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Antiquity Vol 74 No 285 September 2000 (pp.493-5)

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 [10·4 by 6·4 m] . . . the north and west [walls] standing to a height of five feet [1·5 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
Figure 1: Polychrome stucco head, Louisville Structure 12-24 cm high (BM 1938-10-21.396).
Figure 2
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).

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 mouldings (Figure 3).

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' suggests. 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).

Figure 3
Figure 3: Architectural moulding from Structure 12 (MARI 39.611).
Figure 4
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.

Numerous fragments of red-painted plaster, some modelled, and much plain white wall paster, 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.

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.

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