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Archaeological investigation of Prehispanic Maya

residential terraces, commoner housing and hydrology at

Chawak But'o'ob, Belize
Stanley Walling

Recent archaeological investigations at the Prehispanic Maya site of Chawak But'o'ob in

north-western Belize by the Rio Bravo Archaeology Project (RBAP) have brought to light
the remains of an unusual Late Classic-period (c. AD 600-850) farming community
characterized by residential terraces, densely distributed commoner housing, and
complex water management systems (Walling n.d.a, n.d.b, Walling & Misdea 1996,
Walling et al. 1999, Walling et al. 2001).

Figure 1. Map of the Three Rivers Region showing the core of the Programme for Belize
Conservation and Management Area and significant sites
(after Adams et al. 2004 and Houk 2003)

The seven closely situated residential groups that compose Chawak But'o'ob cover an
area of 1/2km2 on the inclined surface of the 60m-tall Rio Bravo Escarpment, one of
three similar escarpments in the RBCMA (Figure 2). Relic domestic settlement at
Chawak But'o'ob consists of 350 platforms, most of which exhibit very humble
proportions and construction techniques. No formal ritual or administrative structures,
such as pyramidal platforms, have been found at the site. Commoner homes, which
constitute the vast majority of the housing, have an unusually small average surface
area of 12m2.
Figure 2. Map of Group E, Chawak But'o'ob
Chawak But'o'ob (Yucatec Maya for 'long land' or 'long terraces') is one of a number of
recently discovered sites in the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area (RBCMA)
within the research region of the long-running Programme for Belize Archaeology
Project (Figure 1) (Adams & Valdez 1994, Dunning et al. 1999, Scarborough et al.

Artefacts consist almost entirely of utilitarian ceramics and lithics. From the site's lithic
artefacts (Kaplan n.d.), it is inferred that the principal occupation of the inhabitants was
farming, which several lines of evidence suggest was carried out as recessional
agriculture on the adjacent Rio Bravo flood plain. Ceramics date construction almost
exclusively to middle to late, Late Classic period (Tepeu 2-3 ceramic phases, c. AD 700
- 850). The degree of settlement expansion during this time was on the order of
several hundred percent, as perhaps a handful of early Late Classic farmsteads were
supplemented by more than 300 domestic structures by the end of the Classic period.
The fact that the number of construction events in evidence in excavated commoner
homes is at most two suggests that the substantial settlement growth here took place
during an extremely short period of time. This, in turn, suggests that internally driven
population growth was supplemented by immigration (cf. Adams et al. 2004).

It is conservatively estimated that half of the site's 350 platforms were occupied when
Chawak But'o'ob was at its population maximum, probably in the late eighth or early
ninth century. From this figure is derived an estimated peak population of
approximately 850 residents, which makes this one of the most densely occupied non-
urban communities in the Prehispanic Maya lowlands.

Among the architectural tools used by Chawak But'o'ob's ancient residents to regulate
the flow of water across the site's suburban landscape were dry-slope and cross-
channel terraces. Other mechanisms were residential patios that functioned as
collection surfaces, interconnected water basins, and a large central reservoir that
funneled water over the face of the escarpment to occupation areas below. The scale
and disposition of these features suggest that water management at the site was
centrally planned, which is unique among known water-control systems at lowland
Maya settlements of this size.

More than 3.3 linear km of relic terracing occurs at Chawak But'o'ob, of which 2.7km
consists of sizeable dry-slope contour terraces. Among these terraces are distinctive
spiral terraces, in which a continuously-sloped level of terracing serves as a ramp to
the apex of a knoll. The site's residential dry-slope terraces, which support the remains
of more than 60 small domestic platforms and foundation braces (stone alignments
outlining ancient house structures), are the first reported examples of ancient Maya
housing on linear dry-slope terraces (cf. Walling 1994, Cuddy 1997). The occurrence of
these occupied terraces begs the question of whether some of the thousands of dry-
slope terraces at other Prehispanic Maya sites have been misidentified as exclusively
agricultural features. If only a small proportion of the dry-slope terraces recorded so far
in the lowlands had a residential function, population estimates for the Maya area in the
Classic period, which are already substantial (Culbert & Rice 1990, Adams et al. 2004),
would need revision upward.

Principal among those who have provided assistance to the Rio Bravo Project are the
Directors of the Programme for Belize Archaeology Project, Fred Valdez Jr. and Richard
E.W. Adams. The RBAP also owes thanks to the Belizean Institute of Archaeology in
Belmopan for permission to conduct investigations at Chawak But'o'ob. RBAP staff
members who have played an important part in this project are: Peter Davis, Marisol
Cortes, Melissa DeVito, Jennifer Gabra, Melissa Vogel, Sharon Misdea, Kelly O'Connell,
Leigh Hartmann, Sandra Dias, and Roberta McIntyre. Funding for research at Chawak
But'o'ob has been provided by the Montclair State University Foundation, the Montclair
State University Center for Global Education, and the Bigel Endowment.



MATTHEWS 2004. Transformations, periodicity, and urban development in
the Three Rivers Region, in A. Demarest, P. Rice & D. Rice (ed.) The
Terminal Classic in the Maya lowlands: 324-341. Boulder: University of
Colorado Press.

 ADAMS, R. E. W. & F. VALDEZ JR. (ed.) 1994. The Programme For Belize
Archaeological Project: 1994 interim report. San Antonio: University of
Texas at San Antonio.
 CUDDY, T. 1997. Residential terracing in Maya settlement patterns at
Chau Hiix, Belize. Paper presented at the 62nd annual meeting of the
Society for American Archaeology, Nashville.

 CULBERT, T. P. & D. RICE (ed.). 1990. Precolumbian population history in

the Maya lowlands. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

 HOUK, B. 2003. The ties that bind: site planning in the Three Rivers
Region, in V. Scarborough, F. Valdez Jr. & N. Dunning (ed.) Heterarchy,
political economy, and the ancient Maya: the Three Rivers Region of the
east-central Yucatan Peninsula: 52-63. Tucson: University of Arizona

 KAPLAN, M. n.d. The lithic artifacts of Chawak But'o'ob. Manuscript on file

at the Center for Archaeological Studies, Montclair State University,
Montclair, New Jersey.

 SCARBOROUGH, V., F. VALDEZ & N. DUNNING (ed.). 2003. Heterarchy,

political economy, and the ancient Maya: the Three Rivers Region of the
east-central Yucatan Peninsula. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

 WALLING, S. n.d.a Ancient Maya landscape and subsistence in the Rio

Bravo Drainage, Northwestern Belize. Manuscript in submission.
- n.d.b Archaeological investigation of Classic-Period residential
terraces at Chawak But'o'ob, Belize. Manuscript in submission.
- 1994. Bajo and floodplain sites along the Rio Bravo: 1994 survey
and excavations, in R. E. W. Adams and F. Valdez Jr. (ed.)
Programme for Belize Archaeological Project: 1994 interim report:
63-67. San Antonio: Center for Archaeology and Tropical Research,
University of Texas.
 WALLING, S. & S. MISDEA 1996. Recent investigations of Prehispanic
Maya households in northern Belize: implications for ancient social
organization and demography. Paper presented at the 61st annual
meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, New Orleans.


RUFF, M. VOGEL & J. STAHL 1999. Living on the edge: Classic Maya
settlement and resource use on the Rio Bravo Escarpment, Belize, Central
America. Paper presented at the 64th annual meeting of the Society for
American Archaeology, Chicago.


2001. Household settlement at Chawak But'o'ob in the Three Rivers
Region, northern Belize. Paper presented at the 66th annual meeting of
the Society for American Archaeology, New Orleans.