There is a private ritual I have, sacred and (until now) unspoken, that helps me connect with ancient archaeological sites such as Xunantunich, Belize.
First, I consider the nature of time and human evolution. Last week a story was published in Science about the discovery of a fossilized mandible of an early human that lived around 2.8 million years ago in the Afar region of Ethiopia.
Think about that: 2.8 MILLION YEARS! In that context, the 1300 years that have passed since the Mayans constructed the city of Xunantunich is merely the blink of an eye.
Secondly, if we’re with a guide or tour group, I use photography as an excuse to distance myself, tuning out everything around me. I envision the city as it was 1200 years ago, bustling with activity as the Belize Valley region’s top Maya civic ceremonial center.
Lastly, I imagine the reverence residents must have felt as they gazed up at “El Castillo” (the second tallest structure in Belize, at 130 feet). I ignore the world of computers, cars and cell phones, and explore Xunantunich through the eyes of someone from the Late and Terminal Classic eras.
I try to see the city, not just as ancient archaeological relics from some distant past, but as a tangible tie to our current concept of “civilization.”
Xunantunich is located on top of a ridge above the Mopan River, about 80 miles west of Belize City in the Cayo District. You have to take a short ride (50-60 feet) on a hand-cranked ferry across the river to get to the site, which is located just one kilometer east of the Guatemalan border.
There’s evidence to suggest the city was settled as early as the ceramic phase of the Preclassic period (around 1000 BC-400 AD). But it wasn’t until Xunantunich established a political connection with the nearby city of Naranjo sometime between 670 and 750 AD that it really began to grow.
Archaeologists believe that construction of the main buildings began around 800 AD, just as Naranjo and other Mayan civilizations were beginning to crumble. Some suggest that Xunantunich’s hilltop location gave it a strategic advantage, making it much easier to defend.
The core city– which includes six plazas, more than two dozens palaces and temples, ball courts and hundreds of mounds yet to be unearthed– is around one square mile and made from limestone rock raised from the ridge upon which it sits.
But it’s surrounded by verdant, fertile farmland that once contained numerous villages divided into family groups, all of which were economically self-sufficient because the city’s residents relied on them for food.
A satellite city for the Maya empire, Xunantunich remained unknown to the modern world until Irish surgeon/amateur archaeologist Thomas Gann became Cayo district commissioner for what was then known as British Honduras in the mid-1890s.
Gann and his successor, Sir J. Eric S. Thompson, were the first to document detailed descriptions of the ruins and establish the region’s ceramic chronology, co-publishing The History of the Maya from the Earliest Times to the Present Day in 1931.
The main excavation began in 1959 by a Cambridge team led by Euan MacKie. MacKie was an expert in the field of Archaeoastronomy, which examines how ancient civilizations understood astronomical phenomena, how that understanding influenced the design of their cities, and what role the stars and planets played in ancient cultures.
He discovered that the layout of Xunantunich was very similar to Naranjo, found ample evidence of communication and trade with other Mayan sites, and deduced from structural damage to El Castillo that the city was destroyed by an earthquake at the end of the Classic period (around 900 AD).
As we walked around this ancient city with our guide, who related this history, I found my consciousness drifting.
We entered one of the smaller buildings– a meeting room likely owned by a merchant from the city’s ruling family. I could picture men sitting on the stone benches discussing the business of the day, and the beloved ancestors buried in the small tombs (an honor in an era when all but the most wealthy people were cremated).
As we climbed to the top of a two-story ruin to get a stunning view of El Castillo, I could envision the plaza crowded with people shopping for produce, fresh fish and meats from the nearby farms. I could imagine artisans hard at work carving intricate friezes, crowds cheering intense pok ta pok ball games, and the wealth and power represented by these temples and palaces in their prime.
I had this energy coursing through my veins as we climbed the steep steps of El Castillo, huffing and puffing our way past young Mennonite girls in vivid purple dresses, a small group of German teens and a much larger tour group of Australians (who, thankfully, were coming down as we were going up).
As we paused to let them pass, we got a close-up view of the massive friezes carved into the sides of the pyramid, which depict the birth of a god associated with the royal family, the Mayan gods of creation, and the sacred Tree of Life. My mind boggles at the incredible detail of their ancient artistry.
Needless to say, the view from the top of El Castillo was spectacularly scenic, with the hilltop ruins giving way to thousands of acres of green space and the mountains of Guatemala visible in the distance.
We timed it perfectly so that there were just a handful of other people savoring the view from the summit with us– a huge change from the thousands of travelers who descended upon Chichen Itza on the day we visited– giving us plenty of time and space to enjoy the moment.
Xunantunich isn’t nearly as expansive as the other Mayan sites we’ve visited, including Chichen Itza, Tulum, Coba and Caracol (which we’ll have a story on coming soon). But we found it to be equally impressive, thanks to its small crowds, huge archaeological ruins and gorgeous friezes and stela that provide intriguing insights into a lesser-known center of ancient Mayan culture. –Bret Love; photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett
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