The ruins of La Milpa lie at the top of a steep, slippery path that winds upward from a rutted dirt road in Belize’s Rio Bravo Conservation Area. After scrambling up this path for the first time, I found myself beneath a dense jungle canopy, in the midst of a shadowy ruin. Unlike many other large Maya sites, La Milpa has not been uncovered, reconstructed, and opened to tourists. Instead, it remains shrouded in a thick layer of dirt and a thousand years’ worth of jungle growth. As you enter La Milpa, it’s easy to feel as though you’re discovering it for the first time.
La Milpa’s temples and palaces have become such an irrevocable part of the landscape that it’s difficult to imagine a time before they existed. But 3000 years ago, La Milpa was an unnamed patch of primeval forest. And then, sometime around 400 BCE, the Maya living in the area cleared the forest and began building La Milpa’s massive pyramid-temples atop a rugged limestone ridge. Over the next several centuries the construction and expansion of buildings and monuments came in fits and starts as La Milpa’s population and political power waxed and waned.
Today, La Milpa is an active archaeological site, and I traveled there in the summer of 2010 to volunteer with the Progamme for Belize Archaeological Project Field School administered by the University of Texas. As I walked through La Milpa’s Great Plaza with Debora Trein, a Ph.D. candidate in archaeology and the lead researcher at the site, she pointed out the site’s palaces, administrative buildings, and pyramid-temples, all of which have been assigned uninspiring, numerical names like Structure 1, Structure 2, and so on. These buildings formed La Milpa’s ceremonial center – the heart of the city, or “downtown La Milpa” as a fellow field school volunteer described it.
Trein explained that she has chosen to focus her research not on La Milpa’s architecture itself, but on the Maya commoners who built the city. During the 2010 field season, Trein oversaw the excavation of a steep drop-off behind one of the pyramids surrounding the Great Plaza. She suspected that this unnatural drop was created as Maya workers quarried limestone blocks that were used to build the pyramid. And, sure enough, field school students uncovered evidence that the area was used as a quarry: obsidian tools and a large limestone block that looked as though it had been chiseled from the bedrock but broke before it could be used in construction.
But by the time I arrived at the start of the final week of the field season, the excavations at the quarry were wrapping up. I was just in time to help with backfilling, the unglamorous process of filling in the trenches that had been carefully excavated over the past two months. The purpose of backfilling is to protect any ancient architectural features that may have been exposed during excavations. It turned out to be hard work. I spent most of my first day at La Milpa hauling buckets of dirt and rocks to a trench part-way up the side of a pyramid, and I quickly found myself exhausted and coated in dirt and sweat.
As I wondered what I’d gotten myself into, I began to think about the people who built La Milpa. How had they lived and worked in such an unforgiving environment? La Milpa is located in the Maya Lowlands, a region of dense jungle, giant mosquitos, and surprisingly few permanent sources of water. Like much of the tropics, there are only two seasons in the Maya Lowlands: rainy and dry. The ancient Maya residents of La Milpa had to contend with flooding in low-lying areas during the rainy season and severe, widespread drought during the five-month dry season. These conditions made large-scale farming particularly difficult.
Even so, the agricultural fields surrounding La Milpa provided enough food for a peak population of nearly 50,000 people. Archaeologists studying the layout of La Milpa have found that the city was designed to carefully manage a fickle water supply. La Milpa’s ceremonial center, with its stone buildings and paved plazas, was built at the top of a rocky ridge, creating an artificially-enhanced watershed. Two reservoirs were constructed at natural drainage points on the edges of the ceremonial center to collect runoff during the rainy season. Maya farmers used a series of channels and dams to dispense water from the reservoirs to the fields that lay below. This elaborate water management system was developed over centuries, but seems to have been in place by around 800 CE when La Milpa’s population reached it’s peak.
Today, it’s hard to imagine what La Milpa looked like 1200 years ago. At that time, the buildings surrounding the Great Plaza were covered in gleaming white plaster; vast agricultural fields, roads, and smaller, “suburban” houses radiated outward from the city’s ceremonial center. The area was almost completely deforested. Clear-cutting large swaths of jungle to plant crops may have been necessary for the ancient Maya to feed a growing population at La Milpa, but it seems that this kind of large-scale farming was unsustainable.
Most of the fields at La Milpa were located on terraced slopes, and as soil was lost to erosion over time, they became increasingly infertile. Archaeologists have uncovered a maze of stone terracing constructed at La Milpa between 700 and 900 CE. This proliferation of terracing seems to have been a desperate attempt to conserve usable soil and ground water in the face of severe erosion. As La Milpa’s agricultural fields became less productive, famine may have set in, hastening the eventual abandonment of the city. In the 1100 years since La Milpa was abandoned, the perpetual growth of the jungle has transformed the city into the mysterious ruins that can be seen today.
The ruins of La Milpa’s Great Plaza were not, in fact, the first evidence of the ancient Maya that I encountered while in Belize. My first look at Maya ruins came as I drove from the Belize City airport to La Milpa with Fred Valdez, an archaeologist at the University of Texas and the director of the field school. “There are actually some ruins of Maya houses right over there” Valdez said, gesturing toward half a dozen low mounds rising out of a cow pasture. I looked out the window and a few scrawny cows looked back as we drove past.
“Wow,” I said, “and now there are cows grazing on top of them.”
Valdez nodded sagely, “Life goes on.”
And indeed it does. The residents of La Milpa abandoned the majestic city they had spent nearly 1200 years building and refining sometime around 900 CE, just as people were steadily leaving cities all across the Maya Lowlands. But we often forget that the Maya never really left. Even as La Milpa’s temples were slowly reclaimed by the jungle, the Maya remembered the city as a sacred place and continued to visit the ruins during religious holidays, a practice that continues today at many sites across the Maya Lowlands.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2011 issue of the Institute for Maya Studies Newsletter.
Dunning, N., Scarborough, V., Valdez, F., Luzzadder-Beach, S., Beach, T., Jones, J. (1999). Temple mountains, sacred lakes, and fertile fields: ancient Maya landscapes in northwestern Belize Antiquity, 73 (281), 650-660