For any situation, there’s a suitable swamp for the evidence.

unattributed quote from the internet

From the moment that I began to study the ancient lowland Maya, I learned about the ground-breaking research conducted at Pulltrouser Swamp in northern Belize by Peter Harrison and B. L. Turner II in the 1970s and 80s (see Harrison and Fry 2000; Turner II and Harrison 1981; Turner II and Harrison 1983a). I first heard the name of the place in 1985 while a student on a field school based at Kichpanha. I distinctly remember finding the name hilarious and probably apropos! Sadly, we never visited the spot as part of the field school despite its proximity to our camp.

Pulltrouser Swamp, 1981
with Gordon Willey, Peter Harrison, Harry Shafer, and Fred Valdez Jr. (right to left)
photo courtesy of Laura Kosakowsky

At any rate, I would soon come to appreciate how the research conducted there represents perhaps the most iconic effort in the Maya Lowlands to understand how the ancient Maya used and manipulated wetlands for cultivation. Wetland exploitation in the Maya lowlands was first noted in the riverine environment of the Rio Candelaria in Campeche by Siemens and Puleston (1972). Subsequent to this discovery, others began reporting the existence of this type of landesque capital elsewhere in the Maya Lowlands (e.g., Pohl 1990), even in non-riverine wetlands such as the Bajo de Santa Fe near Tikal, the Bajo de Morocoy near Dzibanche (e.g., Harrison 1978), and near Río Azul (Culbert et al. 1989).

Nevertheless, others (e.g., Pope and Dahlin 1989; Puleston 1978) remained unnconvinced that non-riverine contexts could sustain this kind of intensive agriculture due to their lower water levels. They countered that what appeared to be patterened raised fields were instead examples of a natural phenomenon known as gilgai, that is, “the result of shrinking, cracking, and swelling of montmorillonitic clays” (Hammond 1984: 741). Arguing that interior Peten lowlands were not suitable for raised field agriculture, these scholars concluded the majority of the Lowland Maya population could not have depended on wetland agriculture.

These conflicting views became known as the “raised-field controversy”, which the Pulltrouser Swamp research project was designed to resolve. While Pulltrouser Swamp is located on the coastal plain, close to sea level and adjacent to both the New River and the Rio Hondo—and thus quite distinct from the bajos of the Peten— the research here claimed that the Maya did, at least in some settings, construct extensive wetland field systems to render these environments agriculturally productive

Pulltrouser Swamp and environs; survey areas from the 1979-81 PSP project

Research at Pulltrouser Swamp determined that the ancient Maya dug out channelized fields along the wetland’s margins, in a system of raised fields that covered between ~300-650 hectares interconnected and managed by a complex network of canals (Turner II and Harrison 1983b: 247). Overall, the researchers deemed the effort to construct this wetland field system required a substantial amount of labor. They also linked the construction of this field system with the rising population of the Classic period: “Population densities projected for the various sites and zones… suggest that the central Maya lowlands had sufficient demand for production to make high-input wetland manipulations an economically viable activity” (Turner II and Harrison 1983b: 252).

In essence, this research was integral to developing a culture ecology model that sought to understand both the limitations and promise of the tropical forest for ancient Maya cultivators. This approach began to parameterize agricultural intensification by investigating not only its chronology, but also productive value and labor costs. In the decades following this project, research at Pulltrouser Swamp focused on K’axob where data were collected relevant to the Middle and Late Preclassic periods. This work primarily focused on the development of centralized political authority through the formalization of community-integrating rituals and, famously, ancestor veneration (McAnany 2004; McAnany et al. 1999). The Pulltrouser Swamp research was also foundational to the now burgeoning literature on wetland agriculture throughout the Maya lowlands (see Beach et al. 2019; Dunning et al. 2012; Dunning et al. 2015).

So, thanks to the foresight and scholarly acumen of these researchers, Pulltrouser Swamp has played an out-sized role in our understanding of the ancient lowland Maya society. For this reason, I thought that this important spot of the Maya Lowlands merited a “digital refresh”, especially since the area has yet to be surveyed by lidar. So until that time (sure not so long from now), I thought that it might be of interest to share some of the survey data from the original Pulltrouser Swamp project. I provide here: 1) the digitized survey areas, 2) settlement data (as polygons), and 3) structures and platforms (as points), 4) exacavation units (as polygons) and 5) test excavation units (as points). These data were digitized from the 2000 publication Pulltrouser Swamp: A Lowland Maya Community Cluster in Northern Belize by Peter D. Harrison and Robert E. Fry.

The geo-referencing and subsequent digitization were conducted in a fashion as precise as possible, mainly using high resolution satellite imagery as a reference, but without any inside knowledge or guidance; so I apologize from the outset for any errors, omissions, or inaccuracies. Moreover, the settlement data polygons are not a full “malerization” of the settlement data recorded in the maps; rather, they represent just the basal extent of each structure/feature. As always, any further enhancements, additions, amendments or corrections are welcome! Moreover, I consider this digitization effort as part of a larger endeavor to ensure that important “analog” data remain accessible and useful. We will likely be soon providing similar data for other sites, large and small, as in the case of mapping data from La Milpa. I encourage colleagues also engaged in such digitizing efforts to use this blog to share their efforts.

You can download the compressed SHP files (ZIP format) from the Data page; these data are provided “as-is” for any sort of proper scholarly use. All credit for the data should reference the original 2000 publication. To use the digital data in an image, please use the following acknowledgement: “Data digitized courtesy of Marcello A. Canuto and the GIS Lab of the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane University.”

Cited references

Beach, Timothy, Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach, Samantha Krause, Tom Guderjan, Fred Valdez, Juan Carlos Fernandez-Diaz, Sara Eshleman and Colin Doyle
2019 Ancient Maya Wetland Fields Revealed under Tropical Forest Canopy from Laser Scanning and Multiproxy Evidence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116(43):21469-21477.

Culbert, T Patrick, Laura J. Levi and L. Cruz
1989 Río Azul Agronomy Program 1986 Season. In Rio Azul Reports No. 4: The 1986 Season, edited by Richard E. W. Adams, pp. 189-214. The University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio.

Dunning, Nicholas P, Timothy P Beach and Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach
2012 Kax and Kol: Collapse and Resilience in Lowland Maya Civilization. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109(10):3652–3657.

Dunning, Nicholas P., Robert E. Griffin, John G. Jones, Richard E. Terry, Zachary Larsen and Christopher Carr
2015 Life on the Edge: Tikal in a Bajo Landscape. In Tikal: Paleoecology of an Ancient Maya City, edited by David L. Lentz, Vernon L. Scarborough and Nicholas P. Dunning, pp. 95–123. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Hammond, Norman
1984    Pulltrouser Swamp. Science 224:741.

Harrison, Peter D.
  1978    Bajos Revisited: Visual Evidence for One System of Agriculture. In Pre-Hispanic Maya Agriculture, edited by Peter. D. Harrison and B.L. Turner II, pp. 247–253. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Harrison, Peter D. and Robert E. Fry (editors)
  2000    Pulltrouser Swamp: A Lowland Maya Community Cluster in Northern Belize. The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

McAnany, Patricia A.
  2004    Situating K’axob within Formative Period Lowland Maya Archaeology. In K’axob: Ritual, Work, and Family in an Ancient Maya Village, edited by Patricia A. McAnany, pp. 1–9. Monumenta Archaeologica 22. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles.

McAnany, Patricia A., Rebecca Storey and Angela K. Lockard
  1999    Mortuary Ritual and Family Politics at Formative and Early Classic K’axob, Belize. Ancient Mesoamerica 10(1):129–146.

Pohl, Mary D. (editor)
  1990    Ancient Maya Wetland Agriculture: Excavations on Albion Island, Northern Belize. Westview Press, San Francisco.

Pope, Kevin O. and Bruce H. Dahlin
  1989    Ancient Maya Wetland Agriculture: New Insights from Ecology and Remote Sensing Research. Journal of Field Archaeology 16:87–106.

Puleston, Dennis Edward
  1978    Terracing, Raised Fields, and Tree Cropping in the Maya Lowlands: A New Perspective in the Geography of Power. In Pre-Hispanic Maya Agriculture, edited by Peter D. Harrison and B.L. Turner II, pp. 225–245. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Siemens, Alfred H. and Dennis Edward Puleston
  1972    Ridged Fields and Associated Features in Southern Campeche: New Perspectives on the Lowland Maya. American Antiquity 37:228–239.

Turner II, B. L. and Peter D. Harrison
  1981    Prehistoric Raised-Field Agriculture in the Maya Lowlands. Science 213:399–405. 
1983a  Pulltrouser Swamp: Ancient Maya Habitat, Agriculture, and Settlement in Northern Belize. 1st ed. ed. University of Texas Press, Austin.
1983b Pulltrowser Swamp and Maya Raised Fields: A Summation. In Pulltrouser Swamp: Ancient Maya Habitat, Agriculture, and Settlement in Northern Belize, edited by B.L. Turner II and Peter D. Harrison, pp. 246–270. University of Texas Press, Austin.

2 thoughts on “Draining the swamp….

  1. Well done, Marcello!

    For those who want to read more about the contents and stratigraphy of the wetland fields on the west side of K’axob, here is another ref:

    Berry , Kimberly and Patricia A. McAnany
    2007 Reckoning with the Wetlands and their Role in Ancient Maya Society. In The Political Economy of Ancient Mesoamerica: Transformations during the Formative and Classic Periods, edited by Vernon L. Scarborough and John E. Clark, pp. 149-162. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Good essay on this topic, Marcello.

    I think the work at Pulltrouser was very important and made many fundamental contributions. For the early work, the key figures were Alfred Siemens and Denis Puleston, who drew from earlier work in the Basin of Mexico and Andes by Bill Denevan, BL Turner, II’s advisor at Wisconsin, and James Parson, Denevan’s advisor at UC Berkeley.

    These show the important cross-over work between Geography and Archaeology/ Anthropology, which still continues. For example, we just finished a special issue of the journal Progress in Physical Geography on the Maya Lowlands—with co-guest editor BL Turner, II—that has seven articles on environments and archaeology of the Maya Lowlands including on the history of wetland fields.

    Below is the free access introduction to the special issue:

    Link to Tom Garrison, Amy Thompson, and colleagues’ article on Maya Lidar:

    and Colin Doyle and colleagues’ article on Maya Wetland Fields:

    Liked by 2 people

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