IN Magazine

Belize doesn’t give up its secrets about the Maya without a struggle. For centuries it has hidden, under dense rainforest vegetation and layers of earth, remnants of one of mankind’s greatest empires.

To uncover these secrets, you have to know where to dig and what it all means. You need the expertise of Dr. Thomas Guderjan.

An associate professor at The University of Texas at Tyler, Guderjan is an authority on Maya culture. He has written books and papers on the topic and, for over 30 years, has spent summers at archaeological excavations in Belize.

As the founder and president of Maya Research Program, Guderjan coordinates the work of scholars who come to Belize from all over the world to better understand the rise and fall of the Maya empire.

The program receives support from the National Science Foundation, Archaeology Institute of America and the Belize government. The National Geographic, Archaeology magazine and Discovery Channel have featured its work.

On the computer in his office at UT Tyler, Guderjan pulls up images of dirty Maya Research Program volunteers sifting through soil at a Maya excavation and scholars huddled around a table covered with unearthed artifacts.

Moments later, one of his students at the university stops by to show him a map she is creating of a Maya town based on information uncovered by the program.

“Each one of these lines here is where someone lived,” said Guderjan, pointing to the map.

Guderjan has been expanding knowledge about the Maya since 1980 when he started doing archaeological work in Belize as a Southern Methodist University graduate student.

Since 1990, he has focused on archaeology in northwestern Belize, where the program operates a permanent research station.

The hard work of unearthing ruins and artifacts is done by students and volunteers based at the research station.

Several UT Tyler students have taken advantage of the opportunity to take part in the research. This past summer, Jocelyne Swayze, a history major from Tyler, helped excavate what had been the home of a wealthy family.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” said Mrs. Swayze, who wants to specialize in bio-archaeology. “It was very hands-on, hard work. You’re hauling rocks away, you’re kneeling, you’re bending. After the first day I collapsed on my cot.”

She unearthed a Maya digging tool made of stone.

“I was digging with a pick and looking for soil changes and it literally popped straight up out of the ground,” she said.

Swayze plans to return to Belize to do more work this year.

“From a historical standpoint, there is no replacing the experience of being able to walk where they (Mayans) walked and being in (the remains of) their homes.  … It was very exciting. I loved every minute of it.”


Much of the program’s efforts have focused on Blue Creek, a once  prosperous mining and farming town of 20,00 people on Rio Hondo. Blue Creek flourished from about 600 BC until it was abandoned in about 1000.

Over decades, researchers have documented 500 dwellings and ceremonial structures, as well as objects of daily life.

“This effort has produced a massive and important database for understanding ancient Maya and for broader purposes in the field of archaeology,” Guderjan wrote in a research paper. “The result is a rich database that is nearly unmatched in Maya research.”

The Maya had the most advanced civilization in the Americas from 2000 BC through about the mid-1500s. They lived in a network of cities in, what are now, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize and the southern half of Mexico.

They developed a written language and were masters of astronomy, mathematics, trade and art. They built majestic temples, which rivaled the great pyramids of Egypt.

“We have a view that they were simpletons,” Guderjan said. “They were much more like us than we imagined.”

After the year 900, the Maya population drastically declined and people abandoned most of the cities. Scholars believe  overpopulation, overuse of the land and constant warfare helped cause the decline of the Maya.

Guderjan said, at Blue Creek, as the population grew and forests were cleared, it caused agricultural land to erode. Farmers eventually could not grow enough food to feed the residents there.


Maya Research Program recently acquired thousands of acres of mostly undisturbed land in northwestern Belize.  Guderjan said this will help ensure the program continues expanding the world’s knowledge about the Maya.

“What really makes me happy and proud is that we have realistically trained over 3,000 people (in doing archaeological-based work). Many of them were students from dozens of universities.

“This is what really matters,” he continues. “This why I get really excited. … We can give them an experience that is so satisfying.”

Guderjan said new technology has revealed potentially thousands of hidden Maya sites yet to be explored in the region.

“There is a lifetime of work left to be done,” Guderjan said. “I want this to continue long after I am gone.”

Recommended for you