Image - Cacao Pod Vessel - K6706 © Justin Kerr FAMSI © 2002:
Geoffrey E. Braswell

Pusilhá Archaeological Project
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Figure 4. Moho Plaza.

Research Year:  2001
Culture:  Maya
Chronology:  Classic
Location:  South Western Belize
Site:  Pusilhá

Table of Contents

Introduction to the Pusilhá Archaeological Project (PUSAP)
Summary of Previous Research at Pusilhá and other Inland Sites of Toledo District
Current Research at Pusilhá (May–July 2001)
Research Objectives for the 2002 Season (February–August 2002) and Beyond
List of Figures
Sources Cited

Introduction to the Pusilhá Archaeological Project (PUSAP)

To what degree were the economies of peripheral cities within an ancient polity assimilated with that of the core, and did the nature of economic integration change with political fragmentation and independence? How closely was the "peasant" economy tied to the political economy of the local elite? Did archaic states coalesce from and fragment into autonomous provinces as proposed in Marcus’ (1992, 1993, 1998) dynamic model? Finally, how did Maya economic systems articulate with those of their non-Maya neighbors? The Classic period (A.D. 250-800) Maya site of Pusilhá is an ideal laboratory for investigating these questions and for testing specific hypotheses about political elaboration and the "embeddedness" (Polanyi 1957) of economic systems within broader political, social, and cultural realms. This report details the first season (May–July 2001) of mapping and monument documentation at Pusilhá, where we are gathering data that will help us answer these questions.

Pusilhá is a mid-size population and political center located in the extreme southwest of Belize. The site is known principally for its many carved monuments dating to the Classic period and a unique architectural feature: a triple-span bridge over the Pusilhá (Machaca) River and two artificial diversion canals. Although the site was among the first in the southeastern Maya lowlands to be subject to archaeological investigation (Gann 1928; Gruning 1930; Joyce 1929, 1932; Joyce et al. 1928), Pusilhá has received only sporadic and brief attention since the late 1920s (Leventhal 1990, n.d. a, n.d. b; Hammond 1975; Morley 1938; Reents n.d.; Ulrich 1982; Walters and Weller n.d.). One reason for this is its remote location. Until 2001, Pusilhá and San Benito Poité (a small Q’eqchi’ village built in the residential zone of the site) were accessible only by foot or horseback from Santa Theresa and Aguacate villages (respectively four and seven hours away), and from the Guatemalan village of Río Blanco (four hours). In May, however, a new road to Poité was completed, and regular bus service has been established. Tourists, although still infrequent, are beginning to visit the site and sleep at Poité under the Toledo home stay program.

The settlement and agricultural zones of Pusilhá, approximately 6 km2 in total area, are sharply circumscribed to the north, west, and south by the Maya Mountains (Figure 1). The Moho River and a narrow valley provide access from the east, and a mountain pass leads northwest from the site. The urban core and surrounding residential and agricultural zones of Pusilhá–all located within this small area–contain several hundred architectural groups situated between and near the Pusilhá and Poité rivers. Although less imposing architecturally than nearby Lubaantun, Pusilhá almost certainly was the largest population center in the region. Like most other sites in southern Belize and the southeastern Petén, the architecture of Pusilhá is relatively small in scale. The largest completely artificial platforms stand only 5-m high and supported perishable superstructures. There are no great pyramids of the sort found at Tikal, Caracol, Calakmul, and other better-known sites. The most imposing ruins at Pusilhá are found on Gateway Hill, located in the southeastern outskirts of the city. There, a series of pyramidal platforms, artificial terraces, and building façades were constructed against the natural slope of the hill. Although the architecture of Gateway Hill has been compared to a "Hollywood set" (Leventhal 1990), the skillful blend of natural and artificial features creates an imposing acropolis similar to that of Toniná. Despite its peripheral location, it seems probable that Gateway Hill was both the royal palace and administrative center of the city. Other important groups known before PUSAP began work include the Machaca Plaza (an elite residential group or palace), the Moho Plaza (with a hieroglyphic stair and a large ballcourt containing three carved markers), two other ballcourt groups, and the Stela Plaza (containing 22 carved stelae, four zoomorphic altars, and at least four round altars).

Although Pusilhá has been known for many years, and despite the fact that many stelae bearing hieroglyphic inscriptions were taken to the British Museum in the late 1920s, we knew remarkably little about the role of this Maya center before the beginning of PUSAP’s 2001 field season. In fact, a multi-phase ceramic sequence has never been developed for Pusilhá or any other inland site of Toledo district. In brief, most of what we did know or suspect was derived from preliminary and unpublished discussions of the hieroglyphic texts in the British Museum, or from illustrations of artifacts recovered during the 1920s. Morley (1938) analyzed the chronological content of the monuments and argued that Pusilhá was occupied during both the Early and Late Classic periods. Until the discovery of Uxbenka (Leventhal 1990), Pusilhá was the only site in southern Belize believed to have been occupied during the Early Classic period.

There are tantalizing clues that Pusilhá, at least for part of its history, was politically and economically linked with Copán. For this reason, Marcus (1992, 1994) has used Pusilhá as an example of her "dynamic model" of state formation and fragmentation (Marcus 1992, 1993, 1994, 1998). She proposes that Pusilhá began in the Early Classic period as an independent settlement, but became a politically subordinate site in the periphery of the Copán polity during the 7th century. As Pusilhá grew in the 8th century, its rulers reasserted political autonomy, as did Quiriguá. Thus, a politically independent province was incorporated into an expanding state, but later broke away and maintained many of the trappings of a state-level polity. Finally, near the end of the 8th century, the Pusilhá dynasty collapsed and power seems to have shifted to Lubaantun (Hammond 1975). We strongly suspect, however, that Pusilhá continued to be occupied during the Terminal Classic (A.D. 800-900/1000).

Our project grew out of questions raised by this interpretation of the political history of Pusilhá. If Pusilhá indeed experienced alternating periods of political independence and incorporation, what were the economic ramifications of those events? Many current models suggest that Maya economies were characterized by household-level production and exchange conducted without elite control. If this was the case, the political upheavals proposed for Pusilhá should have had little effect on the economic welfare of non-elite households. To what extent did political subordination imply the incorporation of local elites into the economic system of the greater state? Our research at Pusilhá is designed to answer these questions by testing specific hypotheses regarding ancient Maya states.

Because of the regional importance of Pusilhá and the dearth of information about the site, PUSAP began in 2001 with the support of the Department of Archaeology of Belize. Our first season of investigation was funded by the School of American Research (SAR) and the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI). During our eight week field season (May–June), we documented previously unrecorded monuments and monument fragments, and discovered three new stelae (making a total of 25), a fourth zoomorphic altar, and nearly 90 other sculptural fragments, many of which still contain legible hieroglyphs. In the Moho Plaza, we drew and photographed three ballcourt markers and the hieroglyphic stairs. Although these have been known for a decade (Walters and Weller n.d.), they remain unpublished. We hope that information gleaned from these monuments, coupled with our ongoing epigraphic analyses of texts now in the British Museum, will allow us to flesh out the political history of Pusilhá. During the 2001 season, we also began a systematic mapping program using total station and GPS equipment. In particular, we mapped four portions of the site: the Gateway Hill Acropolis, the Stela Plaza, Moho Plaza, and a large settlement zone northeast of the Stela Plaza (Figure 1). The map developed during this field season is important for the research design of a future program of test pitting and continued mapping.

Our work not only is timely for theoretical reasons, but also is urgent. When we began our current field season at Pusilhá, we found that the site had been severely looted since our last visit in 1998. More than 80 percent of the 200 or so platforms that we have mapped so far are significantly damaged. All platforms standing more than 1-m high have been significantly looted. We found open and emptied burials nearly every day. Villagers commonly discuss looting and the economic value of artifacts (including previously undocumented carved monuments) and we surprised looters on several occasions. I have seen no other site in Belize that has been–and remains–subject to this degree of relentless destruction, and know only a handful of such sites in Guatemala and México (e.g., Naranjo, Jaína, Río Azul, and Nakbé). It is critical, therefore, that this Maya center be studied and preserved while there still is a chance to do so.

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Submitted 09/10/2002 by:

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