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In Search of Maya Sea Traders

By Heather McKillop

Publication Year: 2005

Stone temples rising above the rainforest canopy and elaborate hieroglyphs carved onto stone monuments give silent testimony to the high culture of the Maya ancestors of the indigenous peoples of Central America. They have inspired generations of archaeologists, professional and avocational, to take to the field in search of the past. One such archaeologist is Heather McKillop, who in 1979 first visited the coast of Belize in search of a little-known aspect of ancient Maya life: the sea trade that helped move salt, obsidian, coral, and other goods around the interior of the empire. In 1982, she began bringing volunteers and students to the islands off the coast of Port Honduras, Belize. Since then she has returned many times to excavate sites that reveal the scope and diversity of the trade that passed by water throughout the Maya world. In this book, McKillop tells the story of the search for the Maya sea traders, as well as the story of the traders themselves as it emerges from the excavations. In Search of Maya Sea Traders describes the trading port of Wild Cane Cay, where exotic obsidian, jade, gold, and other goods—including highly crafted pots—were traded from distant lands. McKillop also tells us about the more coastal-inland trade of salt, seafood, and other marine resources. Through the story of her own work and that of her students and volunteers, McKillop models both the research design and the field work that are required to interpret the civilizations of the past. She includes the adventure of discovery, the challenges of working in wild environments (from snakes and rising sea levels to falling coconuts) and the tedium of daily measured digs in a near-tropical setting. Through her experiences, the reader also gets to know some of the local residents of Port Honduras and Wild Cane Cay, descendants of the ancient Maya. In Search of Maya Sea Traders will appeal to that part of each of us that longs to explore distant places and cultures, in quest of a seldom-glimpsed past.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Series: Texas A&M University Anthropology Series

Title page

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xiv

The ancient Maya civilization of Central America has fascinated and perplexed scholars and the public alike for generations. The stone temples emerging above the rainforest canopy, the rise and collapse of the civilization centuries before the sixteenth-century arrival of Europeans, and the elaborate hieroglyphs carved on stone monuments add to the appeal of this ancient culture. Less...

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pp. xv-xvii

The archaeological fieldwork discussed in this book was made possible by permits from the Belize government Department of Archaeology and Department of Forestry and particularly by the assistance, advice, and friendship of the members of those departments, notably Archaeological Commissioners John Morris, Brian Woodeye, Jaime Awe, Alan Moore, the late Winnel Branche, and the late Harriot Topsey. The research was enabled by generous...

Part I. Maya Sea Traders, 1981–1982

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CHAPTER 1. My First Visit to Wild Cane Cay, 1981

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pp. 3-16

I met King at the Texaco dock in Punta Gorda and hired him to take me in his small wooden boat on a reconnaissance trip to visit several archaeological sites that had been reported on the islands north of town (figure 1.1). King was middle aged, somewhat reserved, and looked better prepared to go to sea than the younger men at the Texaco...

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CHAPTER 2. Fieldwork at Wild Cane Cay

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pp. 17-23

Long shafts of sunlight shone through the mangroves, across the lagoon, and into my tent. It seemed as if I hadn’t slept. During the night, the eerie darkness—uninterrupted by city lights—had intensified the sounds of falling coconuts, the rustling of palm fronds, and the roar of unidentified motorboats passing the cay. I had listened...

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CHAPTER 3. Trips to Town and Visitors to the Cay

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pp. 24-28

Apart from an occasional visitor to the island or our infrequent trips to Punta Gorda for provisions, our only contact with the outside world was the evening news from the “Voice of America” on Frank’s radio. We listened with some interest as the British military responded to the crisis in the Falkland Islands. Frank, Adel,...

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CHAPTER 4. Household Archaeology

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pp. 29-40

With their machetes, the Maya workers chopped the grass short in the area I had selected (figure 4.1).1 The students used tape measures to set out a 2 by 2 meter square. They drove palm frond stakes into the ground and marked the perimeter with a string. I took a picture. After several weeks on the cay, we were ready to excavate...

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CHAPTER 5. Obsidian Trade

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pp. 41-49

Having received a temporary export permit from the Belizean government to study the obsidian from Wild Cane Cay, I faced a daunting task. I had persuaded my dissertation committee and granting agencies that obsidian was an ideal material for me to use to study ancient Maya sea trade at Wild Cane Cay. The island was situated on a...

Part II. Wild Cane Cay, 1988 –1992

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CHAPTER 6. Maya Ancestors: Keeping the Dead at Home

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pp. 53-88

Returning to Wild Cane Cay was like going home. Along with a small group of student assistants, I had a day to set up camp before my first team of volunteers from an organization called Earthwatch arrived by a charter boat to live and work with us for two weeks. I would have four groups of Earthwatch volunteers over the winter from...

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CHAPTER 7. A New Dory

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pp. 89-93

In my drowsy state just before 5:30 a.m., I dressed quickly. I was attentive to covering my body to protect myself from the sandflies that waited outside my tent in the early morning calm. I dressed in long pants, long-sleeved shirt, boots, and rain coat, with the draw-string hood snugly wrapped around my head to minimize exposure of my...

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CHAPTER 8. Underwater Archaeology

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pp. 94-98

In 1989, we completed excavations in the shallow offshore waters at the western end of Wild Cane Cay and the following year faced more difficult excavations in the mangrove swamp at the eastern end. I had returned to the house to check on lab work, which was progressing well. I reached for my hat and backpack from a nail on the roof...

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CHAPTER 9. Volunteers

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pp. 99-103

In addition to providing archaeological experience, participating in my project was often a turning point—even a catalyst for change—in the lives of many of the volunteers. Being thrown together with strangers on a remote island in rustic conditions challenged some of the volunteers’ preconceived self-limits. Some actively looked for...

Part III. In Search of Other Maya Sites

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CHAPTER 10. In Search of the Coastal Maya

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pp. 107-122

My doctoral committee had asked me whether Wild Cane Cay was an isolated trading port for long-distance sea traders. In other words, was the coastal area north of Punta Gorda, which was virtually devoid of modern settlement, also virtually uninhabited in ancient times? Or were there other sites in the area? If there were other...

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CHAPTER 11. Returning to Wild Cane Cay in 1992

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pp. 123-126

I met the first team of volunteers of the 1992 field season at the Punta Gorda airstrip and led them along a path north of town to Joe Taylor Creek, where I stored my equipment and supplies and where my field staff were awaiting our arrival before setting off for Wild Cane Cay. The wind caught my hair, sweeping a braid across my neck. With a...

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CHAPTER 12. Provisions from Punta Gorda

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pp. 127-130

Fieldwork was interrupted by trips to Punta Gorda to pick up and deliver volunteers, which provided an opportunity to procure food, supplies, and drinking water. At other times we obtained some supplies from the Texaco station where we bought boat gas for survey work, especially...

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CHAPTER 13. Submerged Ancient Saltworks

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pp. 131-136

With the realization that sea-level rise had submerged Classic Maya sites, we began looking not just in shallow water around known sites such as Wild Cane Cay, but also in shallow water elsewhere in Port Honduras. We found three sites in a coastal lagoon north of Deep River and opposite...

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CHAPTER 14. Sea-Level Rise and Ancient Trade

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pp. 137-143

Although Stingray Lagoon and the other flooded sites were more difficult to excavate than dry land sites, they yielded an abundance of information on the ancient environment and diet.1 Of course the submerged location of these sites was good evidence that the modern...

Part IV. Frenchman’s Cay, 1994 and 1997

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CHAPTER 15. Settlement Patterns

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pp. 147-155

In 1994, I moved the project base camp to Frenchman’s Cay in order to carry out major excavations at that island site. On a map, Frenchman’s Cay is much closer to Punta Gorda than Wild Cane Cay, four islands to the north. However, boat travel was more difficult that it had been to Wild Cane Cay since Frenchman’s Cay was on the outer...

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CHAPTER 16. Target Practice

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pp. 156-160

The announcements on the radio not to travel in the coastal waters north of Punta Gorda for the next couple of weeks because of target practice by the British army presented a problem for survey and for getting food and other supplies from town. That the area was virtually unpopulated evidently made it a suitable location for bombing. The...

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CHAPTER 17. Rough Seas, Submerged Sites

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pp. 161-170

Since there were no insurance agencies in Punta Gorda, I inquired in Belize City about getting insurance for the dories. This request seemed quite reasonable to me. However, it was met with a polite smile by the insurance agent, who told me that they didn’t insure dories in Belize. If I had a skiff, I could apply for boat insurance. I thanked him...

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CHAPTER 18. Coral Architecture

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pp. 171-183

In January, 1997, I returned to live on Frenchman’s Cay for six months during my sabbatical, taking a team of field assistants for large-scale excavations of the coral architecture. I was excited to be working in the dry season and to have a long time to horizontally expose the island’s stone architecture, the associated burials, and figure out the relationship of the island’s elite, who used the stone buildings...

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CHAPTER 19. Truce with the Sea

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pp. 184-189

Itied the stern to the dock, put on my boots and hat, and climbed out of the Adel 2 onto the new cement dock at the Texaco station in Punta Gorda. A couple of people stayed with the boat to keep it from smashing against either the cement dock or the chicken wire that covers the rocks underneath the dock. The rest of us carried empty gas containers and empty Coke bottles. As a woman arriving...


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pp. 191-205


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pp. 207-217


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pp. 219-226

E-ISBN-13: 9781603445962
E-ISBN-10: 160344596X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781585444243
Print-ISBN-10: 1585444243

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 50 b&w photos. 33 line drawings. 7 maps.
Publication Year: 2005

Series Title: Texas A&M University Anthropology Series

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Subject Headings

  • Wild Cane Cay Site (Belize).
  • Punta Gorda Region (Belize) -- Antiquities.
  • Mayas -- Commerce.
  • Mayas -- Antiquities.
  • Excavations (Archaeology) -- Belize -- Punta Gorda Region.
  • Coastwise navigation -- Belize -- Punta Gorda Region.
  • Underwater archaeology -- Belize -- Punta Gorda Region.
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