el pilar ruins in belize

Responsible travel salutes responsible research

Chaa Creek was once a thriving community and trade centre for the ancient Maya, and while over 70 sites have been identified and several archaeological excavations undertaken within our 365 private nature reserve, there is still much to be discovered.

So it is with great interest that we’ve watched the archaeological investigations underway at neighboring El Pilar under the auspices of Dr Anabel Ford, Director of the Mesoamerican Research Centre at University of California, Santa Barbara and a long-time friend and visitor to Chaa Creek.

Situated some 12 kilometres north of San Ignacio town and straddling the Belize – Guatemala border, El Pilar’s 100 acres contains over 25 plazas, temples, palaces, residential structures, and causeways. Inhabited continuously between 800BC and 1,000AD, it supported a population of over 20,000 at its peak, and was one of the most important centres of the Lowland Maya.

This scale-model of the El Pilar ruins in Belize can be viewed at the Be Putke Cultural Center in Bullet Tree Falls.

For us, one of the more interesting aspects of El Pilar is not just what has been found, but the way in which the research is carried out.

El Pilar, and the local environment, has benefitted from an archaeological approach known as Archaeology under the Canopy, which pays careful attention to the environmental integrity of the research site.  This research method tries to ensure, as much as practical, that ancient structures remain in the state they were found, recognising that the forest canopy had played a major role in preserving the Maya sites up until they were discovered.

According to Dr Ford, “El Pilar offers the opportunity to pursue a different kind of conservation strategy called Archaeology under the Canopy, where the natural forest and surrounding environment of the monuments are maintained to protect the site’s fragile structures from the elements. It is tree cover that reduces exposure to sunshine and rain and maintains an even temperature that will preserve the monuments.”

Another advantage of Archaeology under the Canopy is that the visitor experiences the Maya sites in much the same way as the original explorers did, with all the sense of mystery, wonder and excitement of the jungle still intact.

“El Pilar is a place of introspection and reflection,” says Dr Ford, “Gently shaded by forest canopy and full of a palpable mystery that evokes its enigmatic past, it demonstrates an authentic archaeological discovery rather than a naked city.”

Anyone who has seen photographs and drawings of the early jungle Maya archaeological digs will recall that sites were often clear-cut, leaving vast scars on the otherwise pristine forest. Such an approach was considered more cost effective and thought to make for a more stable, secure and safer site. Now, with greater environmental awareness and a focus on the interdependence between civilizations and nature, a better way has been developed.

El Pilar is excellent for birding and hiking.

“I want people to engage with their surroundings, to explore for themselves the relationship of history and nature, to see bits and pieces and use their imaginations in order to understand that the mystery of the Maya is more than just looking at monuments,” Dr Ford said.

The research goals of Dr Ford’s team are also interesting. Rather than the usual focus on royal edifices, the great pyramids, Maya temples, palaces and ball courts, the research at El Pilar is concentrating on the more day-to-day aspects of the ancient Maya Civilisation such as home life, kinship and agricultural practices. By looking closely at the lifestyle and sustainable farming practices of the masses, Dr Ford’s research is tracking the spectacular rise, long dominance, and baffling decline of one of the greatest and most advanced civilisations the world has seen.

The results of Dr Ford’s research into ancient concepts of sustainability, in contrast to the more modern, destructive farming practices have lessons for us today.

Much of the El Pilar research investigates the Maya’s landscape management system, known as the “Maya Forest Garden.” The El Pilar findings point out that the land surrounding Maya settlements was actually a systematically managed biosphere closely linked to the growth of the settlements and population requirements.

“Traditional practices of forest gardening support a model of long-term, sustainable management of natural resources by the Maya. This view acknowledges the Maya as managers rather than as destroyers.

“The research that underlies the principles of archaeology practiced at El Pilar is based upon the premise that the ancient Maya worked with their tropical environment, as opposed to transfiguring it, and by doing so created a flourishing civilization sustained by the natural rainforest ecosystem,” Dr Ford said.

El Pilar findings should go a long way in explaining how the large, densely populated ancient Maya cities and communities were able to flourish on such a grand scale in an inhospitable jungle environment. The other side of the coin, of course, is studying the sudden decline of such a successful culture.

What is apparent right now, however, is that Archaeology under the Canopy greatly enhances the experience of visiting Maya archaeological sites. The verdant canopy not only protects the ancient structures, it also preserves the feel of these ancient communities in a way no amount of high tech visitor’s centres can. The rustle of the wind through the leaves, the jungle scent and the presence of monkeys and other animals invokes a deeper connection with the sense of history, of a vibrant past we may never comprehend intellectually, but thanks to this approach to archaeology, can get a better sense of.

The El Pilar project involves the Belizean and Guatemalan governments as well as community groups in developing strategies and infrastructure for the El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna, now being developed as a living museum that allows visitors to walk among the archaeological structures and natural tropical vegetation for a more direct Maya experience.

Another interesting aspect of the El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna is that, as a bi-national reserve straddling the disputed border of two countries that have had a sometimes contentious past, it is said to function as a “peace park” leading to a sharing of resources and greater cooperation.

Mick Fleming, Chaa Creek’s GM and Environmental Coordinator, is one person fully in agreement with this new direction in archaeological research.

“At Chaa Creek we’ve always been concerned about managing the intrusive nature of archaeological research on the jungle within our own reserve.” Mr Fleming said, “Anabel’s work has been an eye-opener and very inspiring. We’ve been fortunate to have such ground breaking work done right next door, as it were, and we like to think this is the wave of the future. It certainly has an effect on how we look at research within the Chaa Creek reserve. Exploring the past in its natural context while preserving the environment for the future is a major part of our own philosophy, and we definitely tip our hat to Dr Ford and her team at El Pilar.”

The Lodge at Chaa Creek offers educational Maya adventure tour packages designed to open up the fascinating world of the Maya. In the lead up to and during the huge 2012 Winter Solstice Maya celebrations there will be a range of special offers and all-inclusive Maya adventure packages that offer an authentic, educational and affordable way to learn about one of the greatest civilisations the world has known.

Photo credit: http://www.belizereport.com
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