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Community Outreach, Research, Science & Technology

LSU Archaeologists Promote Protection of Ancient Maya Sites in Belize

03/22/2012 08:08 AM

BATON ROUGE – LSU archaeologists are promoting protection of the only known ancient Maya sites with wooden architecture by involving the nearby communities in archaeological tourism. With a site preservation grant from the Archaeological Institute of America, or AIA, Heather McKillop, the Doris Z. Stone Professor of Latin American Studies in LSU’s Department of Geography & Anthropology, along with doctoral candidate Cory Sills, are raising awareness of sites in Paynes Creek National Park, Belize, by opening two exhibits, hosting workshops and talks.

The remarkable preservation of the Paynes Creek sites was due to sea-level rise that submerged wooden buildings below the seafloor. The Paynes Creek sites provide a unique record of the wooden structures that likely dominated ancient cities as in modern villages of indigenous Maya.

The AIA Underwater Maya program initiated with an exhibit at in Punta Gorda on March 15, with a second exhibit opening at the Ranger Station in Paynes Creek National Park on March 16.  The exhibits include replicas of artifacts recovered by McKillop’s ongoing archaeological research at the underwater sites in the park.   

“This project will have a tremendous impact on the local population where many descendants of the ancient Maya reside today and on visitors who come to the area,” said Maya archaeologist and AIA Director of Programs Ben Thomas. “It will be great for people to see the wooden artifacts created by the ancestors of the local inhabitants—raising awareness is critical for the protection of the site.”

The program includes workshops for tour guides who may incorporate archaeology into their marine tours for fishing, snorkeling and bird watching.  The Toledo Tour Guide Association said “the workshops and exhibits will put tourism dollars into our communities in Toledo.”

A workshop for craft workers will provide designs from underwater Maya artifacts to include in their crafts. Sills will promote awareness of the ancient Maya by giving talks at local schools, and the archaeologists have already given several interviews with local Belize media outlets.

“The success of the underwater Maya archaeological tourism project depends on the interest and input of the local communities to maintain and develop in ways that work for them,” said McKillop. “People around the world know about the underwater Maya sites in southern Belize, so we are excited to be able to give something back to the people in the local communities so they can incorporate our archaeological research into sustainable archaeological tourism.”  

McKillop has carried out archaeological field research in the coastal waters off Belize since 1979, but has focused on the underwater Maya in Paynes Creek since the discovery of the wooden architecture in 2004. Together with LSU colleagues Harry Roberts, Boyd Professor in the School of the Coast & Environment, and adjunct Karen McKee, as well as colleagues from the University of Auburn at Montgomery, she has ongoing funding for field research from the National Science Foundation  grant “Ancient Maya Wooden Architecture and the Salt Industry.”

McKillop is coordinating the project with the Belize government Institute of Archaeology, along with the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment, or TIDE, which co-manages the Paynes Creek National Park with the government.  

“Having the exhibit at the Paynes Creek Ranger Station is an important step in further developing sustainable tourism,” said TIDE Executive Director Celia Mahung. “TIDE is excited to be part of this initiative and we look forward to continuing to work closely with McKillop and her team.”

The Toledo Tour Guide Association, Toledo Belize Tourism Industry Association and other NGOs involved in education and tourism also are participating in the project.

For further information about the Underwater Maya AIA Site Preservation Grant, along with a video showing McKillop lecturing at one of the underwater sites, see For further information about the archaeology in the park, see

LSU Research Communications