UTSA students and staff make historic discoveries in Belize
(August 1, 2016) -- Members of The University of Texas at San Antonio Department of Anthropology spent the summer exploring ancient Maya sites in western Belize.
Kathryn Brown, associate professor of anthropology, has been directing a team of researchers at the site of Xunantunich since 2008, investigating the site’s origins and political history. One target of those investigations is El Castillo, a 39 meter tall acropolis which served as the site’s royal palace for decades. Team member and UTSA doctoral student Leah McCurdy has focused her dissertation research on El Castillo, examining the architectural history of this impressive acropolis.
In 2014, McCurdy discovered a blocked doorway of a building buried in El Castillo. Brown suspected the room was an important location for the ancient Maya; the occupants took great care to cover the walls and purposefully fill the room when the acropolis was enlarged.
This summer, Brown secured a grant from Alphawood Foundation to explore this important feature. After four weeks of careful excavation, Brown and McCurdy discovered the walls of the room were covered with symbols and images that have been hidden from view for more than 1,300 years. More than 200 incised images graced the walls. Brown believes the room was a sacred place where an ancient Maya scribe trained apprentices. The walls of the room have been partitioned into sections and a red painted register surrounds the base of the room.
“We see incised images repeated as if young scribes were practicing their skills. We know that the Maya had accomplished artists and scribes, but we know little about how this important sacred knowledge was passed on,” said Brown. “The discovery of this room helps shed light on this important aspect of Maya civilization. The images carved onto the walls of this room, ranging from simple sketches to sophisticated renderings, are like snapshots in the development of a Maya scribe’s skills.”
“This is the first of its kind found in the Maya world, its closest parallel being the scribal training location found at the nearby site of Xultun a few years ago, which has a painted mural and glyphs but not incised designs like this,” said Jason Yaeger professor and chair of the UTSA Department of Anthropology.
Every summer Yaeger, Brown and about 25 others including undergraduate and graduate students from the top-tier UTSA Department of Anthropology spend a couple months in Belize excavating ancient Maya ruins. Brown and Yaeger’s team of archaeologists have worked at the Maya sites of Xunantunich, Buenavista del Cayo, Las Ruinas del Arenal, Callar Creek, and San Lorenzo.
Some of their most recent findings from the Belize digs include an Early Classic royal burial from Buenavista del Cayo. Artifacts from this burial were recently displayed at the Witte museum as part of the “Mind of the Maya” lecture series. The Witte Museum is partnering with the UTSA College of Liberal and Fine Arts to offer a new Museum Studies minor for students and UTSA places interns at the Witte as part of the program.
By Kara Mireles
Public Affairs Specialist
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