Excavations on Ambergris Caye

Ambergris Caye Map

Excavations directed by Elizabeth Graham and David Pendergast began on Ambergris Caye, specifically at the site of Marco Gonzalez, in 1986. The results of the preliminary investigations have been reported in the Journal of Field Archaeology 16:1-16. Work continued at Marco Gonzalez in 1990, and from 1991 to 1993 small-scale excavations were carried out in the town of San Pedro, and also at Santa Cruz, on the island's leeward side, to reveal something about the chronology of settlement and environmental change. Graham and Pendergast's work on the southern part of Ambergris Caye complements the archaeological excavations carried out by Thomas Guderjan, James Garber, and Herman Smith at sites on the northern part of the caye, and reported in Maya Maritime Trade, Settlement, and Populations on Ambergris Caye, Belize (edited by T. Guderjan and J. Garber, 1995, Maya Research Program, P.O. Box 15376, San Antonio, Texas 78212). Tom Guderjan has also written a booklet on the history of the archaeology of Ambergris Caye, and this is available at many bookstores and shops in Belize.

Graham and Pendergast are presently at work on a summary of their excavations on the caye to date. Marco Gonzalez first saw intensive use during the Protoclassic and Early Classic periods (ca. A.D. 1-250), but scattered sherds indicate that the area may have been utilized as early as the Late Preclassic period (about 100 B.C.). The presence of huge numbers of sherds from standardized vessels thought to have been used to make salt cakes indicates that islanders focused largely on the shipment of salt during the Late Classic period (ca. A.D. 600-800) but that this tailed off during the time of the Maya collapse, and was replaced by renewed interest in wider-ranging trade. Most of the 49 buildings identified at Marco Gonzalez were either built in or modified in the Early and Middle Postclassic periods (A.D. 900-1300). Less dense occupation continued through the Late Postclassic and early Historic periods as indicated by the ceramics recovered from residential remains, surface scatter, and from offerings in a late addition to the stair of Str. 12, a probable residential building.

Santa Cruz also seems to have supported salt-making and distributing during the Late Classic, and to have seen substantial expansion and construction during the Early Postclassic. There is more evidence of Late Postclassic residences at Santa Cruz than at Marco Gonzalez, and numerous fruit trees indicate that the area has been used in one form or another right down to the present day.

Excavations in San Pedro itself turned up remains from a variety of periods as early as the Early Classic, although it appears that Late Postclassic occupation was the most intensive. The indications are that San Pedro was indeed a population centre during the Late Postclassic and early Historic periods. Historic remains cluster around the Sands Hotel, Martha's Store, the Alijua Building, and the lots adjoining these areas. In 1992, Pendergast discovered a number of well-preserved burials below house floors on the Sands property, and further remains of residential activity were discovered in 1993, although the small areas opened made a full assessment of occupation impossible. The stratigraphy and character of sediments on the Sands property suggested to geologist S.J. Mazzullo from Wichita State University that the island had, prior to the Late Postclassic period, been crossed by a channel in the zone that is now considered the town's centre. Further excavation is necessary before this can be confirmed, and we are hoping to excavate portions of the last open lot in this area, immediately behind the Alijua Building, before construction begins on the lot in 1999.

Of the artifacts recovered, the most complete and best preserved ceramics come from Marco Gonzalez. A good example is the whistle figurine of a musician, shown on our cover page. (For more on the whistle figurine, check DISCOVERY AND MUSEUM ACTIVITIES.) The excellent preservation of burials means that a great deal can be learned about the diet and health of the first San Pedranos. Information on studies being carried out by Dr. Christine White of the University of Western Ontario and her students can be found in the RESEARCH AND ACTIVITIES UPDATE. Sherds from Spanish Colonial olive jars are evidence of the early Spanish contact, and bottles and ceramics from the British and modern periods abound. Not surprisingly, the faunal remains indicate that the island supported a lively fishing and shellfishing industry from at least 50 B.C. onward. Continuing environmental studies focus on the impact of Maya occupation on soil-forming processes and vegetational succession. Garbage and waste management studies are planned in order to assess modern cycling of nutrients and soil-building efforts.


 En route to Marco Gonzalez

On site at Marco Gonzalez, burning termite nests keep mosquitoes at bay in the early morning. From left to right: Josh Wright, Liz Graham, Anne MacLaughlin.


Liz Graham drawing a section of one of the shell middens at Marco Gonzalez.

One of the many sequent burials cut into the floor of a residence, Str. 14, at Marco Gonzalez. Later burials often disturbed earlier interments in the building, as can be seen in the photo. The tripod jar (MG 127/1; ht. 14.8 cm) was placed with one of latest burials and hence remained whole. The jar is a type believed to have been made in the Chichen Itza area and imported by residents of the caye.

Ceramic faces from bowls or censers that date to the 16th or 17th century. The left is from the surface of Str. 12, the right is from the core of the final stair of the same building.

Dr. S.J. Mazzullo and his student, Chellie Teal, coring the red mangrove swamp at Santa Cruz in 1993.

Upper photo: The Sands Hotel along Middle Street in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. Lower photo: Digging in the front yard of the hotel in 1993. Among the excavators are Josh Wright, John King, Scott Simmons, and Chellie Teal. The remains from this zone date to the Late Postclassic and early Historic periods, from about A.D.1350 through the time of Spanish presence, and on into the British colonial period.



Plumbate vessel of a hunchback figure (MG 198/1; ht. 14 cm), pieced together from scattered sherds, from Str. 14, Marco Gonzalez. The vessel was originally placed in a burial, but was broken and redeposited in ancient times as earlier interments were disturbed by later ones. 









Cover Page                                                                                                                                                                          Ambergris Museum

Archaeology in Belize


Please send your comments to egraham@yorku.ca