Welcome to the Monkey House

by Claire Allum

Photos by Claire Allum

monkey art

Dr. Leslie Shaw's archaeological field school is at Maax Na, a site thought to have housed a large and wealthy population in the Preclassic period - and that is now populated with researchers, a rumored jaguar, and very many monkeys.

A few hours after getting off a plane from the United States, I find myself in a truck hanging onto a ceiling strap and bracing my foot against the dash as it bounces its way angrily up an old logger's track. Palm fronds, trailing vines, and fallen branches whip the windshield as we pass. Dr. Leslie Shaw and I are on our way to visit the two thousand-year old Maya site of Maax Na (pronounced "maash naa") in the tropical jungle of northwestern Belize, just south of Mexico and east of Guatemala. Leslie has been working there since 1996 and started bringing her Bowdoin students in 1998.

"Hang on," she warns as she drops the truck into low four-wheel drive. Up ahead the track changes to a steep uphill climb.

Slowing, it crawls and grinds its way up the grade. I can feel the heat of the transmission through my seat, and the careening sensation feels like the truck is walking up the hill rather than driving it. Finally we level out.

"This is the top of the first escarpment," she says, giving me a satisfied grin, as the engine stops its painful howling, "and things look pretty dry this year. We might be able to get a lot of digging done before the rains arrive." She throws the truck back into high four-wheel and we continue our bumpy ride through the jungle.

Drs. Eleanor King and Leslie Shaw, co-directors of the Maax Na project.

Every other year Leslie and her co-director, Dr. Eleanor King of Howard University, have run an archaeological field school at Maax Na, and each time they battle the arrival of annual rains. The end of our academic year coincides with the end of the Belizean dry season and if the rains begin early torrential downpours make the road to Maax Na impassable, flood excavation pits with water, and make outdoor work miserable. "Its not the jaguars living in the jungle that we worry about," Leslie says to me, "It's the rain."

Students from Bowdoin College, Howard University, and other schools come to Maax Na to learn the fundamental techniques of archaeological excavation and survey, and at the same time experience living and working in field conditions, which can range from digging a truck out of mud to safely removing a scorpion from a tent. "This type of work is not for everyone," Leslie continues, dodging tree falls and potholes as she drives, the steering wheel spinning wildly between her hands, "You can learn a lot in the classroom, but for students of archaeology it is really important for them to experience work in the field, especially," and here she turns to give me a stern look, "before deciding to make it a career."


Unlike some Maya sites whose names have been found in Maya writings, no text has been discovered at Maax Na, so its name is a modern Mayan phrase meaning "Monkey House"-the term "Maya" refers to the people and "Mayan" to the language. The story goes that University of Texas archaeological surveyors, looking for sites in 1995, climbed a hill to find a corbelled vault at the top - a very distinctive form of Maya roof - and made such a noise hooting and hollering that they disturbed the local spider monkey troupe. The monkeys attacked the archaeologists, screaming, shaking branches, and hurling twigs and dung at them, at which point the site was named Maax Na, "Monkey House," in local Mayan.

Ancient Maya civilization developed and expanded in Central America and Mexico until around A.D. 900. A vast network of large, powerful, cities shared religious, social, and stylistic ideas, and, at the same time, engaged in ruthless political and economic rivalries. Kings built beautiful, massive temples and palaces to celebrate their power and honor their gods. Maya scribes decorated pots, wall frescoes, and stelae (free-standing stone monuments) with elegant hieroglyphic writing recording political intrigue and rivalry, wars, marriages, royal birthdays, and lavish ritual celebrations, which often included human sacrifice. Maya priests developed a deep understanding of mathematics, including the concept of zero, and orchestrated Maya everyday and ceremonial life using a complex calendar system guided by extensive astronomical knowledge. Economically supporting the massive building projects and the city society of elite families, specialist artisans, warriors, traders, laborers, and slaves, were the Maya farmers, living in isolated households in the agricultural lands surrounding the cities.

This shared way of life disappeared around A.D. 900, when large city centers were abandoned in some regions of the Maya world, and in others they evolved into something different. The Maya people still live where they have always lived, and in some areas, still speak one of the many Mayan languages, but culture is always changing and the ancient languages and knowledge are quickly disappearing.

“...from the very biggest monumental city to a tiny farmer's shack, all played a role in the social, political, and economic life of Maya civilization”

Maax Na sits on the flat top of a long hill, which looks like a bird with outstretched wings on a topographic map. It is one of the six largest sites in the Río Bravo Conservation and Management Area (RBCMA), Belize's largest private nature reserve. Jaguars, tapirs, ocellated turkeys, curassows and other rare and endangered species live here, and human impact is kept to a minimum. The Programme for Belize (PfB), a non-profit organization, manages the 260,000-acre Río Bravo land trust, and the Belizean government closely monitors all research. In recognition of the many important Maya sites in the region, archaeological research has been an integral part of the land trust's management plan since its inception in the early 1990's.

Maax Na and other sites in RBCMA are being studied together as part of a larger geographical area known as the Three Rivers Region, encompassing northwestern Belize and northeastern Guatemala. "All Maya sites interacted with each other politically and economically," says Leslie, "and a study of this scale allows us to see how all these sites, from the very biggest monumental city to a tiny farmer's shack, all played a role in the social, political and economic life of Maya civilization."


"We have just finished phase one, the exploratory - finding out what is here - research at Maax Na. From mapping the extent of the site and preliminary excavations, we know that the Maya were at the site as early as the Late Preclassic period (250 B.C.-A.D. 300), but that they built the majority of their buildings during the Classic period (ca. A.D. 300-900)." Based on the dates, the size of the site, and the number and size of residential houses, Leslie and Eleanor think Maax Na grew quickly and housed a large and wealthy population during the Early Classic period (A.D. 300-600). Given the dates, it may have been founded by families from the region of Tikal in central Guatemala, about 60 miles away. During the fourth century A.D., a great Tikal king had ravaged several neighboring cities and remained dominant in the area until its vengeful defeat by the nearby city of Caracol in A.D. 553. "Royal families could have come as refugees from the wars," Leslie says, "or been sent here to expand the economic and territorial interests of one of these cities. They would have planned and built Maax Na and maintained contact with their parent city."

“The central area of Maax Na is filled with large open plazas surrounded by elaborate buildings built on platforms overlooking the plazas.”

"We start phase two of our research next year, which will explore these ideas in more detail. I think Maax Na's role might have been as an important supplier of chocolate or cotton to the Maya world, but this is just an idea until we find evidence to support it. We intend to concentrate our future work on the market and residential areas of the site, and will be looking for evidence of what Maax Na was producing, how they were trading it, and how they were economically and politically connected to other Maya sites."

At the top of the hill Leslie parks the truck at the side of the logging road, pulls her backpack from behind the seat, sprays herself liberally with mosquito repellent, and heads off into the jungle; the only indication of a trail being a badly weathered tatter of pink and black flagging tape hanging limply from a tree branch. I keep her well in sight as we follow other scraps of tape while trudging deeply into the forest. The diversity of lush tropical trees, bushes and plants becomes an unidentifiable tangle of sameness. It is very easy to get lost in this jungle, and the number one rule of walking to Maax Na is to stay on the marked paths.

Finding an ancient Maya site in the Belizean jungle is not easily done, despite the spectacular monumental architecture - high pyramids, temples and house mounds, and large, thickly plastered plazas. World famous Maya sites such as Tikal in Guatemala, Palenque in Mexico, and Copan in Honduras have been worked on for decades, and hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent in clearing away vegetation, in removing top soil, on site reconstruction, and on building tourist facilities. Plants grow quickly and thickly in the forest and the massive stone and plaster structures quickly become overgrown. It is difficult to distinguish Maya architecture from natural hills, especially when everything is hidden underneath a thick tropical forest canopy.


The task of exploring Maax Na and its hilltop continues today, with students learning basic archaeological survey techniques, exploring the jungle, recognizing and identifying archaeological remains, taking measurements and notes, drawing maps, and learning how to use a total station-type transit-a professional surveyor's tool, allowing detailed, accurate maps to be made. We head towards a patch of neon orange, the leg of the transit tripod, protruding out of the foliage, and suddenly Eleanor King, Leslie's co-director, emerges excited from the undergrowth. "We've found another stela. It's collapsed onto its side, and it was hard to see in the underbrush, but," she smiles broadly, "it still has plaster on it." Grinning students dig their way out of the bushes behind her. Finding something this important, over one thousand years old has made them forget the heat, humidity, and insects. The mood is ecstatic. Unfair though it may be, the significance of Maya sites is often judged by the number of stelae found and, so far, Maax Na has five. Unfortunately, the heavy rains and humidity have destroyed any sign of what might have been carved or painted on this one's surface.

Maya Ballcourts

Ballcourts are a common feature of large Maya sites. Throughout Central America many different versions of the game existed, and while many may have been played as genuine competitions between relatively evenly matched teams, those that took place in the elaborately built Maya ballcourts were highly stylized rituals celebrating the defeat of the underworld lords by the first Maya, and involved human sacrifice.

The game involved two teams, a heavy rubber ball, and a sturdy leather or wooden protective belt worn around the waist. The object of the game was to move the ball around the ballcourt without letting it touch the ground and without using hands or feet. Pottery figurines, pottery decorations, and carved representations show players bouncing the ball off their shoulders, hips and thighs.

The games played in the ballcourt at Maax Na would probably have been sacrificial and Dr. Leslie Shaw describes a building at the south end of the court as the "box seats for the game." Here the Maax Na royalty would have sat watching while possibly captured, starved, and tortured enemies were pitted against fit Maax Na players. She explains, "The Maya depict ball-games in carvings and on pottery. They show two players playing with the ball and they name the players and where they are from. Then they show another image of the ball as a head with the name of one of the guys playing beside it, so now, of course, he has been sacrificed. These games were rigged. It was a form of public execution and a way of allowing an important enemy to die honorably."

Drawing by Marieka Brouwer

The central area of Maax Na is filled with large open plazas surrounded by elaborate buildings built on platforms overlooking the plazas. Classic Maya cities commonly have a north plaza dedicated to ritual events surrounded by religious buildings built on high platforms and pyramids. A ballcourt is often located close to the center of the city [see box at left]. Other plazas throughout the city were used as public market areas, venues for public ceremonies, or were exclusive to elite households. Large, raised roadways linked the major sections of the city.

As in today's real estate market, location was everything in ancient Maya housing. The homes of noble and important families were built close to the city center, while the poor had their houses at the city's edges. Maya houses were built as compounds of narrow rooms on platforms surrounding a private plaza. To the southeast of Maax Na, Leslie and Eleanor have named a rich residential suburb "Snob Nob"; the houses sit high on the edge of the escarpment, each with a stunning view of the lands below. It is here that we find field school students excavating, their rectangular pit overlapping the edge of the plaza and extending into the side of a house platform.

Zachary Matthias ’06 screens for artifacts.

"What they are trying to do," says Leslie, "is remove the jumble of collapsed stone and identify architectural features. We train them to dig down in discrete levels, called 'lots,' which correlate with specific phases of Maya construction. Then everything found in a particular lot, such as architectural features, pieces of broken pottery, and burnt bone, can all be dated to approximately the same time. The stuff that we find helps us determine what buildings contained and what they were used for." As we watch, a student inside the pit lifts a bucket filled with soil to a student waiting at the side. The bucket is taken over to a structure that looks like a wooden table with a metal mesh top. The soil is poured on top of it and the student pushes the soil through with his hands. Leslie goes on, "Sometimes, it is hard to see the artifacts in the soil, the small bits of cultural material that we are looking for, so we use the screen to make sure that nothing is missed."

Bowdoin's department of sociology and anthropology offers a number of introductory courses in archaeology, including Essentials of Archaeology, Introduction to World Prehistory, and Leslie's own course, Maya Archaeology and Ethnohistory. "We designed the field program to build on these introductory courses," she says, "to allow students to apply techniques they have learned in the classroom, and to have direct experience with some of the theoretical and interpretive problems of excavation." Wandering over to the screen she picks up a piece of shiny stone. "Is this an artifact or not? Students have to examine it carefully to look for evidence that it was made by the Maya and is not just a broken pebble." She hands it to the student who puts it into a small plastic bag and labels the bag with a permanent black ink pen.

The north plaza is Maax Na's largest, and today it is filled with trees and covered with bushy undergrowth. When we arrive, two people near its center are pushing a bright yellow cart along a long, cleared path between two flagged trees. "This plaza, for your imagination, would have been treeless, flat, and covered with white plaster," Leslie says, sweeping her arm to emphasize the plaza's extent. She singles out and points to large rectangular mounds at its edges. "Based on earlier excavations, I think that one is some sort of administrative building. That one over there is a throne room. It is lower and more accessible than the others and would be a place where the king would sit, gifts and tribute would be brought to him, and he could watch sacrifices. And that one there is unusual because it's residential. They must have been important to have lived here."

University of Calgary geophysicist with archaeology field school students.

Thumping her foot on the ground, she continues, "This is a very constructed landscape. The plaza is over three feet thick and when we excavated a pit here we found layer upon layer of plaster floor and limestone cobble fill." She points to the people pushing the yellow cart. "That is Dr. Robert Stewart and his graduate student, Julie Atkins, they are geophysicists from the University of Calgary, and they are using ground-penetrating radar to look below the ground surface and map the depth to the bedrock underlying the plaza. So far everywhere they have looked is over three feet down. The amount of plaster and limestone fill the Maya hauled in to make this plaza over the years is enormous."

Another massive construction at Maax Na is a southern pyramid that sits on a ridge overlooking flat agricultural lands. Built on two natural terraces, which the Maya modified into two platforms steps, it rises to a height of 130 feet from the base of the first platform to the summit. In the past it would have had a steep staircase leading to a temple at the top, where sacrifices-sometimes human-would have been made to Maya gods.

"The cost of trying to excavate a structure of this size is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars," says Leslie, "so Dr. Stewart has been experimenting with remote-sensing seismic techniques to produce an internal image of the structures. We hope that eventually he will be able to tell us if there is a cavity in there, which might be a tomb, or earlier building."

“It is a great opportunity for our students. They get to meet specialsists working in the field, play with the fancy gadgets, and udnerstand the importance of a multidisciplinary approach.” Photo by James Marshall

A site the size and complexity of Maax Na requires a multidisciplinary approach to research and Leslie and Eleanor invite specialists from different fields to come and work at the site on specific problems. As well as geophysicists, soil scientists, professional surveyors, and more recently speleologists, have worked at Maax Na. "It is a great opportunity for our students," Leslie says, "They get to meet specialists working in the field, play with the fancy gadgets, and understand the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to answering scientific questions."

To the west is another large plaza that appears to be surrounded by lower public buildings. "We think this is the public market-place," Leslie tells me. "When the Maya lived here, this area would have been filled with noisy people and produce. "And here's something remarkable. The slopes of both the north and west plazas are very slightly tilted so that rainwater flows off them and into a reservoir that sits between them. This would have been where people came to get their water."

Water, its sources and control, was an integral part of Maya life. Much of Belize, and the entire Yucatan Peninsula, is limestone bedrock, an environment characterized by subsurface caves formed by underground rivers. During the dry season there is very little surface water, and the Maya obtained water from subsurface wells or reservoirs filled during the rains. Ancient canals and reservoirs ran alongside the major buildings in the downtown area of Maax Na, while further out, irrigation channels carried water to terraced fields-agricultural fields built as steps up the escarpment sides. The logging road to Maax Na cuts across these old channels, and even after two thousand years, during the rainy season, they still collect rainwater, turning the road to a sodden, muddy, impassable mess.

“The slopes of both the north and west plazas are very slightly tilted so that rainwater flows off them and into a reservoir that sits between them. This would have been where people came to get their water.”

As sources of water and as mouths to the Maya underworld, caves also play an important role in the Maya universe, and many of Maax Na's buildings have cave openings under them or close by them. In 2004, Ann Scott, a graduate student from the University of Texas at Austin and avid cave specialist, began exploratory work on them. The entrances are narrow and cramped, but the lure of finding Maya pottery and other offerings inside drew her and Mike Brennan '04 (see box) to explore them. "I had to slide myself along on my elbows and belly," said Mike, "and I could feel I was being pressed from the top and bottom by cave walls. It was one of the most exhilarating things I've ever done." Ann and Mike found broken Maya pots in the caves and there are plans to explore the caves more completely in future years.

Heading back to the truck, Leslie takes me to Maax Na's ballcourt, a powerful ritual building situated between the northern and southern halves of the site. She has saved this for last and it is her favorite part of the site. It is a long, narrow corridor, about five meters across, bordered by two steep, sloping walls. She runs her hand over a smooth piece of stone protruding from the side, "The slope of the ballcourt has been cut into each facing stone. This is a very labor-intensive technique and it is one of the only ballcourts in this region constructed this way." To push the point home, she notes that the two ballcourts at the nearby site of La Milpa, accepted to be the most important Maya site in the region, were just made of plastered over rubble. "Maax Na's ballcourt is almost identical to one at Tikal and similar to one at Copan."

The Belize jungle at Maax Na

But the ballcourt's mystery goes beyond cut stone sloping walls. During 2003 excavations, students uncovered an older ballcourt underlying the present one, and below it, the remains of houses. "It is an interesting and odd thing," says Leslie. "You don't usually find ballcourts built over something else. You usually find a ballcourt that's all ballcourt. We had to stop excavations before we could actually get into the houses. We need to find out what kinds of houses we are actually looking at." She concludes, "The ballcourt is very special. Maax Na is very special." With that, we head back through the forest to the truck.

Back at camp, the atmosphere is relaxed efficiency. Sitting under the forest canopy, small wooden cabins and two-person tents line salmon-colored gravel paths connecting a large two-story bunkhouse, a mess building, latrines, and showers. Tired and dusty students unload artifacts, collected during the day's excavations, from their backpacks into a lab room at the base of the bunkhouse, then grab towels and clean clothes and head for the showers. Dinner is at 6:00 P.M. and coincides with Belize's sunset and a final chorus of howler monkeys heard in the distance.

Mike Brennan '04

Mike Brennan took his first archaeology course at Bowdoin as a freshman, but his interest in scientific exploration began long before that. As a freshman in high school, he worked with Dr. Robert Ballard - of locating the RMS Titanic fame - on one of his Jason projects, focused on bringing original scientific research and researchers into high school classrooms. But it was a course with archaeologist Jim Higginbotham of Bowdoin's classics department that spurred him to attend the 2001 archaeology month lectures at Bowdoin College, where he met Dr. Leslie Shaw. The meeting strongly influenced Mike's career at Bowdoin. After taking his first course with Shaw in spring 2002, Mike joined her Maax Na field school the following summer.

During his four years at Bowdoin, Mike majored in anthropology and geology with a minor in classical archaeology. He has returned to Maax Na annually, and completed his honors project on "Petrographic Evidence for Preclassic Ceramic Specialization at the Maya Site of Colha, Belize" under Shaw's direction. After his spring graduation this year, he returned to Maax Na as a field school instructor.

Mike's life has come full circle since his early high-school days, as he joins Dr. Robert Ballard once again, as his first graduate student at the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island on full scholarship, doing a dual degree in Archaeological Oceanography.

The camp experience is arguably as important a learning experience as the archaeological fieldwork. Everyone spends some time cleaning, analyzing, and labeling artifacts in the lab, mending equipment, maintaining vehicles, and helping with camp chores. Conversations under the trees, at meals, and in the bunkhouse, focus on the ancient Maya, the archaeological work, and, occasionally, on the ubiquitous rice and beans for dinner. University and college professors, graduate students, field school students, and local Maya live and work closely together, and collectively share the excitement of the discovery of another beautifully made pot, or a new stela.

In the greater scheme of the Three Rivers Region, the Programme for Belize Archaeological Project, and Maya archaeology, it is important to understand why Maax Na was built, who lived there, what its inhabitants did, and how they interacted with the rest of the Maya world. Leslie and Eleanor's work is beginning to answer some of these questions, and the fieldwork their students do is making an original contribution to ancient Maya scientific exploration and research.

Later in the season, as we head out from camp, back to Belize City and my international flight to Miami, Leslie is once again at the wheel. I keep my eyes fixed on the sides of the logging road. The Maya kings may no longer exist, but here in the Río Bravo Conservation Area, the Maya natural world does. I watch for toucans, tapirs, curassows, and deer, but more than anything else, I long to see a jaguar - a creature that dominates Maya iconography and religion. But as we leave the reserve I still haven't seen one. Leslie says, "Don't worry about it. I have been coming here for eight years and haven't seen one." She continues, "You know, there is one at Maax Na. We've seen its prints along the path. The park rangers tell me that jaguars never attack people," and here she turns to smile at me, "but I don't think we want to test that theory."

Belize Department of Archaeology; Programme for Belize; Dr. Fred Valdez, of the University of Texas at Austin and Director of the Programme for Belize Archaeology Project; Dr. Eleanor King and Dr. Leslie Shaw, Co-directors of the Maax Na Regional Archaeology Project.