Opening a stairblock – just like tearing into presents on Christmas morning!

Blog entry created by: Teresa

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The Maya had great architectural styles that were different from our modern ones today.

“It’s interesting working with the experienced archaeologist, because they know just where we are likely to find the good stuff…and that brings me to the subject of stairblocks.”

The staircases of their temples are often several meters wide, or sometimes they even cover the entire width of one side of the pyramid.  Some of the pyramid temples had a stairblock in the upper center of their staircases.  A stairblock is an architectural feature that extends from the front of the pyramid temple. Stairblocks permitted rulers and religious leaders to be closer to the people gathered in the plaza below during rituals.


here you can see what a stairblock looks like


To the north of Belize at a site by the name of Altun Ha, archeologists found a jade head inside the top stairblock of the temple.


Drawing of a pyramid with stairblock in Altun Ha. This one has two stairblocks. This is where the famous Maya jade head was found.


This famous jade head was found inside a stairblock on the Altun Ha pyramid pictured above. What will be found inside ours??

 Inside most stairblocks there is something interesting; either a burial or an offering.

This is based on previous excavations and it is what led Reiko and her team of excavators to focus on the stairblock that was exposed during the excavation on the top of Structure B1 at Cahal Pech site. (see map below)


Cahal Pech Site Map, Cayo, Belize

Cahal Pech Site Map, Cayo, Belize


Maya pyramids were generally built in phases.  Often when a new ruler took over, they would decide it was time to build a bigger and better structure.  Rather than tearing down the old one, the Maya would build the new pyramid on top of the older one.  There were other reasons for building new phases as well, even something as simple as the need to renovate the existing structure.


“This stair block was built during the penultimate phase of the construction” said Rieko Ishihara, supervisor of the 2012 excavation on structure B1.


Stairblock in the Penultimate phase of construction. you can see that we dug pass the last phase of construction to get to the stairblock

It was not easy to identify and isolate the stairblock for excavation.  The stairblock had been disturbed by later reconstruction of the pyramid and by a large tree growing in front of the stairblock location. It took the excavation team many days of hard work to identify the starirblock and start the actual excavation of it.


There are few things in life that would have me digging in the hot sun all day for many weeks…

but the anticipation of finding something really cool inside that stairblock is one of them!  I think it’s what keeps archaeologist coming back to excavations in parts of the world where conditions are difficult, or the excavating is tedious.  There is nothing like the thrill of discovery.  I hope I can share some of that with you through this blog.

Check back tomorrow to see what we find!


Post by 17 year-old Mario Villeda who is part of the teenage excavation team and lives in San Ignacio, Belize; some pics by Veronica Burkhart

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Posted on: July 17, 2012 | Categories: AFAR, Archaeology, Belize, Education, Service Learning US & Belize teens


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