ROM’s archaeologists at the Maya ruins of Ka’Kabish and Lamanai in Belize

Posted: June 18, 2012 - 13:15 , by royal
From the Field, World Culture, Archaeology | Comments () | Comment
Dr. Chen Shen

Written by Chen Shen, Vice President, Senior Curator, Bishop White Chair of East Asian Archaeology

Archaeologists pose in front of a Mayan temple in a clearing in the Jungle.

Project Director, Dr. Helen R. Haines (left), Chen Shen, Vice President, Senior Curator, Bishop White Chair of East Asian Archaeology (Middle) UCL Institute of Archaeology Professor Elizabeth (Liz) Graham (right) in the front of the Mask Temple at Lamanai, which was excavated by the ROM former chief curator Dr. David Pendergast, Liz husband, in the 1970s – 80s.

On June 9, 2012, I arrived in Belize City, the largest city in the Central American nation of Belize. I was met at the Belize City airport by my colleague and friend Dr. Helen Haines, an archaeologist from Trent University, and a ROM Research Associate. Dr. Haines began her research in Northern Belize around 23 years ago. We drove three hours to Indian Church village, a small remote village in the Orange Walk District of Belize, which is located on the west bank of New River, neighbouring the town of San Carlos to its south, and the famous Maya ruins of Lamanai to its north.

My friends and colleagues back in Toronto asked me why a Chinese archaeologist was going to Belize to work on an ancient Mayan site. Was I traveling all the way to Central America to find a connection between the ancient Chinese and Maya of the first millennium BC? Well, I wish I could say that was what I was doing! In fact, I was invited to participate on the Ka’Kabish Archaeological Research Project in northern Belize by Dr. Helen Haines, as a lithic analysis specialist. After so many years of working in over-populated “small” towns in China, Helen was able to show me what it was like to work in a small village in Belize with a population of around 200 people (about 70 households).

A vintage pick-up truck parked on the grass.

'Franky’, KARP's long serving truck, with a 1973 F-100 body, a 1978 F-150 engine, and a 1984 F-350 gas tank. This is our transportation, which runs everyday between Ka’Kabish and Lamanai.

Ka’Kabish is a moderate-sized Maya city located 10 kilometres to the east of the more famous site of Lamanai; both were first discovered by a former curator Dr. David Pendergast in the 1970s. At the time Dr. Pendergast was working on a ROM funded expedition at Lamanai. He took a trip to Ka’Kabish, which at that time took over 2 hours on a narrow, muddy logging road, today it takes only 20 minutes from Lamanai to Ka’Kabish.  Ka’Kabish came to Dr. Pendergast’s attention due to reports of looting at the site and, when he visited the area, evidence of plundering could be found in the form of massive trenches throughout many of the buildings.  Dr. Pendergast recognised the value of the work at Ka’Kabish, however, he also realised that further archaeological investigations would have to be left for the future — access to the site made such work impossible at that time. Dr. Pendergast’s vision was realised in 2009 when SSHRC (Social Science and Humanity Research of Canada) supported Dr. Helen Haines’ Ka’Kabish project.

Students gather and rest on the Maya ruins.

Dr. Elizabeth (Liz) Graham telling the story of excavation history to Helen`s field school students at the ‘Ottawa’ complex at the Lamanai site.

Ka’kabish was initially believed to be a small subsidiary centre supporting the larger city of Lamanai. It was hypothesized that Ka’Kabish was settled in the later part of the Late Formative period (ca. AD 100-300), and reached it apogee during the Late Classic period (AD 600-900). It was surmised that the site served as a secondary centre administering to the outlying, periphery population of the Lamanai polity. However, recent work at Ka’Kabish by Dr. Haines’ team has documented the existence of multiple elite tombs, a ball court with marker stone, over a thousand pieces of ritually deposited obsidian, and other evidence of a thriving and prosperous ritual elite occupation during the Early Classic period. Ka’Kabish also has a ritually preserved corbel-vaulted structure, now partially looted, that is the only one of its kind in the northern Belize. Over a few days, I have classified more than 2,000 stone tool artifacts recovered from six-weeks of excavation this year.

Dr. Haines has told me that: “our recent work, in fact, has shown that what we thought about the Ka’kabish as being a secondary center to Lamanai is incorrect. In fact, over the first 1,000 years Ka’Kabish and Lamanai had similar developmental paths, with Ka’Kabish currently showing evidence of having greater ritual activity than Lamanai.” Dr. Haines revealed that ceramics at Ka’Kabish suggest that the inception of the site was 200 years earlier than that of Lamanai.

Dr. Chen Shen and Dr. Helen Haines look up at the camera from the bottom of an archaeological dig.

The 2011 – 2012 Excavation units at one of the central plaza of the Ka’Kabish site led by Dr. Helen Haines (right). The excavation is revealing one of the earliest Maya structure dating possible to 800 BC (to be confirmed) in Belize.

The highlight of my visit to the sites of Ka’Kabish and Lanamai was meeting Professor Elizabeth (Liz) Graham who, like her husband David Pendergast, is a legendary figure in Belizean archaeological circles. Before his retirement, Dave was the ROM`s Deputy Director of Collections and Research, he served as the chair of a search committee, who interviewed and offered me the post of Curator back in the middle of the 1990s. When I first met Liz she was still a professor at York University. I also knew that both Liz and Dave were responsible for the exciting work at the Lamanai site, and had been excavating the sites and training generations of students for more then three decades. It was amazing to finally be with Liz Graham at their sites in Belize. Some of the Lamanai excavated materials are now part of the ROM’s collection, and some of them were showcased in the ROM’s recent blockbuster exhibition Maya: the Secret of Ancient World. Their contributions to the discovery and study of Lamanai, one of largest Maya complexes in Belize, and one of the longest lasting ancient settlements in the Maya world, has ensured that the ROM has left a permanent and enduring mark on Belize and Belizean archaeology. This was clearly demonstrated when Dr. Haines proudly introduced me to her Belize co-workers and friends as the Vice President and archaeologist from the Royal Ontario Museum. It was immediately apparent that everyone here in this remote location, young and old, had heard of the Royal Ontario Museum. Many people at Lamanai still fondly remember working with Dave and Liz, and Helen tells me that they constantly ask when David and Liz and the ROM will be back, even if only to visit.

Today, the Ka’Kabish project continues the ROM legacy of Maya archaeology in Belize, and I am so glad that I took some time off to visit the “ROM sites” 3,000 kilometers away from Toronto, to be inspired by the ROM’s renowned past research. At the Museum of Belize, a staff asked me to pose for a photo to be posted on their website blog because of my connection with the ROM.

Dr. Chen Shen sits at a table covered in artifacts.  The work space is outside under a canopy secured to a rustic building.

ROM archaeologist Chen Shen analyzing lithic artifacts recovered from the Ka’Kabish site, with Alice (far), a master student from UCL Institute of Archaeology, who is examining ceramics, June 2012.

During one of my many conversations with Liz, she raised her concerns about the ROM’s legacy at Lamanai and the collection material associated with this excavation site. She stressed feelings of adisconnect back at the ROM. Today the collection is languishing with much needed financial assistance and human resources. I shared her concerns, and I feel that greater attention is needed to make this invaluable ROM collection relevant and accessible to students and the public (both foreign and the local inhabitants of Belize whose ancestral culture pieces these belong to). I believe it is extremely important to ensure that these archaeological materials are well-preserved for the future generation of archaeologists and Maya scholars. When I ended my tour and flew back to Toronto, I felt that I have some very important items to attend to on my agenda.

To read more about Ka’Kabish you can look at their web page at and follow their blogs from the field.

Looking into the jungle, the trench is well hidden.

A covered Maya mound ruin at Ka’Kabish, revealing a modern looter`s trench in the center of the photo.