Associate Professor Gabriel Wrobel’s interest in the bioarchaeology of ancient Maya began as an undergraduate student during a fieldschool in Belize. After working at one of the rockshelter sites for a day, he felt a profound connection to the area and its stunning landscape. He decided in that moment that he would pursue a PhD and run his own fieldschool there. Twelve years later, Dr. Wrobel took his first group of students to continue work at that same site. Once Dr. Wrobel began working there, he expanded his research to include a variety of new sites, including caves, rockshelters, and buildings.
Since 2005, Dr. Wrobel has directed a field project in central Belize, which includes an Education Abroad fieldschool program providing undergraduate students hands-on research training. Dr. Wrobel, his graduate and undergraduate students, and the project’s staff have worked mostly in caves and rockshelters but have also carried out excavations of buildings at a few urban centers in their research area. The cave and rockshelter sites were used for a variety of ritual activities, including burial. The research team’s analyses of the artifacts and skeletons recovered from these sites focus on reconstructing the elaborate and diverse ritual practices, and on identifying aspects of the lives and deaths of individuals who lived in the surrounding area 1000–2300 years ago.
With the aim to build a local culture history of central Belize, Dr. Wrobel and his students study evidence of people’s lives and deaths that are preserved in their bones. This includes reconstructing diet from isotopes in their bones and teeth, finding evidence of disease, recording patterns of intentional cranial modification and tooth filing, and documenting diversity of mortuary treatment. From these data they determine how variations in biology and culture changed over time and interpret these patterns by considering the social, ecological, political, and economic contexts that shaped people’s lives.
Dr. Wrobel and his team’s work has built significantly on previous research in the region. For example, excavations of several rockshelter sites have provided evidence for the presence of Archaic hunter-gatherers in the region several thousand years ago, and the establishment of small farming villages by 300 BC. They have also reported the region’s largest urban center—a site they named Tipan Chen Uitz (Fortress Well Mountain)—where they found several large carved monuments with writing. Dr. Wrobel and his team’s work at Tipan and other large civic-ceremonial centers in the area have demonstrated a sudden growth of population size and social complexity beginning in the 6th century AD. Furthermore, they can see evidence of economic and political ties with other areas of the Maya world. Dr. Wrobel and his team’s work in the deep caves has documented extensive evidence for the mortuary use of these contexts, providing important information about social and political changes to the region’s population during the height of Classic Maya civilization.
From the perspective of Maya history, Dr. Wrobel and his team have been able to fill in a large gap that was central Belize. Their research has provided valuable information about the region’s development over time, and the role that external political forces had in shaping that development. From a more general anthropological perspective, they use the data from central Belize to help answer broader biocultural questions about humans and human society. Dr. Wrobel and his team’s work particularly demonstrates how local communities are able to adapt and change in response to environmental limitations and to new political pressures.
Dr. Wrobel and his research team have published their research from central Belize in numerous articles in journals and edited volumes, as well as in several dissertations and theses by graduate students. Additionally, every year following fieldwork, technical reports describing their research and results are given to the Belize government’s archaeology office and made available to the public through their Central Belize Archaeological Survey (CBAS) Project website.
The CBAS field project is on a temporary hiatus, but they continue to analyze their excavated materials and publish their findings. Next year, Dr. Wrobel hopes to return to the field and will start a new project excavating at an ancient coastal Maya trading site on an island off the coast of northern Belize.