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Recontextualizing Louisville

Norman Hammond & Astrid Runggaldier

In the winter dry season of 1935-36, Dr Thomas Gann (1867-1938) carried out the last of
a long series of amateur excavations on Maya sites in the Crown Colony of British
Honduras (Belize), where he had been chief medical officer for many years until his
retirement. Louisville was a small ranch, some 12 miles southwest of Corozal Town; while
the Ganns were at home nearby, they 'learnt of a treasure trove dug from an ancient
Maya mound . . . several life-sized stucco heads painted red and blue', Gann noted in his
last book, Glories of the Maya (1938: 253).

Seven mounds formed an enclosed plaza, that which had yielded the stucco heads being
on the southwest and also the largest; like most of the others, it had a later phase infilling
a standing walled building, 'almost certainly a temple . . . of roughly squared stones and
crumbly mortar . . . thirty-four by twenty-one feet [104 by 64 m] . . . the north and west
[walls] standing to a height of five feet [15 m]'. The infilled ruin had been capped with a
stucco floor supporting a later building, with two later floors indicating four periods of
construction (Gann 1938: 253-4).

Figure 1: Polychrome stucco head, Louisville Structure 12-24cm high (BM 1938-10-21.396).

Along the north side of the primary structure Gann found 41 stucco heads (Figure 1) and
two torsos, and noted that they had been carefully detached and buried face down in marl
dust to preserve them. He described the idiosyncratic features of several specimens, and
concluded that the ensemble was a 'portrait gallery . . . for the first time we see men and
women of the various classes exactly as they were in life when they lived and loved',
although the (to him) closed eyes and protruding tongue-tip suggested death masks
(Gann 1938: 254-8 and unpaginated plates). There were also numerous fragments of
non-figurative sculpture, including glyphs (Figure 2) and architectural moldings (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Architectural moulding from
Structure 12 (MARI 39.611).

Figure 2: Stucco glyphs from Structure 12; the bottom specimen had an upper bar when
found, perhaps naming the day 5 Ahau (BM 38-10-21.403/402/394).

Gann deposited some of the stuccoes in the British Museum, the rest at Tulane
University's Middle American Research Institute (MARI) in New Orleans. But he kept no
field notes beyond the diary subsumed into the book, which he barely lived to see
published, and the onset of World War II left the collections almost forgotten. In 1936
Gann had submitted a prompt article, 'A Maya Portrait Gallery', for Maya Research, a
subsequently discontinued MARI journal; in 1943 MARI published it as a four-page
pamphlet, retitled Painted Stucco Heads from Louisville, British Honduras, and much more
heavily edited by Robert Wauchope than his prefatory note of 'routine corrections'

Significant omissions were a paragraph summarizing the stratigraphy, and a long passage
describing some of the heads and essaying a date 'between the 8th and 9th centuries A.D.
. . . from the end of the ninth, or the early tenth Bactun', which present evidence suggests
was spot on. Wauchope also altered the word 'mouldings' to 'heads' (Gann 1943: 14, line
2), thereby adding sculptures to the interior of the building, where Gann had found none.

The Louisville stuccoes are among the few Maya polychrome sculptures in the round, but
remain virtually unknown: photographs of 10 heads and a glyph in the British Museum's
allocation were published by Gann (1938: unnumbered plates) and a further three heads
and six modelled fragments in Gann (1943: figure 1). The location of Gann's discovery
was lost, and the site itself not further studied until January 2000, when we found that
continuous erosion by sugar-cane cropping had been exacerbated by demolition of the two
main pyramids for road fill.

The western pyramid was almost totally removed to bedrock in 1999, and around a third
of the eastern: the exposed section showed construction was a continuous operation,
using teams of workers building parallel 'tasks', apparently in the Late Preclassic (400 BC-
AD 200). Surface pottery and two stratigraphic tests documented a site history from
before 600 BC to after AD 950.

Surviving settlement was mapped by Marc Wolf
and Scott Smith, and Gann's excavations
relocated in our Structures 7 and 12, the latter
from its size and location apparently that where
the stucco heads had been found. Excavations by
AR embracing part of Gann's area and the small
surviving undisturbed portion of the mound
confirmed some details of Gann's stratigraphy,
and found two modern woman's umbrella
spokes, arguably Mrs Gann's. The building Gann
described seems to have faced south (not north),
with not one but at least five doorways in its
front or median wall (Figure 4).

Numerous fragments of red-painted plaster,
some modeled, and much plain white wall
plaster, were found, but no further sculptures.
Nevertheless, pottery of the Terminal Classic
period (AD 800-900) from the infill of the
building confirms the date suggested both by
Gann and by comparanda such as the Seibal
Structure A-3 stucco frieze of AD 830-850: the
Louisville sculptures have been given back their
temporal and cultural context.

Figure 4: Louisville Str. 12: the 2000 excavation from the west, showing the plaster internal
floor, rear north wall (far left) and the piers framing the multiple doorways to the outer room
or terrace (small scales at right). The ancient infill of the building is sectioned at left; the
irregular cut through the floor at right is part of Gann's excavation, and yielded two modern
umbrella spokes.

We thank Dr Allan Moore, Archaeological Commissioner of Belize; our colleagues Marc
Wolf, Scott Smith, and Kerry Sagebiel; and Raymond and Beverly Sackler for generously
funding this work. The umbrella spokes were kindly identified by Messrs Swaine, Adeney
Brigg of St James's, and E. Wyllys Andrews V provided a copy of Gann's 1936 ms.


GANN, T. 1938. Glories of the Maya. London: Duckworth.
1943. Painted Stucco Heads from Louisville, British Honduras. Middle American
Research Records Vol. 1, No. 4.