There are various noteworthy ruins along the stretch of Mexico’s Highway 186 that goes from Escárcega to Chetumal in southern Campeche, including Xpujil, Balamku, and Chicanna. Becan, nonetheless, is the largest of these. It is to this site that we now turn our attention in our ongoing attempt to provide digital access to essential (and charismatic) legacy settlement data.
In 1934, Karl Ruppert and John Denison uncovered this extraordinary lowland Maya center in Mexico’s southeastern Campeche region. Their findings indicated that the ceremonial core of the site was surrounded by a ring of earthworks stretching over 2 kilometers in circumference. Ruppert and Denison (1943:54) called the place Becan (water-filled ditch) after identifying these earthworks as defensive in function. However, given the prevalent belief at the time that Classic Maya society was essentially theocratic and peaceful, the discovery of fortifications at a lowland Maya site was unexpected (see Pollock 1965:395; Thompson 1954:107).
E. Wyllys Andrews IV, as research associate of the Middle American Research Institute (MARI), directed fieldwork at the site from 1969 until his death in 1971. In an effort to close the information gap between the large Peten sites and those of northern Yucatan, the MARI project elevated this site to the ranks of the great Maya centers. Webster (1973, 1975) examined the earthworks and demonstrated that they were indeed fortifications and of Late Preclassic construction, suggesting that “large-scale warfare thus unexpectedly turned out to have very deep roots in the Maya lowlands” (Webster and Ball 2021).
However, Becan’s challenges to scholarly orthodoxy did not end there. Prentice Thomas (1981), who began working at Becan as a PhD student in 1969, conducted a settlement pattern study beyond the fortifications with National Geographic Society funding in 1972. Thomas mapped milpas cleared by local inhabitants during the first of two seasons in 1972. He continued his mapping over the 9-kilometer stretch of Highway 186 between Chicanna and Xpujil. Since the majority of the cleared land was swampy, his maps demonstrated that only around 2 km2 of his surveyed area were habitable uplands. Nonetheless, he reported a “quite large, thickly developed population” surrounding Becan (1975:139), consistent with contemporary findings in the Belize River valley and Tikal.
His most significant discovery was a previously unknown architectural element: stone-and-dirt ridges with rounded peaks and sloping sides. Thanks to Cyrus Lundell, archaeologists in southern Campeche had known for decades about terraces and remnant stone walls (1934). Prior to Thomas, however, nobody had paid attention to these linear ridges, which Lundell viewed as unmistakable evidence of widespread cultivation. Billie Lee Turner (1983), who later brought prominence to the terraces along Highway 186, began working a year after Thomas.
Although it appears that individual ridges may have served a range of functions, the great majority served agricultural ones. Due to their stone fill, these ridges could have provided dry walking surfaces during the wet season, in addition to routes around fields and potentially unstable terraces (Thomas 1981:101; Turner II 1974:120, 1983:91). However, ridges are excessively constructed if they serve only as boundaries and pathways. In fact, according to Turner (1983:91), they may have also served as windbreaks, limiting evaporation, and maintaining soil moisture.
Becan’s contributions to the study of lowland Maya political structure (Webster and Ball 2021) as well as the nature and breadth of intensive farming (Hutson et al. 2021) are self-evident from this brief review. For this reason, we deemed it helpful and suitable to digitize and make public the MARI project settlement data. Both authors of this post independently geo-referenced and digitized these data but have decided to combine their efforts for this blog. Consequently, we offer the following datasets:
1) Thomas’s survey area 2) Thomas’s survey blocks 3) polygon data of Thomas’s settlement survey (including Becan/Xpuhil/Chicanna) 4) point data of all the structures in the survey area
The data we provide have been classified not just according to the original publications, but also based on our judgments. Thomas’ map distinguished four categories of ancient construction: stylized ruin, unstylized ruin, wall masonry or rubble, and artificial ridge. However, we divide the same set of features into ten categories: structure, mound, basal platform, solitary platform, wall, defensive feature, rockpile, chert mound, causeway, and ridge. Obviously, these classifications are open to debate and correction; therefore, we provide them only as suggestions. Finally, these polygons are not malerized.
The georeferencing and subsequent digitizing were performed as carefully as possible. However, we are aware there are likely omissions or inaccuracies; we regret in advance any errors. As always, we welcome amendments. As stated in prior blogs of this nature, we consider this data-sharing initiative to be part of a larger effort to preserve the utility of vital “analog” data. This project will be continued by supplying comparable data for sites such as Calakmul, Rio Amarillo, and Cuello. We invite peers working in similar digitization efforts to share their work (on this blog or elsewhere).
These data are supplied “as is” and can be downloaded for any legitimate purpose. All data citations should refer to the 1981 Thomas publication as their source. To use the digital data in an image, please credit Marcello A. Canuto and the GIS Lab of the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane University as follows: “Data digitized courtesy of Marcello A. Canuto and the GIS Lab of Tulane University.”
Hutson, Scott R., Nicholas P. Dunning, Bruce Cook, Thomas Ruhl, Nicolas C. Barth and Daniel Conley
2021 Ancient Maya Rural Settlement Patterns, Household Cooperation, and Regional Subsistence Interdependency in the Río Bec Area: Contributions from G-LiHT. Journal of Anthropological Research 77(4):550-579. doi: 10.1086/716750.
Lundell, Cyrus L.
1933 Archaeological Discoveries in the Maya Area. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 72(3): 147–179.
Pollock, Harry E. D.
1965 Architecture of the Maya Lowlands. In Handbook of Middle American Indians, Volumes 2 and 3: Archaeology of Southern Mesoamerica, edited by Robert Wauchope and Gordon R. Willey, pp. 378–440. University of Texas Press, Austin.
Ruppert, Karl J. and John H. Denison
1943 Archaeological Reconaissance in Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Peten Publication 543. Carnegie Institute of Washington, Washington, D.C.
Thomas, Prentice M.
1975 Prehistoric Settlement at Becan: A Preliminary Report. In Preliminary Reports on Archaeological Investigations in the Rio Bec Area, Campeche, Mexico, edited by R. E. W. Adams, pp. 139-146, Publication 31, Middle American Research Institute, Tulane University, New Orleans.
1981 Prehistoric Maya Settlement: Patterns at Becan, Campeche, Mexico. Publication 45. Middle American Research Institute, Tulane University, New Orleans.
Thompson, J. Eric S.
1954 The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma.
Turner II, B. L.
1974 Prehistoric Intensive Agriculture in the Mayan Lowlands. Science 185:118–124.
1983 Once beneath the Forest: Prehistoric Terracing in the Río Bec Region of the Maya Lowlands. 1st ed Routledge, London.
Webster, David and Joseph W. Ball
2021 Rehabilitating Becán. Ancient Mesoamerica 32(3):371-395. doi: 10.1017/S0956536121000262.
Webster, David L.
1973 Becan: An Early Lowland Maya Fortified Site. Occasional Papers in Anthropology, No. 8. Department of Anthropology, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park.
1975 The Fortifications at Becan, Campeche, Mexico. In Archaeological Investigations on the Yucatan Peninsula, edited by Margaret A. L. Harrison and Robert Wauchope, pp. 123–127 Publication 31. Middle American Research Institute, Tulane University, New Orleans.
3 thoughts on “Becan, a beacon of things to come…”
What an excellent initiative! Clear, coherent and substantive. Thanks Marcello and Scott!
Great to see these data made widely available. Thanks, Marcello and Scott!
Muchas gracias por los datos y además despierta la curiosidad por investigar más de este sitio al que recientemente hace unos días volví a visitar ES ESPECTACULAR.