Maya Research Program’ s 23rd archaeological field season in Belize

MRP Logo 2013

What is the Maya Research Program?

The Maya Research Program is a U.S.-based non-profit organization (501C3) that sponsors archaeological and ethnographic research in Middle America. Each summer since 1992, we have sponsored archaeological fieldwork in northwestern Belize and ethnographic research in the village of Yaxunah, Mexico. The Maya Research Program is affiliated with the University of Texas at Tyler.

Our goal is, first and foremost, to conduct research that helps us better understand the complex ancient societies of the Americas. MRP is proud to have a diverse staff of talented scientists contributing to this goal and many of our affiliated scholars are recognized as leaders in their fields. Recent support has come from the Archaeological Institute of America, National Geographic Society, the National Science Foundation, the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, the Heinz Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies. In addition, the Blue Creek field school has been certified by the Register of Professional Archaeologists and the project was recognized as the winner of the Archaeological Institute of America’s Excavation Outreach contest.

Another key MRP goal is to encourage the participation of students and volunteers — anyone who wants to experience the real world of archaeological or anthropological research and understand how we learn about cultures may join us. We see this as a critical educational component of MRP’s work and it helps us accomplish our research goals as well. The ages of our participants range from 18 to over 80. So many of our participants return year after year that MRP has become an extended family. About half of our participants are university students under 30 years old and the other half are professionals and retirees. While the majority of participants come from the United States and Canada, we have students from Australian,  European, Latin American, and Japanese institutions as well. For students, academic credit can usually be arranged either via UTT or the student’s home institution. Many of our students go on to become successful graduate students in archaeology or a related field and return to focus on MRP projects for their theses and dissertations.

In 2014 and 2015 we again offer opportunities to participate in our field program and learn about the Maya of the past and today. The Blue Creek Archaeological Project is open to student and non-student participants, regardless of experience. The field school has been certified by the Register of Professional Archaeologists and participants will receive training in archaeological field and laboratory techniques. Academic credit and scholarships are available. We invite students and volunteers to participate in the Maya Research Program’s  archaeological field season in northwestern Belize.

2014 Season Dates:
Session 1: Monday May 26 to Sunday June 8
Session 2: Monday June 9 to Sunday June 22
Session 3: Monday June 30 to Sunday July 13
Session 4: Monday July 14 to Sunday July 27

2015 Season Dates:

Session 1: Monday June 1st to Sunday June 14th

Session 2: Monday June 15th to Sunday June 28th

Session 3: Monday July 6th to Sunday July 19th

Session 4: Monday July 20th to Sunday August 2nd

If you are interested in joining the team this summer or next  – please get in touch soon as space is limited! If you have any questions – please don’t hesitate to contact us:

Maya Research Program
1910 East Southeast Loop 323
#296; Tyler, Texas 75701
Phone: 817-831-9011

MRP’s 23rd archaeological field season in Belize

The Maya Research Program is having a very successful 23rd archaeological field season in northwestern Belize! This summer we are concentrating on the site of Xnoha. Xnoha is a medium sized Maya center located on the edge of the Alacranes Bajo. We are delineating the architecture of the site core, three of its elite residences, and a possible shrine structure. In addition, we have recorded and conserved the mural recovered from Tulix Mul, secured numerous soil samples from wetland features, and finalized excavations at “Alvin’s Cave” and “Rice Mill Cave 3.” Our bioarchaeology field school is active this session and we are looking forward to our 3D modeling and photogrammetry workshop next week.  If you are interested in seeing weekly updates from the field – you can follow our progress on our Facebook page or via the photo gallery on our website.


Lost cities and looted tombs: Studying artifact smuggling in Belize

On last year’s day of archaeology I was 3700 feet above sea level, studying the looting of Andean churches. This year I am in the Central American jungle conducting fieldwork on artifact smuggling in Belize.

The image above shows the looting of a large Maya temple front at the site of Placeres, Mexico: it is literally being sawed off. Read about the looting and trafficking of this facade on the Trafficking Culture website. Photo by permission of the person who took it.

This job is exciting to say the least

An antiquities smuggler in the process of looting a large stucco temple facade at the Maya site of Placeres, Mexico (Photo with permission of individual pictured)

An antiquities smuggler in the process of looting a large stucco temple facade at the Maya site of Placeres, Mexico (Photo with permission of individual pictured)

Although I am an archaeologist by training (I have a trowel and I know how to use it), I do something a bit different. I am a researcher on Trafficking Culture, a multidisciplinary research project focused on researching the transnational criminal trafficking of looted and stolen cultural property. In other words, while many archaeologists work to reconstruct the past, we work make sure that there is a past left for them to reconstruct. The looting of archaeological sites and the trafficking of stolen antiquities is big business and my team is studying how to disrupt these criminal networks. I am based at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow. I’m an archaeologist in a criminology department.

Recently our project’s work in Cambodia has received much media attention, thanks to an article on the National Geographic site and a paper in the British Journal of Criminology (available for free for a limited time). My colleagues Simon Mackenzie and Tess Davis were able to reconstruct two criminal networks that stole Khmer art from jungle temples and moved them across borders and on to the market. One at least was tied to the Khmer Rouge. Many supposedly-reputable dealers, collectors, and museums bought these blood antiquities.

We want to study more of these artefact trafficking networks. That is why I am in Belize: to learn the who, what, when, where, and why of the devastation of the massive, jungle-covered ancient cities of the Maya by antiquities traffickers.

Almost every Maya site has been looted

A fat Maya lord rides on a jaguar man doing a handstand. It is in the November Collection, a brutally looted group of Maya pots acquired in the late 80s by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (photo by the author)

A fat Maya lord wearing a mask  rides on a jaguar man doing a handstand. It is in the November Collection, a brutally looted group of Maya pots acquired in the late 80s by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (photo by the author)

The ancient Maya were an artistically, culturally, and scientifically advanced civilization located in parts of what is now Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and, of course, Belize. They charted the movement of Venus, had a complete written language, and built cities that housed 10s of thousands of people. The remains of their massive temples are other-worldly: they stick up over the canopy of the jungle. From the temple tops, you can watch monkeys, toucans, and scarlet macaws going about their business below between the swirls of morning mist.

We’ve known about the ancient Maya for a long time. Formal archaeological excavations began in the region in the late 1800s and many many ‘lost cities’ were recorded by archaeological pioneers who braved the green uninhabited expanse, slinging their hammocks on ruins as they went along. There was not an international market for Maya artefacts, however, until the late 1950s and early 1960s. Collectors and museums went wild for the complex iconography of Maya carved stone statues (usually called stelas) and fell in love with the delicate, masterful scenes painted on Maya pottery. That it was illegal to buy, sell, and export Maya artefacts from their countries of origin was immaterial. The law rarely stops very rich people from getting what they want and what they wanted was the ancient Maya.

Maya Tomb at Rio Azul, looted in the late 1970s, empty when archaeologists arrived. We'll never know what was inside (poster by the author for Saving Antiquities for Everyone)

Maya tomb at Rio Azul, looted in the late 1970s, empty when archaeologists arrived. We’ll never know what was inside (poster by the author for Saving Antiquities for Everyone)

Almost every known Maya site (and many sites unknown to archaeologists) has been hit by looters. Archaeologists are often left cleaning up the tattered remains left as a supply of artefacts was found to meet the demands of artifact-hungry collectors and museums. Once-intact temples have been cut nearly in half to access the artefacts within. Many have collapsed, destabilized by looting tunnels. Archaeologists find once-beautiful carved stela mutilated by looters: “thinned” with power tools to make them easier to transport or broken into bits, with only the prettiest carved sections taken for the international market. Archaeologists find once-sealed Maya tombs empty and bare with human bones smashed or pushed aside. Any Maya pot or jade piece you see in a museum almost certainly came from a tomb. There is a very good chance it was looted as well. And relatively recently.

We’ve lost so much information about the Maya to the illicit antiquities market. I am out to figure out how this happened and what we can do to prevent it from happening again.

My day of archaeology

Having finished up some initial work in Belize City, I will ride an old American school bus north along Belize’s Northern Highway to the town of Orange Walk. There I will stop in to the town museum which houses artefacts from a number of nearby Maya sites to speak with museum workers about looting and trafficking of antiquities. Hopefully this will generate some local leads: we’ve found that people involved in antiquities trafficking in the past are often willing to talk about it.

The author showing her love for the ancient Maya at the site of Lamanai, Belize back in 2003.

The author showing her love for the ancient Maya at the site of Lamanai, Belize back in 2003.

I am very interested in what we call ‘parallel’ trafficking networks: illicit objects that are smuggled alongside antiquities in the same areas. Along Belize’s borders with Guatemala and Mexico rare plants and animals, arms, drugs, and people have been trafficked, as well as antiquities. I am going to (safely) see if anyone around those parts is willing to tell me some stories about this.

The author excavates a rare unlooted Maya tomb at a heavily looted site on the Belize/Guatemala border

Me excavating a rare unlooted Maya tomb at a heavily looted site on the Belize/Guatemala border. The pot type I am finding is very rare and, sadly, very sellable as an illicit antiquity.

Next I plan to move a bit further afield. I plan on visiting some of the heavily looted Maya sites along Belize’s northern border with Mexico. These sites are very difficult to get to, but several archaeologists working the area have kindly invited me into their camps.

This trip is an emotional one for me. As I say in this post on my blog, Anonymous Swiss Collector, I first found myself face-to-face with the devastating effects of looting while working in Belize and Guatemala in 2003. It was then and there that I devoted myself to this issue and my life has never been the same. A BA, MPhil, PhD, and post doc later, I am still working to protect and preserve the Maya sites that I fell in love with. This will be my first time back to Belize in over a decade.

I think that the only way to prevent looting at archaeological sites is to disrupt the criminal networks that bring these items to the market. To do that, we have to understand those networks. Hopefully this fieldwork will shed new light on a very dark chapter in the archaeological history of Central America.

The author, all of 20 years old, at the (looted) Maya site of Xunantunich, Belize

The author, all of 20 years old, at the (looted) Maya site of Xunantunich, Belize

Aerial Survey of Archaeological Excavations Using Quad-Rotor and Hex-Rotor Aircraft – Arch Aerial

My name is Ryan Baker, and I’m the founder of Arch Aerial LLC, a group dedicated to developing easy to use aerial photography platforms for research applications.  During the 2013 field season we had teams all over the world working at archaeological excavations, but this week our final project for the summer is wrapping up at the Poggio Civitate Archaeological Project in Murlo, Italy.


On all of our projects this field season, we use quad and hex-rotor helicopters designed by our team to conduct aerial imaging of archaeological sites of varying scale.  Friday, July 26th, 2013 was a typical day of work in Murlo: here at Poggio Civitate we begin with the thirty-minute walk through the Tuscan countryside to the site on the top of the hill.  After arriving at the trenches for the 2013 field season, we immediately take aerial orthorectified photographs of the entire excavation area.  Capturing the necessary photos takes around five minutes, and once they are offloaded from the camera’s memory card, our technicians begin 3D modeling the excavation area on site using 3D photogrammetry software. Producing the 3D model of the excavation area takes around 20 minutes, and the excavation director is able to use this model to assess the progress of excavation and direct site staff on how to proceed for the day.  In addition to 3D modeling of the excavation area, we are also able to do 3D modeling of artifacts using land-based photography.  Below you can see an example of this in the form of a 3D model of a roofing antefix.

Screen Shot 2013-07-27 at 5.25.55 PM

Once the 3D model of the excavation area is complete, our team continues survey of the entirety of the hill.  One of our main goals for this season at Poggio Civitate is to produce both 2D and 3D imaging of the whole of Poggio Civitate and the surrounding area.  Survey flights occupy the rest of the morning, and then around lunch our team leaves the hill to begin processing data from the first half of the day.  For the remainder of the afternoon, our Field Operators georeference locus photos, finalize 3D models from the excavation area, and compile 2D and 3D imaging for the comprehensive view of Poggio Civitate and its surroundings.


In addition to Poggio Civitate our teams have conducted aerial imaging at the San Giovenale Tom Survey run by the Swedish Institute in Rome, and the Programme for Belize Archaeological Project at the Rio Bravo Conservation Management Area.  The video below was not made with footage from July 26th 2013, but it depicts a typical day of survey at the Programme for Belize Archaeological Project and the 3D models we were able to produce while working there.

Arch Aerial at PfBAP – Dos Hombres on Vimeo.

Although this isn’t all we do in terms of remote sensing, it gives a glimpse into the world of aerial survey and how it can be applied to the field of archaeology. Looking forward to sharing a year’s worth of developments on the next Day of Archaeology!

Interested taking a closer look at our work from this field season? Check out for more videos and updates from the field.


From Home With Love x

Unlike my fellow colleagues, who are working industriously in the field or in the lab with great enthusiasm, I am working from home today! As a matter of fact, I have been doing this for a while now. You may think ‘working from home’ is only an excuse for slacking or not getting out of your bed in early mornings, but not for me (okay maybe a little bit!).

The reason why I am tied to my chair with my hands glued to my laptop in my tiny apartment is because I am WRITING UP! After years of working in the field in Belize, polishing hundreds of samples in the lab till my arms sore, freezing/ boiling in the basement laboratory, and in my case a stitched-up thumb (long story!), I have decided that it’s time for me to finish my PhD. The process of writing up the dissertation is a lot more challenging than I would have imagined.


My attire of the day – yes it’s PJs! I’d figure they are the most comfy thing to be in when you are writing…


Of course, there are times that I can just go on and on, even though mostly writing craps. But, there are times that I got stuck with data interpretation and integrating theories into scientific analytical framework. There are also times that I would just stay up all night contemplating on THE question of ‘the Collapse of Maya Civilization’…

One thing I’ve learnt so far is that I work far better at home because if you know me I simply cannot resist the temptation of talking to my colleagues. Also, I have this very bad habit of reading what I have just written out loud, which can be quite annoying at times.I am still at the early stage of writing up my dissertation, if any of you out there are aware of a more effective (or less painful) way of doing so, please let me know!


I’m snowed under by this pile of books!


After all, I am working from home with love – my love for archaeology, Maya civilization, ceramic analysis, and archaeometry (archaeological sciences)! x



5 Reasons Why I Became an Archaeologist

1. Travel

Ever since my parents took me on a trip to the Caribbean as a child, I plotted to find a way to spend every winter in the tropics. I wanted to get paid to travel. I wanted to escape the Chicago snow.

My chance came in grad school when I had the opportunity to teach field schools in Belize. I was in grad school for a long time so I was able to look forward to flying south with the birds each time spring semester rolled around.

Since completing my MA and PhD in Archaeology I’ve continued living a nomadic life by working on projects in Mexico, California, and Arizona. What I didn’t expect was that I’d eventually tire of travel after moving from motel to motel off remote desert highways as a CRM archaeologist. So now I’m what they call an armchair archaeologist, and today I’m exploring world archaeology via posts to this blog.


Adventures with the Maya

On Fridays, my husband and I are usually writing or researching or doing school visits, but this week we were at home working on our website. We co-write and illustrate a Maya-themed adventure series for 9-14 year-olds called The Jaguar Stones. Eight years ago, we gave up our jobs in a London advertising agency to become writers in rural Vermont. At that point, I knew nothing about the Maya and never dreamed that one day my life would revolve around them – to the extent that we’ve now explored nearly forty sites in Guatemala, Mexico and Belize, got to know many leading Mayanists, presented at the AIA Archaeology Fair, and visited countless schools around the United States.

Our books – note the Bulgarian edition that just arrived!

It all started when we decided to write a children’s book set in the jungles of Central America. My husband Jon had grown up there and the book grew out of his memories of a wild childhood. So at first, the Maya pyramids were just a cool background for our story. But the more we researched the Maya, the more we realized that truth was more fascinating than fiction.  It soon became apparent that most textbooks were out-of-date and did not reflect the latest archaeological findings. Since then we’ve made it our mission to bridge that gap.

Everything we write is checked by Harvard professor, archaeologist and epigrapher, Dr Marc Zender, who keeps us up-to-date with the latest thinking. For example, one of our main characters was a Maya king nicknamed Lord Six Rabbit, a name we loved. Six Rabbit was supposed to be his birthday in the Maya calendar, but Dr Zender advised us that the Rabbit interpretation of that day glyph is now seen as Aztec. (The Maya reading now being star, as in Venus the morning star.) Given the amount of misinformation that’s already out there about the Maya, we wanted our books to be as accurate as possible. So, with a sigh, we changed our king’s nickname (and his birthday) to Six Dog.

When we visit schools, we often wear pith helmets in a tribute to one of my personal heroes, Sylvanus Griswold Morley – the dashing, daredevil director of the Chichen Itza project and WW1 secret agent. (I even gave the hero of the Jaguar Stones the middle name of Sylvanus.) Or sometimes we wear leather hats like the most famous archaeologist of them all, Indiana Jones. But one of our greatest pleasures is meeting and talking to real life Mayanists. We’re trying to film as many of them as possible for our website and today Jon was editing an interview with Dr Mark Van Stone, Professor of Art History at Southwestern, leading expert on 2012 and author of one of the best books on the subject. When it’s up, you can view the interview here, along with all the others. Link to archaeologist videos

In the clip, Dr Van Stone is talking about how the myth of the world ending in 2012 arose and why it’s complete nonsense. If kids google 2012, they find literally thousands of websites proclaiming doom and gloom and blaming it on the Maya. Many children are terrified, but it’s virtually impossible for them to access the truth. So when we visit schools, we try to empower the students to question everything they read on the Internet and give them a much broader understanding of the Maya world. We also try to convey something of an archaeologist’s life with a video mash-up of archaeologists and anthropologists talking about their hairiest experiences – usually involving skulls, snakes, scorpions, giant centipedes, cave spiders, killer bees and, in one case, a cockroach sandwich.

This student made dolls of four characters from our book. Ah Pukuh - Maya god of death, Lola - a modern Maya girl, Lady Coco - a howler monkey, Lord Six-Dog, Maya king.

This student wrote a hilarious tourist guide to Xibalba, the cold, wet Maya underworld, "a wonderful place full of suffering, misery and sorrow."

While Jon was editing videos, I was scanning in some amazing projects presented to us by students on our last book tour. I’m trying to create some new teacher pages to go along with our lesson plan CD. Sometimes we’ll walk into schools and find ourselves surrounded by Jaguar Stones projects on every wall. Other times, they’ll decorate the school like a jungle in our honor. One school even had a fog machine to generate an appropriately spooky atmosphere. Recently, a student wrote to us and said: “I used to want to be a doctor and save lives, but now I want to be an archaeologist.” Not sure how I feel about that one.

The Maya king holding court in our dining room.

If we get the website sorted before the end of the day, I’m also hoping that we’ll get around to packing up the Maya king costume that’s currently adorning a mannequin in our dining room. We originally made it to take to schools, and we set it up last week for some passing tourists, but now it’s scaring our dinner guests! I think it’s the taxidermy eyes in the jaguar mask that freak people out. Of course, no actual Maya king costumes survived the jungle and the Spanish conquest, but we based our design on wall paintings and sculptures. I spent many long hours on eBay bidding for the feathers and found a Las Vegas showgirl headdress that we deconstructed to form the base. The whole thing was made and put together by our niece who’d had experience making circus costumes at university. When we take the costume to schools, it’s usually modeled by a teacher, much to the students’ delight. We had it with us for school visits in Florida when we went to the Maya at the Playa conference last year. Predictably a late-night reveler insisted on trying it on and wore it back down to the bar where the eminent archaeologist speakers were still, ahem, gathered. We thought they might be horrified at the liberties we’d taken in our design but they all loved it and many of them posed for photos with it!

As soon as we’ve got the website updated and the costume packed away, it’s back to work revising, editing and illustrating The Jaguar Stones book three.”