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Heritage Distancing

Have you read Douglas Reeser and Claire Novotny’s recent Anthropology News article on heritage distancing? The article, Destroying Nohmul, describes the destruction of an ancient Maya site in Belize. Read the entire article on the Anthropology News website, below is an excerpt:

A work crew excavating the Nohmul site to be hauled away as road-fill.Photo courtesy of  CTV3 Belize News.

A work crew excavating the Nohmul site to be hauled away as road-fill.Photo courtesy of CTV3 Belize News.

The bulldozing and destruction of the ancient Maya site at Nohmul, in the Orange Walk district of northern Belize, has recently received widespread international attention. The largest structure of the ancient ceremonial center was reduced to rubble for use as road-fill by a local contracting company, a widely condemned act that will likely result in minimal consequences for the perpetrators.  This incident, and others like it, are examples of the vulnerability of major historical sites, demonstrates the importance of the archaeological landscape for communities, and brings up issues of cultural heritage and engaged anthropology.

Nohmul was a medium-sized city founded in the Middle Preclassic period (650 BC – 350 BC). Interestingly, its fortunes waned during the Early Classic period (AD 100 – 250), when it was all but abandoned, only to be re-occupied during the Terminal Classic (AD 900 – 1000), when ties to the Yucatan peninsula are evident in its architecture and ceramic assemblage. Nohmul is one example of Maya longevity, memory, and re-use of important sites. When they re-occupied it in the Terminal Classic is was already an ancient place – at least 1000 years old. Nohmul has been a marker of place, history, and ancestral heritage for more than 2,000 years (see Hammond et al.).

Though a small nation, the Belizean landscape is blanketed with ancestral remains of the ancient Maya, from densely populated cities like Caracol to villages such as Chan in the Belize River Valley, as well as countless unnamed hamlets throughout the country. As the Director of the Institute of Archaeology, Dr. Jaime Awe, pointed out in a recent interview with Belize’s Channel 7 News, the size of the Institute of Archaeology is miniscule compared with the archaeological resources they are tasked to manage, and Awe’s frustration over the events at Nohmul is palpable in the interviews he has given to the press. This is not to minimize their significant efforts  – last year archaeologists from the IA successfully and efficiently excavated late Preclassic period archaeological remains encountered during road construction in downtown San Ignacio. They also actively oversee and grant permits to numerous archaeological research projects taking place throughout the country.

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