MAYA ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES IN BELIZE PART VI
One mile north of Benque Viejo, across the green crystalline waters of the Mopan River, is the largest ceremonial center in the Belize River Valley. The ruins of Xunantunich are located approximately eight miles west of San Ignacio- Town at San Jose Succotz Village in the Cayo District. The ruins are accessible by public transportation, but after being ferried across the Mopan River, you must walk about one mile to the entrance of the site. By using a travel and tour operator, you will be ferried across with their vehicle, thus eliminating the walk. The hilltop location provides a panoramic view of the surrounding Capo District. Spanning time from the early Protoclassic to the Terminal Classic Periods, Xunantunich consists of three ceremonial plazas enclosed by house mounds, pyramids, and palaces, the largest decorated with friezes and masks of Classic style. Xunantunich is the longest established archaeological site in Belize; a government reserve with a full time guide.
Xunantunich was a major ceremonial center during the Classic Period. The site is composed of six major plazas, surrounded by more than twenty- five temples and palaces. The most prominent structure located( at the south end of the site is the pyramid "El -Castillo" (The Castle) which is 130 feet high above the plaza. "El Castillo", which has been partially excavated and explored, was the tallest manmade structure in all of Belize, until the discovery of "Canaa" at Caracol. The most notable feature on "El Castillo" is a remarkable stucco frieze on the east side of the A-6 structure. Three carved stelae found at the site are on display in the plaza. The name is Maya for "stone lady" and is derived from local legend.
Currently, additional explorations and excavations are being performed by Dr. Richard Leventhal and the Department of Archaeology, in an effort to better understand the history of Xunantunich.
This major ceremonial center is located on a natural limestone ridge, providing a panoramic view of the Cayo District. Xunantunich is located across the river from the village of San Jose Succotz, near the western border, and can be reached by ferry daily between 8am and 5pm. Daily public transportation to Succotz is available. Accomodations are available in San Ignacio Town 10 miles away, in Benque Viejo 1 mile away or at two nearby resorts, Chaa Creek and El Indio Suizo.
The name Xunantunich -Stone Woman- is of local but relatively recent origin. But the classification of the site as female has prompted some exotic metaphors, sometimes from surprising sources: in the view, for example, of Tennant Wright S.J., Ximantunich is a "phallic temple".
In fact, there is no reason to believe that the Maya ever classified their ceremonial centres by gender. Nonetheless, Fr. Wright was correct in stressing the sexual symbolism of the sacred structures. This in itself is not new: the great majority of, if not all, religions focus on the power to generate and re-generated -on fertility. But what helps us to understand the stelae at Xunantunich and elsewhere is their association with both the power to reproduce and the warlords: since the stelae were both phallic and commemorated the warlord's victories, the warlords and their ancestors were being portrayed as the source of fertility for all Maya, including of course the peasantry who, as maize producers, were the real source of the group's fertility.
Why, then, were some of the Xunantunich stelae, now preserved under thatch in the pavilion, dragged to plaza A- I by the Maya who occupied the site after its collapse as a major ceremonial centre? This manipulation of what were the sacred signs and records of the power of earlier warlords and their lineages may suggest a period of social upheaval -perhaps one in which those re- occupying the site after its initial demise erected stelae which they felt to be more appropriate to their status as the new, dominant occupants of the site: as the new source of authority and fertility.
Xunantunich is a Classic Period ceremonial centre. Restricted in space, it occupies only 300 sq. metres (325 sq. yards) with elite, middle- and working-class residential structures stretching a few kilometres into the surroundings. The structures of the ceremonial centre itself are labelled "Group A" on the diagram; most are thought to be temples; plazas are labelled in Roman numerals. Group B is a residential group occupied from the 7th to the 10th centuries. Group C structures may comprise a ball court (C-2 and C-3).
Attention naturally focuses on Group A, for structure A- 6 rises 40 metres (130 ft.) above the level of the plaza. About 10m. (35 ft.) up the north side of the structure there is a wide terrace: it is now covered with debris and earth, but at one time it had buildings standing along its outer edge. The wide stairway that you see about one- third of the way up the front leads up to this terrace. Above the terrace rises a high platform, now covered with earth and plants. On top of this platform are two temples, the upper of which is the later. The Maya built this by covering the lower temple and making a platform out of it. The reason that you see both temples revealed is that archaeologists have cleared the debris and earth from both, exposing them for us, but not as they would have been seen in ancient times.
The lower temple is well known for the frieze -the band of stucco decoration- which at one time extended above the doorways around the entire building, but which has been preserved only on the east side; it wasrestored in 1972. The carved elements are signs. The mask with the "big ears" and ear ornaments represents the sun god. Next to that is the sign for the moon, and there is a border of signs which stand for Venus and the different days. We do not know who the headless man is, but he was deliberately "beheaded" by the Maya for some reason in the past.
We would be likely to learn considerably more about the turbulent times which terminated the Classic Period were Xunantunich to be systematically excavated. This has never been done.
Early investigations of Xunantunich were conducted in 1894 and 1895 by Dr. Thomas Gann, a British medical officer, who later published his discoveries from the site. In 1904 Teobert Mahler of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University took photographs and produced a plan for structure A-6. Upon his return in 1924, Gann uncovered and removed vast quantities of burial goods, as well as the carved hieroglyphs which encircled altar 1; we presently have no knowledge of the whereabouts of those glyphs.
Work here was originally begun in 1938 by the "Father of Maya Epigraphy," J. Eric Thompson, who investigated two structures northwest of the main plaza. Referred to as Group B, these are Classic middle class units. The ceramics he extracted have been set in a sequence for the Late Classic Period which remains chronologically correct.
In 1950, Linton Satterthwaite of the University of Pennsylvania, conducted small excavations on the highest building in the main plaza, the A-6 structure. It is a Classic building of large, beveled vault stones, faced with a stone veneer. The stucco frieze he discovered on the upper zone of the east facade, an earlier element of A-6, depicted glyphy which make reference to the 584 day cycle of four periods in which Venus shifts from its position as morning star to evening star. There is a headless bust before a niche in the frieze which is probably a secondary addition. Further excavations exposed a deity mask and two bands of glyphs which associates it with the most prominent celestial bodies / deities -- the Moon, Venus and the Sun. The mask is centered above a doorway with bands containing sky glyphs. Inclusive is a large stylized crescent moon glyph. Also uncovered was. the figure of a man, down on one knee carrying a set of glyphs. In 1959, the rest of the frieze was cleared by A.H. Anderson, then Archaeological Commissioner of Belize. He also built an access road and completely cleared the ceremonial center of jungle growth.
From 1952 to 1957, Michael Stewart conducted periodic excavations of the main plaza, predominantly structure A 2. This two room building has a plain stela set at the foot of the stairway around which a small temple was built at a later date. Uncovering A-3 and A-4, Stewart learned that there were originally separate structures with basal moldings resembling those at Uaxactun, approximately 45 miles northwest. He also cleared the A1 stairway.
In 1959, Euan Mackie of Glasgow University, in conjunction with Cambridge University, cleared A 11, a vaulted palace and A-15, a smaller residence, as well as other buildings around the main plaza. It appeared to him that both A-11 and A-15 collapsed due to human destruction (buildings were frequently razed before new ones were built), or more likely by earthquakes (there are indications of fault lines running through the district which could theoretically wipe out a town). There were huge ceiling vault stones which had collapsed, crushing the pottery (dated to the Classic Period) inside. Though there are two debris mounds in plaza B indicating an initial clean-up and an obvious reoccupation of A15 during the Post-Classic, the buildings were never reconstructed. Mackie believed this could be due to the hierarchy being unable to organize work crews due to the people's loss of faith in their leader's apparent lack of god/earthquake control. He believes Xunantunich's fall triggered the decline of San Jose and Uaxactun continued. According to construction evidence at San Jose. and Uaxactun, it is believed that the Classic Period continued for a short time after the collapse and then entered a brief period of decline.
Building continued at these two sites until they were suddenly and inexplicably abandoned. Therefore, the Xunantunich disaster and Post-Classic transition into the final stages would have been between 890-900 A.D., with the abandonment of San Jose and Uaxactun shortly afterward.
In 1979, evidence of looting in Group B-5 spurred a salvage project conducted by Dr. David M. Pendergast and Elizabeth Graham of the Royal Ontario Museum. Rescue archaeology is always a disappointing task as the damage done by looters is irrevocable. All information which could be gathered from burials, critical associations between objects, and an artifact's exact position, or the small fragile objects is lost forever. In the eagerness of an individual's desire to own a unique specimen or to make a buck, the history that gives an object its worth is destroyed. In this case, it is obvious that the looters did not understand the relationship of B-5 to the rest of the structures for they tunneled into the back corner of the structure instead of the side facing the plaza. From their backdirt, which they did not take the time to move, the salvage project recovered a 7th century A.D. censer with a human face. We have an object; its relevance is lost. The burial was completely destroyed The information gained shows that B-5 is a small, unadorned platform faced with stone. A broad stairway is on its front with a low extension at the side which connects it with another Group B structure. There are no chambered buildings or wall remains to indicate that the platform supported a stone structure. This means there was probably a perishable structure atop, but the poor surface condition makes location of postholes impossible. Twelve inches below the platform, a shallow grave was capped by stone.
An adult female was laid with her head to the south. The extensive dental work indicates that this person had a great rank or status. Her upper incisors were notched. All her lower incisors were notched in the center occlusal surface. There was only one associated artifact, an elaborate ceramic whistle. The grave is dated to the Late Post-Classic Period. There are indications of an earlier structure which had been characteristically razed. In honor of the new construction, an offering of a unique censer/strainer with a burnt post-fire stucco wash had been placed within the earlier structure. Ceramic vessels date to the Late Classic Period. The last construction phase of B-5 was in the Terminial Classic Period.
In 1938 the British archaeologist J. Eric S. Thompson excavated a middle-class residential group of buildings (Group B) near the site centre and in 1949 A. H. Anderson rediscovered the remains of the stucco frieze, one-third of which Linton Satterthwaite excavated in the following year. In 1952 and 1953 an amateur British archaeologist, Michael Stewart, recovered burials and caches (ceremonial offerings) -caches which were donated to the Cambridge University Museum and the Museum of Volkerkunde and Vorgeschichte in Hamburg, West Germany. Stewart returned in 1957 to sink exploratory trenches into the C-group.
Euan Mackie of the Cambridge University Expedition to British Honduras of 1959 and 1960 excavated what he believed were a palace and a residential structure in the A-group and suggested that the site had been abandoned c. 900 A.D. due to an earthquake. In the same years A.H. Anderson continued his work on the stucco frieze and in 1968 and 1971 Peter Schmidt, the Archaeological Commissioner, excavated and consolidated several structures. Joseph Palacio, the Archaeology Commissioner from 1971 to 1976, consolidated the stucco frieze and in 1978 and 1979 his successor, Elizabeth Graham carried out small-scale excavations and completed the restoration of the frieze. In 1979 looting at the site prompted David Pendergast to do salvage work on Group-B. In 1980, Graham's successor, Harriot Topsey supervised salvage work necessitated by the appearance of crevices. Since then, only Pendergast has returned, to complete his salvage work.
We hope that large-scale, systematic excavation will be undertaken in the future.
Locale and Access
Xunantunich lies directly on the tourist route for those leaving Belize for Tikal in Guatemala or vice versa and is easily accessible from the main Western Highway. Less than one mile below the site are the surging rapids of the Mopan River, which is perfect for canoeing, kayaking, rubber-rafting and swimming. The actual reserve covers .25 sq. km. and is fast becoming the only piece of "jungle" in an agriculturally developed area. The view from the summit of A-6 is superb.
The reserve has restrooms, picnic area and drinking water and is located across the river from the village of San Jose Succotz, near the Western border. It can be reached by ferry daily anytime between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm. Daily public transportation to Succotz is available and accommodation is available in neighbouring Benque Viejo del Carmen or in San-Ignacio town, 8 miles away.
Improvements at Xunantunich help visitors
Every school child should be familiar with the imposing structures rising from the banks of the Mopan River. Collectively, they're called Xunantunich, or Maiden of the Rock. And if you haven't been there in a while, as Marion Ali discovered, it's well worth a return visit.
Marion Ali, ReportingThe work to preserve the ancient site started several months ago under the government's Tourism Development Project. After much research, labour, and an investment of some half a million dollars, this popular attraction is much more visitor friendly. But this majestic landmark has been drawing attention for many years.
Dr Jaime Awe, Project Coordinator, Tourism Dev. Project"In the 1880s, in fact, probably in 1887, a gentleman from the village of San Jose Succotz, by the name of Urbano Pat, came up to hunt at the site and the legend claims that at the base of the Castillo, he saw this beautiful young maiden, who was resplendent in bright light and the rays of the sunlight. This maiden appeared to him, and he was scared by the apparition, so he dropped his gun and ran back to the village. When he got to the village, he talked with the native priest, the Chac, as they call him, and the priest decided to come up to the site with him. They came back and they found his gun, but did not see the maiden. And thereafter, several other people have claimed that this young maiden has appeared to them, but nobody has ever been able to follow her into the cave that supposedly goes into the Castillo."
Dating back to as early as 200 B.C., Xunantunich boasts carved stone slabs called stelae containing recordings of important events of Mayan civilization. Tourism Minister, Mark Espat, says the need to preserve these important artefacts, and also accommodate those who want to see them, makes it important to invest in their preservation.
Mark Espat, Minister of Tourism comments, "We get almost give thousand people a month, and many of them come from cruise ships, a lot of them are also from overnight tourists that stay at the various resorts in the Cayo District. This is one of the most popular sites in Belize. The improvements here including the visitor's centre, the new bathrooms, the new picnic areas, the new trails, and very soon, a new way to embark and disembark the main temple of El Castillo, are designed to improve and to enhance the carrying capacity, meaning we will be able to handle more people, without in any way compromising the integrity of the structures that are here."
But while the major restoration works are completed on Xunantunich, Espat says there are plans to provide some safety measures for visitors.
"Most people that come to Xunantunich, want to climb to the summit of El Castillo. We have come up with a plan that will make that climbing up and climbing down a lot easier. We'll be exposing some more stairs, putting in some rails, and ensuring that visitors and Belizeans who come to visit the site can do so in a manner that's safe and convenient."
This portion of the works should begin in the next two weeks and run through to April at a cost of about forty-five thousand dollars. But is it really worth the effort, time and money we invest in these imposing ancient structures. Tourism Development Project Coordinator, Dr. Jaime Awe says there's no doubt.
Dr. Jaime Awe says, "It is also important from a totally non-economic point of view, and that is from a cultural historical perspective. These monuments, these large temples and pyramids that we excavate and conserve, represent icons and symbols of Belizean identity. We have a lot of people who are Maya, but you don't just have to be Maya to come to these places and feel proud about being Belizean. Because it's the first Belizeans that did all these achievements, made these achievements. So it's also about learning about our own past, and hopefully about the successes and failures of the past Belizeans. And by learning from that we might not make the same mistakes in the future."
But did all the tireless work unearth anything new?
Dr. Awe states, "We found a very interesting burial. We now believe that it's the first elite burial to be discovered at Xunantunich. And then we found more than fifty eccentric flints that were placed all above this area where they had buried this individual. The skeletal remains form the individual was also covered in hematite, like a red powder. And the Maya often did that, because red is the colour of the rising sun. So it is hoped that like the rising sun, the dead ruler will rise from the dead."
One historical attribute we are not likely to see replaced anytime soon is the mechanical ferry, used for years to take people to and from the site.
Mark Espat says, "We feel that the ferry provides a very unique component of the Xunantunich experience. The nearby village of San Jose Succotz, also benefits from the waiting time that people have spend there before they cross. And so no, we don't plan to replace the ferry at all."
The Tourism Development Project includes the conservation of five major ancient Mayan sites, along with the caves at Caves Branch on the Hummingbird Highway. The project is funded through a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank and government contribution to the tune of twenty-eight million dollars. The next two sites, soon to be officially opened, include Lamanai in Orange Walk and Altun Ha in the Belize District.
For an incredible on-line resource on Xunantunich, CLICK HERE.