the second in Plaza C. The latter, or eastern court, has been consolidated, allowing visitors to see the construction techniques of these special buildings. Although the associated structures and rules of this ancient game varied somewhat from region to region, the 'ballgame' was an important part of Maya culture. According to the Popol Vuh (sacred book of the Quiche Maya), the game was a ritual where those destined to be sacrificed were first “defeated” by their captors. Some archaeologists suggest that it was also a game played for entertainment and in which players obtained honor and prestige through their play.

Abandonment

The ancient city of Cahal Pech was abandoned around 850 A.D. During the "collapse" of the southern Maya lowlands the Maya people did not disappear. Conversely, they abandoned some of their older cities and moved into new areas such as the coastal regions of Belize, in highland Guatemala, and throughout the northern Yucatan Peninsula. Their system of government also changed from a single divine ruler to a confederation with multiple leaders. Maritime trade gained new importance and a more powerful merchant class developed. When the Spanish arrived in the Yucatan in 1521, Maya society was thriving. Numerous cities and communities were prospering in the upper Belize Valley, the Yucatan Peninsula, and in Guatemala. Unfortunately, Spanish colonialism and new diseases introduced by the Europeans decimated thousands of these people. But the Maya are resilient and today there are over 8 million Maya people living in Guatemala, 3 million living in Mexico and thousands more in Belize. Cahal Pech and other large sites stand as silent testimonies of their past achievements.
 

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