- By Dr Donna Yates
A Maya temple at Nohmul in Belize has been bulldozed to get aggregate for road construction.
Recently I wrote a short piece for USi about the construction of a Walmart at the Mexican archaeological site of Teotihuacan. I find the destruction of major archaeological sites upsetting and I was relieved to see that so many readers agreed with me.
This morning I woke up to more archaeological destruction. Jaime Awe, the head of archaeology in Belize, has announced that a private construction firm tore into a pyramid at the Maya site of Nohmul with a large back hoe. It isn’t yet clear exactly which company destroyed the temple but, at the very least, they were using equipment labelled “D-Mar Construction” which is owned by United Democratic Party politician Denny Grijalva.
Nohmul isn’t Teotihuacan. It is a small site, in a slightly out of the way part of a slightly out of the way country. It is quite large, but quite spread out. It had temples and ceremonial causeways and pyramids and all that we associate with the ancient Maya, but not on a the massive scale of sites like Tikal or Copan or Palenque. If Tikal was the Maya equivalent of London, Nohmul was St. Neots.
But it is exactly these sorts of sites that give us some of the most exciting information about the Maya world. Nohmul in particular is known for some landmark work on trace element analysis of obsidian tools. The Maya used volcanic glass to make blades and, thanks to modern scientific techniques, we are able to determine exactly which volcano (and even which eruption) produced this glass. Imagine a piece of obsidian from Teotihuacan (famed for its green-coloured “Pachuca” obsidian) ended up all the way at Nohmul. We would know that the Maya had a successful long distance trade system that spanned half the continent. And you know what? That is exactly what happened. Green “Pachuca” obsidian was excavated by Prof. Norman Hammond of Boston University at the site of Nohmul in the 1980s. The people of Nohmul traded down the line with Teotihuacan.
To make this even more exciting: imagine that Teotihuacan was the starting point of the trade line and Nohmul was the end of the line. As archaeologists collect pieces of green Pachuca obsidian from small sites throughout the Maya area and plot them on a map, we can see the entire trade network form. We can trace their path down winding jungle rivers and imagine the long-distance traders carrying their wares from site to site in canoes. What else came to Nohmul along with the obsidian? Technology? Literature? Art? People? It is at sites like Nohmul where we really start to see the ancient Maya as people connected to the larger world.
But why was a temple at the site destroyed this week? Time will tell, hopefully. The site of Nohmul is on private land, however the remains of the Maya settlement are not owned by the landowner. They are a protected archaeological site under Belizean law and cannot just be flattened. Yet, who monitors these things? Who prevents this from happening? In a very small, not particularly wealthy country like Belize there is very little money for such projects and, perhaps, even fewer people with archaeological training. It is quite likely that Nohmul was being levelled to provide construction material. This has happened before at Belizean archaeological sites. I hate to say it, but it will likely happen again. It has been announced that criminal charges may be filed in this case, but people always think they can get away with crimes against heritage. The past can seem dead and meaningless. The past seems to not fight back.
Those who think that are wrong. People care about the ancient past in Belize. It may be that the local community in the Orange Walk district notified the national archaeology team of the destruction. I hope that is the case. At Teotihuacan, it was the local community that reported the seemingly-illegal construction activities of the Walmart store, and the unions that have pushed the campaign against corruption. In a country like Belize communities need to band together, decide what is important to them, and preserve their shared heritage.
- Dr Donna Yates is a postdoctoral researcher on the Trafficking Culture project at the University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research studying antiquities trafficking and heritage crime in Latin America. You can follow her on twitter or read her blog.
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