Hand wash hand for the future of Belize
This old Belizean saying is still alive and well today
The recent archaeological find on Burns Avenue in San Ignacio town – discovered during work on a sustainable tourism project – reminds us not only how steeped Belize is in Maya history and culture, but how deeply intertwined tourism and archaeology are in this tiny country.
With the work being carried out just a few doors down from Chaa Creek’s downtown offices, the find also reminds us how archaeologists and the tourism sector work together to help protect this rich legacy of Belize while making it accessible for visitors and locals alike to appreciate.
Archaeological finds have always been a part and parcel with Chaa Creek’s development over the years, to the extent that they sometimes get in the way of day-to-day operations.
For example, some years ago there was great excitement in finally running electrical power to the resort’s gift shop. The work was carefully planned to have the least impact on guests and staff, tools and wires were laid out and everything was ready to go as the digging of the trenches began.
Hmmm… something solid… Further digging revealed a big circular stone, what was later found to be the capstone to an ancient Maya chultun, an underground chamber used for storage and sometimes for brewing chicha, sort of the Maya equivalent of beer.
Chaa Creek owner Mick Fleming immediately stopped the digging and rang Dr Jaime Awe at Belize’s Institute of archaeology to work out what to do next. Over the years Chaa Creek has developed a close working relationship with Dr Awe, a Belizean archaeologist of Maya descent who is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the ancient Maya and someone who is not afraid to get his hands dirty digging up the past.
It wasn’t long before Dr Awe’s team arrived to supervise the clearing of earth around the capstone and then the very careful lifting of the heavy stone. Air that had been trapped for centuries wafted up as torches revealed a tidy underground room into which a person could drop down and see perfect windows carved into stone that led to another chamber. Careful not to disturb some bones on the ground, the archaeologists surveyed, measured and sketched the chultun, much to the delight of a few guests who were lucky to be there for the discovery and excavation.
This is just one example out of dozens of work projects at Chaa Creek that turned into archaeological adventures, and over the years the resort has added numerous pieces of Belize’s Maya history to the national collection. It is also an example of the way Belize’s tourism industry works hand in hand with archaeologists, anthropologists and other researchers to protect, preserve and present the riches of Belize’s Maya heritage.
“In our early days of working Chaa Creek as a farm we’d sometimes dig up bits of pottery, figurines, tools and other implements, and appreciating that they were important links to the past, we’d notify the department of archaeology and carefully store them,” Mick recalled. “Over time our interest in Belize’s ecology and history grew, and this led to our starting the Chaa Creek Natural History Centre.
“After Belize’s Independence we began working closer with Belize’s National Institute of Culture and History (NICH), the Belize Institute of Archaeology and other groups, including overseas researchers and school such as the New York Botanical Gardens and the University of California. Because of this, we’ve now recorded some 70 Maya archaeological sites including the Maya temple of Tunichilen within Chaa Creek’s 365 acre nature reserve, and are able to maintain the Maya Medicinal Plant Trail to preserve traditional Maya healing. We like to think that we’re helping to keep alive a living link between Belize’s Maya past and the present,” Mick said.
He and his wife Lucy now not only host overseas research, but each year, under the Chaa Creek Cares program, sponsor a group of lucky Belizean schoolkids to participate in a weeklong educational adventure at Chaa Creek’s Macal River Camp, where the children get a hands-on education in Belizean natural history, Maya culture and ecological awareness.
“We feel that one of the best ways to preserve Belize’s precious natural and cultural resources is to instil an appreciation for them in our future generations. It’s great to see young people’s enthusiasm as they learn about the incredible diversity and richness of their environment and culture. You see a spark happen and think, ‘there goes our next world renowned archaeologist, botanist or anthropologist’,” Lucy said.
While Chaa Creek is not the only Belize resort that contributes to preserving Belizean antiquities, it does provide a model for ways in which the tourism sector and researchers can support each other with mutual benefits, and this is not limited to archaeology.
“By hosting the Birds without Borders program, the Zoological Society of Milwaukee County was able to conduct extensive field research, and we now have a comprehensive list of our avian wildlife. The archaeology research that Dr Samuel Connell of the University of California conducted here identified over 70 Maya sites within the Chaa Creek Nature Reserve, and we’ve had similar mutually beneficial partnerships with the New York Botanical Gardens, Yerkes Primate Institute, the Foundation for Wildlife Conservation and other individuals and groups.
“By opening up Chaa Creek to researchers in various fields, and especially archaeology, we broaden our own knowledge of the Chaa Creek area and Belize, and this enhances our guests’ experience while contributing to what has been some very exciting research,” Mick said.
So while the downtown archaeological discovery on Burns Avenue may have caused some minor inconveniences, it also provided a timely reminder and good example of how, in a tiny but ecologically and culturally rich country like Belize, the concept of responsible and sustainable tourism is more than just a theory – it is a model that provides untold benefits for Belizeans and their guests right now and well into the future.