Xunantunich Maya Site Belize

Table of Contents

 View of the west side frieze at Xunantunich Maya Site in western Belize.
View of the west side frieze at Xunantunich Maya Site.

Overview And History Of Xunantunich

The name Xunantunich derives from the Yucatec Maya language and means “Stone Woman.” Local legend holds that around the end of the 1800s, a gentleman from the village of San Jose Succotz Belize went hunting near the site. Crossing the base of the Castillo, he was struck by the appearance of a beautiful statuesque Maya maiden, dressed in traditional “huipil” and “pik,”,and dazzling in the rays of the rising sun. The woman stood motionless by the mouth of a cave which extended beneath the large structure. Stricken by her appearance, the man threw his gun aside and ran downhill to the village. After recounting his tale several villagers led by their native priest returned to the site. Arriving at the large mound they found the mouth of the tunnel, but the stone maiden had disappeared. Thereafter locals claim that the woman has appeared to several others but none have been able to follow her into the cavern.

Xunantunich was first explored in the 1800’s by Dr. Thomas Gann a British medical officer. The first recorded photograph of the site was taken in 1904 and displayed in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts for many years. After this, activities at the site were abandoned until 1924, with the return of Gann. Records show that in his second visit, he unearthed much Maya treasures, history of which have been lost and the whereabouts unknown. It is believed and quite possible that many museums and private collectors of Maya Artifacts are displaying these items, with no idea of their origin.

Since that time, a number of noted archaeologists have undertaken various excavations at Xunantunich. There have been continuous excavations and restorations since 1990 by the University Of California (ULA) under the direction of Dr. Richard Leventhal. A complete visitor’s center has been built which displays a model of the site, photos, maps and graphical explanations of significant events in the development of the city.

These excavations uncovered a monumental plaster frieze with sky land frames frequently associated with accession that once encircled the entire structure of El Castillo. There is a three dimensional seated figure flanked by leaf-like elements terminating in knots. A seated figure, wears elaborate knotted anklets. There is another figure in a dancing position clutching at ropes. These ropes are identified as birth ropes which extend from a house beam which women hold while giving birth. Other excavations focused on the outlying elite residential plaza. Here, a sacbe running north was found.

Aerial view of Xunantunich rising through the forest canopy.

In comparison to other neighboring sites, the history of the Maya at Xunantunich is relatively short. Early Belize Maya settlers may have established a small village at the site during the Middle ,Preclassic (600-300 BC) period, but the ancient city, as we know it, rose to prominence and declined between AD 700 to 1000. This rather late development is unusual because it indicates that while most other cities in the region were waning during the troubled Terminal Classic period (AD 800-900), the fortunes of Xunantunich were on the rise. A well developed site, Xunantunich is on the Belize.com Top Ten Maya Sites of Belize list.

Why was this so? A stela at Xunantunich, that probably depicts the emblem glyph of the large Peten city of  Naranjo in modern day Guatemala, suggests that Xunantunich may have been a satellite of the former city. As the authority of Naranjo faltered, the local elite at Xunantunich may have asserted control of the city and expended great effort to develop it. The subsequent rapid growth is indicated by major construction efforts on Structure Al, the Castillo (Str. A6) and other buildings at the site. Despite their rapid rise, however, the Xunantunich lineage was not to outlast their former Naranjo patrons by much.

The last date recorded on a stela (Stela 9) at the site is AD 830. Thereafter we know that activity continued into the Early Postclassic period (AD 900-1000) but by this time the pace of development was nowhere what it was in the ninth century. The Early Postclassic period is also very unclear and activities during this time may have been associated with small groups who attempted to reoccupy the city after abandonment.

The Site

Maya ball court at Xunantunich Maya Ruin Belize.

The centre of Xunantunich sits on an artificially leveled limestone ridge that stands almost 183 meters above sea level. From this core area the site radiates outward, encompassing settlements that extend for several square kilometers. The epicenter consists of four major architectural groups. The most prominent of these is Group A, which is dominated by the 40 meter tall Structure A6 or “El Castillo.” Often misinterpreted as the primary temple of the site, this massive structure is actually a large multi-complex building that served as dwelling, shrine and administrative hub for the elite rulers of the centre. The eastern and western summit of El Castillo have large stucco friezes with carved elements that represent astronomical symbols, the sun god, moon and Venus.

Locale and Access

Xunantunch Maya Site looking east towards El Castillo

Xunantunich lies directly on the tourist route for those leaving Belize for Tikal in Guatemala or vice versa and is easily accessible from the Western Highway. Less than one mile below the site are the surging rapids of the Mopan River, which is popular for canoeing, kayaking, inner tubing and swimming. The actual reserve covers .25 sq. hm. and is fast becoming the only piece of “jungle” in an otherwise agriculturally developed area.

Driving directions to Xunantunich

From Belize City head to the western exit of the city which is the roundabout near the Shell One Stop Gas Station and take the Western Highway (recently renamed the George Price Highway). From the International Airport you can use a shortcut by taking the Burrel Boom Road and exiting at the Western Highway at Hattieville, then keep right headed west. From Belize City is it 52 miles to the City of Belmopan. The Burrel Boom shortcut on an excellent and well paved highway reduces your distance by about 24 miles and cuts almost an hour from your trip by avoiding the circuitous and congested route through Belize City. Caveat: Most anyone will advise you not to pick up hitchhikers anywhere here, especially on this road which is near the city penitentiary.

On arrival at the City Of Belmopan you can choose to enter this small and tidy city for gasoline, snacks or to pick up supplies. Or you can avoid Belmopan altogether by continuing your journey over the small bridge at Roaring Creek, then on to San Ignacio and Santa Elena towns, and thereafter on to San Jose Succotz where you will find Xunantunich.

The view from the summit of A6 is superb. The reserve is located across the river from the village of San Jose Succotz, near the western border. A small hand-cranked ferry carries visitors across between 7:30 am and 4:00 pm and can be reached by bus or taxi. The distance from the ferry is under a mile and suitable for hiking for those in excellent physical condition, the narrow road is well paved but rising and hilly. Most visitors will prefer to take a taxi or their tourist bus to the visitor centre and from there stroll to the site complex. Accommodation is available there, as well as in Benque Viejo del Carmen and San Ignacio, eight miles east. The reserve has restrooms, picnic areas and gift shops which sell drinks, snacks and souvenirs.

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Source: Dr. Jaime Awe – Belize Archaeological Commissioner with additional research by Manolo Romero Chief Information Officer (RET).