National Science Foundation grant to support Rissa Trachman’s archaeological excavation work in Belize

The $290,000 NSF grant for Trachman and her fellow researchers will allow them to explore the potential location of marketplaces within cultural sites in northwestern Belize dating back to at least 100 B.C.

A new $290,000 grant from the National Science Foundation will support Associate Professor of Anthropology Rissa Trachman and her research colleagues as they pursue transformational discoveries about ancient marketplaces in Belize.

The grant funding will advance Trachman’s continued archaeological excavation of the Dos Hombres site in the northwestern region of the Central American country. The funding will allow Trachman to search for the existence of a market at the site, which was occupied from about 100 B.C. through A.D. 900. If located, it would be one of the first excavations of a market site from this era in Mesoamerica, which extends from central Mexico through Central America to northern Costa Rica.

Elon students regularly participate in summer field work programs at the Dos Hombres site in Belize. Participants in one of the past programs are pictured here.

“We presume that throughout Mesoamerica there were markets, because modern markets within those cultures continue to be in place,” Trachman said. “However, no one has ever actually excavated a market.”

The Multi-institutional Collaborative Grant from the NSF will support the work of Trachman and two co-principal investigators from Howard University and Humboldt State University as they investigate pre-Hispanic Maya marketplaces in northwestern Belize. The investigators are seeking to distinguish archaeological traces of a market economy from other forms of exchange such as redistribution and tribute.

For Trachman, this is an extension of her research at a site where she has been working since 1997. Since 2001, Trachman has been co-organizing field schools in Belize with the University of Texas and since 2009, has been leading a field school during the summer with Elon students. During the summer of 2019, Trachman’s team discovered a tomb from the Late Classic period, a revelation that has the potential to shed light on ancient May ritual and religion in the Dos Hombres economy.

Trachman has identified a location within Dos Hombres that her preliminary work indicates could have been used as a marketplace. There are indicators that there were many people milling around at the site, with tiny, crunched-up ceramics found about 20 centimeters deep. These trampled ceramics are a good indication that this location was central to the site’s economy as a market, Trachman said.

She and her fellow researchers have identified consistent protocols for testing their various marketplace sites, including test pitting, soil sampling and material analysis. Their findings will shed light on the economies within the culture, whether they were consistent across the culture and how they may have differed from western cultures, Trachman said.

This first phase of research will be devoted to documenting the suspected marketplaces, testing the usefulness, correlation, and relative strength of the marketplace indicators, and determining the feasibility of regional research across independent archaeological projects. The results will establish the groundwork for later phases of research assessing the nature and degree of commercialization in the eastern central lowlands of the Maya area.

“Those trampled ceramics are very important in better understanding how this site was used, and how it fit into the broader culture,” Trachman said. “This will be a significant contribution to Maya studies, to Mesoamerican studies, to archaeology in general and to anthropology.”

Trachman had been planning for a field school program for Elon students this summer, but unfortunately had to cancel this year’s program due to the pandemic. There is still much to do to advance her research apart from work in the field, but she is optimistic about continuing field work with Elon students at the site next summer.