Archaeology History and Heritage

W. A. Welliver, Center for Archaeological Studies


During the spring semester of 2016, I conducted an internship at the Center for Archaeological Studies at Texas State University. In this report, I will provide a brief description of CAS and the project I worked on, which were artifacts recovered from the Ambergris Caye Archaeological Project. Furthermore, I will be discussing the Mayans of the Ambergris Caye, which is where the project I am working on originated, and their use of marine resources and long distance trade. A fair number of the artifacts that were dealt with over the course of the semester were associated with the former activity. The Maya’s utilization of marine resources was evident in the net and line sinkers found in the artifact, and further research found that they utilized the ocean for more than just sustenance.


CAS Facility and the Ambergirs Caye Archaeological Project

The Center for Archaeological Studies (CAS) is located in the Trinity building on the campus of Texas State University, in San Marcos, Texas. The facility director is Dr. Todd Ahlman, and the collections manager, who I reported to, is Amy Reid. CAS was established in 2000 to assist in the management of on campus cultural resources, as well as those of the city of San Marcos. At 2,061 cubic feet CAS holds over 230 collections and 817,000 objects, as well as a library of over 8,000 volumes of site reports from Texas archaeological projects (Benton and Ahlman 2016: 2-6).

The project that I worked on, is a collection of artifacts collected from Ambergris Caye, Belize by field schools conducted by Dr. James Garber of Texas State University between 1987 and 2007. This collection included objects from various sites on the Caye over this time period, with some sites being excavated several times over the 20 year period. At the end of the project  worked on, there were a total of 11 boxes of artifacts and 2 boxes of associated documentation from the field schools. There was no available inventory of the items in the collection, and most of the items were not bagged in archival quality (at least 3mm thick) bags. Additionally, the items were not separated by site and year of collection, so sorting was a top priority.

The majority of my project consisted of creating a digital inventory and re-bagging all items within the collections. The digital inventory was created in Excel, and would later be imported into PastPerfect. The process of re-bagging consisted of, separating all items in the collection by site and year, creating new paper labels for each item in the collection, and rehousing each item into its own 4mm thick archival quality bag. Items are then grouped by lot, which is where and at what depth an item was collected, and placed into larger bags. At that point, each site and year received their own box, or in the case of some of the smaller collections they shared a box.

Once all of this was completed, all of the data associated with the collection was uploaded into the museum software, PastPerfect, that is used by CAS. The software allows for fast importing of large amounts of data from Excel, which made the process of adding all the collections to the database very fast. PastPerfect allows for the printing of barcodes, which greatly aids in accessing data associated with the artifacts in a collection. The final step I took in this process was to prepare a digital exhibit based off of the collections; this was a simple process, as PastPerfect has a build-in add-on that allows for easy creation of digital exhibits.


 Ancient Mayans of Ambergris Caye

Ambergris Caye is an Island in the Caribbean Sea in modern day Belize. Contrary to what the name may imply, Ambergris Caye is actually not an island, though it is separated from Mexico by an ancient canal that was dug by the Mayans around AD 600, if not earlier (Guderjan 2007:9-18). There are in fact several man-made canals, as well as bays, found across Ambergris Caye; these offer a testament to the utilization of coastal resources by the previous occupants of the Caye., “Ambergris Caye is 39 km long and is no wider than 4 km at any point. A barrier reef begins 160 m off the shore. The water within this reef is typically 3 to 7 m deep” (Williams,White, Longstaffe 2009: 41).

The ancient Mayans, who resided on the Ambergris Caye, are believed to have been members of the Chactemal city-state, which was conquered by the Spanish in the latter part of the 16th century.   The Mayans continually occupied Ambergris Caye over a long period. Over twenty-two sites have been found on the Caye, with dates of habitation ranging from BC 300 to AD 1650 (Williams,White, Longstaffe 2009:38). The sites found in the collections of the Ambergris Caye Archaeological Project include Ek Luum, Chac Balam, Blackman Eddy, Floral Park, Ontario Village and Cahal Pech; these sites run the gambit from small fishing villages to sites with ritual burials.


Sustenance From the Sea

The Ambergris Caye Maya were masters of utilizing the coastal resources that were available to them. One item found in abundance in the collections that were produced from the field schools conducted by Dr. Garber on the Caye were net weights. These are made from ceramic potsherds that were notched on either side to allow for a more secure connection to the nets. Melgar (2017) has been suggested that the difference in the sizes of these weights was due to different uses; the smaller ones were said to be used for fishing lines, while the larger ones would have been used for nets. Though it has also been suggested that the difference in weight reflected the depth or current of the water in which they were used (MacKinnon 1996: 15). Figure 1 shows a good representation of different sized net weights which were collected from the site of Ek Luum during a field school led by Dr. Garber in 1987. This is an ingenious reuse of broken pottery, and is just one example of how the ancient Mayans took advantage of coastal resources.

The utilization of weighted nets were not the only techniques that the Mayans of the Caye used for obtaining sustenance from the sea. Faunal remains from the Caye indicate that riverine, reef and offshore species were exploited. Many of those species represented in the faunal remains would have necessitated the use of large canoes that could withstand the rigor of offshore travel and be able to transport what was caught, including sharks (Williams, White, Longstaffe 2009: 48-49). Beyond the use of large canoes, the ancient Mayans of the Caye employed a variety of techniques to harvest the bounty of the ocean. Fishing techniques included spearing, line fishing, pot fishing and, as previously mentioned, net fishing. Because there is also evidence of sea turtle and sea mammal remains, it is speculated they were caught using dragnets, or in the case of the latter possibly harpoons attached to floats (Stemp 2004: 54). Though the collections had no examples of some of these techniques, it is possible (that due to its diminutive size), that the decorative sinker in figure 2 may have been used as a fishing line sinker.

In addition to their skills in fishing, the Ambergris Caye Maya harvested salt from the Caribbean Sea. There is evidence that salt processing took place on the Caye during the Classic period from around AD 600-800. This salt may have been used to preserve meat for inland and long distance travel, and would have also been a valuable an export  (Williams, White, Longstaffe 2009:39). The importance of salt harvested from Ambergris Caye was also important to the Spanish; recently recovered documents indicate that the governor of Yucatan was petitioned in 1565 to allow for a concession to commercially harvest salt in the area (Maya History on Ambergris Caye, Belize). This is just another example of the utilization of all the marine resources that were available to the Mayans of the Caye.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2


Trading Afar

The ancient Mayans of Ambergris Caye did not just use their easy access to the Caribbean Sea for sustenance. There is evidence of long distance trade, some of which would have required the use of large sea going vessels. The long-distance trade networks connected to the Caye may warrant further investigation into the ancient Mayans who lived here. We have evidence that the Maya canoes were up to 65 feet in length and were made from the trunks of large cedar or elephant ear trees. The trunks would be hollowed out and dried by fire; researchers suspect that these canoes could have traveled up to 2,500 miles for trade (Melgar 2017: 720). Beyond the knowledge that they would have been capable of such long distance travel, there is additional evidence found at sites on Ambergris Caye that suggest that the ancient Mayans who resided here engaged in long distance trade. Obsidian from both Mexico and Guatemala, pottery from the Yucatan, and a jar from El Salvador are just a few examples of recovered that provide evidence of extensive long-distance trade networks (Williams, White, Longstaffe 2009:39). The existence of such an extensive trade network has been just another testament to how well the ancient Maya were at utilizing the sea.

One good example of these centers of long distance trade on the Caye can be found at the site of Chac Balam, one of the sites excavated by Dr. Garber. This site provides the impression of a wealthy society with a high standard of living, as the residence of this site had easy access to maritime resources as well as trade goods (Guderjan 2009: 31). The site of Chac Balam like many of the other successful trading hubs on the Caye, consisted of a very formal layout; however, unlike many of those sites which had natural harbors, the Mayans living at Chac Balam dug a harbor that was over 328 feet long to secure their canoes (Guderjan 2009: 21-22). The presence of this artificial harbor and exotic trade goods found at the site suggest that Chac Balam was a vital site for moving goods between mainland and coastal routes.

Their utilization of these massive canoes and man-made harbors indicates that the Mayans of the Caye were indeed masters of the sea. The specialization in long distance trade would have created wealth on the Ambergris Caye, which is visible in the archaeological record of several sites found there. The long occupation of the area, nearly 2000 years, by the Maya suggests that this site may have played a larger role in Maya culture than previously thought. Consequently, further investigation of the sites on Ambergris Caye may lead to a deeper insight into the Maya.



I thoroughly enjoyed my time working at CAS, though some of the work was somewhat tedious. I did complete my internship project several weeks before the end of the semester; after which I spent the next few weeks editing images in Photoshop for Amy, a skill I was a little rusty on. The refresher on Photoshop and the training in PastPerfect will be useful if I choose to pursue a career at a museum or archaeological repository, with the former having a wider range of applications. Though I graduate this semester I have yet to participate in any actual field work or a field school; regardless of this I do plan on applying for an archaeological technician position with the National Park service, and failing that a Park Ranger position. I was planning on waiting to see if I find the work enjoyable before I pursue a Master’s Degree, perhaps a few years, though it is something I would like to achieve.



References Cited

Benton, Amy, and Todd Ahlman

2016 Archaeological Curation Services Sources Sought for Usage St. Louis District. San Marcos, TX: Center for Archaeological Studies

Guderjan, Thomas H.

2007 Ancient Maya traders of Ambergris Caye. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

MacKinnon, J. Jefferson

1996 Stone Weights From an Ancient Maya Fishing Net Used on the Sennis River, Belize. Mexicon 18: 14–17., accessed April 5, 2017.

Maya History on Ambergris Caye, Belize The Maya on Ambergris Caye, Belize History., accessed April 5, 2017.

Melgar, Emiliano

2017 The Maya Caribbean: Fishing, navigation, and trade. . Essay. In The Sea in History – The Medieval World . Michel Balard and Christian Buchet, eds. Pp. 716–726. Rochester, NY: Boydell and Brewer.

Williams, Jocelyn S., Christine D. White, and Fred J. Longstaffe

2009 Maya Marine Subsistence: Isotopic Evidence from Marco Gonzalez and San Pedro, Belize. Latin American Antiquity 20(01): 37–56.

About the author

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