Maya Archaeological Sites in
Several archaeological sites, described below, are open to the public. Four are visited widely by the public, and are soon to be made official archaeological reserves with the supporting facilities. Many other sites are located on private land and can only be visited if prior permission is obtained. Additional information about the ruins can be had by visiting or corresponding with the Department of Archaeology in
It is generally thought that the population of what is now
Moreover, it's possible to see a pattern in those sites which helps us to reconstruct the history of those highly creative but warlike peoples. For example, it is suggested that the recently investigated site of Cahal Pech, above San Ignacio, Cayo District, rose to preeminence in the Preclassic Period before surrendering its dominion to the neighbouring people of Buena Vista and later, during the Classic Period, to that of Xunantunich. The picture is likened by Belizean archaeologists to the warring local fiefdoms of Medieval Europe.
Belize clearly lay in the Maya heartland: not only are some of the earliest sites, like that of Cuello in Orange Walk, found in the country, but the recent discovery of glyphs at Caracol, Cayo District, apparently portraying a military victory over Tikal suggests that some of the Belizean centres were supreme in the region.
This webspace describes the major, excavated sites in
Before we look at the major sites themselves, it's to be remembered that other supremely spectacular sites were utilized by the Maya but now show no trace of that history: the Rio Frio cavern, from which Mayan remains have been excavated, is now purely nature's domain -the river has formed an immense tunnel through the limestone, opening the mountain spur at both ends; stalactites are still in dripping formation and petrified limestone waves form the floor. Close by, the Rio On cascades through some of the oldest rocks in
The modern town of
Corozal is easily accessible by public transportation, and hotel accomodations are available in town.
Santa Rita, on
The site's strategic location attracted the Conquistadores, who attempted to take the city and establish a base there. Anthropologist Grant Jones has traced the events that followed: "In 1531 Alonso Davila set off by land to the
Although they were driven out of Chetumal/Santa Rita, the Spaniards established an outpost at Bacalar and were successful in their attempts to conquer
The formation of Santa Rita dates from c. 2000 B.C. -from the beginning of Maya history; this is evinced by burial at the site which yielded pottery of the Swasey style, some of the earliest found in the Maya area. From c. 300 B.C. to c. 300 A.D. the settlement expanded but continued to be based primarily on agriculture.
The Classic Period at Santa Rita is marked by the site's only extant structure, a complex series of interconnected doorways and rooms with a central room containing a niche in front of which offerings were burned. Two important burials were unearthed there, the earliest dating to the Early Classic, containing an elderly woman with elaborate jewelry and polychrome pottery. A second burial dated to c. 500 A.D. was discovered inside an unusually large tomb and is probably that of a warlord who was interred with the symbols of his rule -a ceremonial flint bar and stingray spine used in blood-letting rituals. Many of the artifacts found in this tomb show similarities to those from
Postclassic Santa Rita is revealed through artifacts rather than architecture, for at this period the Maya built low platforms surmounted by structures of perishable materials rather than the high, stone buildings of the Classic. Those artifacts show that the rituals, such as blood-letting, of the Classic continued to play an important part in Postclassic religious life. Turquoise and gold ear-flares of Aztec workmanship found at Santa Rita also date from the Postclassic, attesting to the continuity of trade through the site several hundred years after the demise of many Maya ceremonial centres.
The amateur and explosive archaeologist Thomas Gann discovered fabulous Mixtec influenced frescoes at Santa Rita at the turn of the century; these do not survive, but fortunately Gann's meticulous copies do. The most systematic series of excavations at the site was the Corozal Postclassic Project led by A. and D. Chase from 1979 to 1985.
Locale and access
The town of
Santa Rita is located on the outskirts of
Chronology of the Ancient Maya
The following is the classification used in this text:
Note that some archaeologists use the term "Formative" for "Preclassic", and also introduce a further phase, the "Protoclassic" which, being from c. 150 A.D. to 300 A.D., bridges the Preclassic and Classic Periods and brings the beginning of the latter fifty years forward in time. The Classic Period is, as the name suggests, regarded as the height of Maya civilization.
Cerros (Cerro Maya):
centre of maritime trade
Located on a peninsula across from the town of
Cerros can be reached by a short boat ride from Corozal. Boats can be hired in town where hotel accomodations are also available. During the dry season, between January and April, one can reach Cerros by road in a rented vehicle passing such picturesque towns as Chunox, Progresso and Copper Bank and their beautiful lagoons.
The Cerro Maya ("Maya Hill") Archaeological Reserve consists of 52.62 acres and includes three large acropolises dominating several plazas flanked by pyramidal structures. Two structures are known to possess facades with 2 - 4 metre (6.5 - 13 ft.) high masks. Tombs and ball courts have been excavated and many artifacts found, demonstrating the importance of the site during the 400 B.C. - 100 A.D. period. The civic- ceremonial centre covers an area of .75 km. (.5 sq. mile) with the tallest structure rising 22 metres (72 ft.) above plaza level. The site's adjacency to the sea has meant that the two large structures are being eroded; the rate of erosion and lack of funding for maintenance has unfortunately necessitated covering the masks with plaster.
Thomas Gann was among the first to recognize the existence of a Maya site at Cerros, but it was not until 1969 that Peter Schmidt and Joseph Palacio visited it and registered the site with the Department of Archaeology.
The land on which the site is located was acquired by Metroplex Properties Inc., a
The site was eventually surveyed, excavated and partially consolidated from 1973 to 1979 by David Freidel of Southern Methodist University; Freidel focused on the ceremonial centre, its outliers and on the importance of trade at Cerro Maya. In 1983 Cathy Crane, a doctoral student at the same university tested ancient canals and associated structures at the site for pollen and other organic remains. Since then no further work has been carried out.
Cerros was a thriving community in the Late Formative Period due to its location on the circumpeninsula trading route. A fishing village for its first 300 years, Cerros covered about seven acres and consisted of approximately 38 pole and thatch buildings which would have housed approximately 500 people. Occasionally built on low clay platforms, these huts were rethatched every 30 years much as they are today. Burial and storage pits were sunk into the trash accumulations (midden) in the adjacent patio areas. The importance of trade at this early period is indicated by a large low platform and jetty on the water, west of the village. Cerros was the main distributor of salt from the north coast mining communities and is known to have traded chert tools from nearby Colha, up the
The fluorescence of the lowland Maya centers and their demand for trade goods triggered a new phase of development at Cerros which transformed the village to an urban center. A 3600 foot canal, 18 feet wide and 6 feet deep, was built to surround 91 acres and served as part of the drainage system for the maize, squash, bean and cotton crops. Within this structure was built a ceremonial center which included four pyramids, their associated plazas and buildings, 103 public and private structures, two ball courts and accommodations for approximately 400 people. House mounds decrease ,in density outside the canal perimeter. All of the pyramids were decorated with stucco images but have been temporarily covered by the Belizean government to prevent the limestone from weathering.
The Mesoamerican ball game was both recreational and ceremonial in nature. Often the game was played to determine the outcome of future events (the losers being sacrificed) but it was also played for recreational pleasure. The ball game was played with a solid rubber ball in a formal court. The object was to score by propelling the ball through rings on the side walls. Some courts, lacking rings, have markers on the sides or center of the court floor.
The two ball courts at Cerros are an interesting feature. A common occurrence at preColombian Mesoamerican sites and often found at Late Classic Maya sites, it is rare that they appear during the Early Classic Period. It is assumed the game originated in the lowlands (the ball was made of rubber, a lowland plant) but only two ball courts from the Early Classic Period have been reported, at
Dr. Freidel suggests that a change in the way the game was played would affect the court construction and perhaps evidence from this period remains unrecognized. Perhaps the reasons the game was played did not exist throughout the Early Classic.
The open-ended ball courts consist of a raised playing alley flanked by two parallel buildings. These buildings have broad, low benches that face the alley and have battered, sloped surfaces, indicating they were within fair play. The central court markers have been removed. There were summit access stairs at the backs of the buildings.
Construction technique generally followed that of the other major buildings at Cerros. An initial layer of white lime, followed by a layer of dark grey marl and trash (habitation debris), then by brownish/red dirt with cobbles which was then covered by a thick hard plaster floor over the playing area (the alley and walls).
At the close of the Formative Period trade routes changed. Overland routes controlled by the other Maya centers came into primary usage while the coastal routes became less frequented. Cerros declined and the main buildings were ritualistically abandoned. Pottery was smashed and deposited in front of the facades, fires were set against the masks and the stone markers in the ball courts were removed A dispersed population continued to live outside the ceremonial districts until the Early Classic Period, but Cerros never regained its position of importance.
Locale and access
Cerro Maya's location on the
Cerros is a short boat ride from
This is one of
At present Lamanai can only be reached by road from San Felipe Village in a strong vehicle during the dry season. However, the more popular route is by the New River Lagoon, a waterway rich in the natural history of the country Boats can be hired from Guinea Grass or Shipyard.
There is no public transportation from
It's that time of year when nearly every airplane that leaves
The trip up the river takes approximately one hour and the pristine environment adds to the mystique and adventure of Lamanai. The boat journey comes to an end as you enter into the New River Lagoon and the anticipation begins as the main temple can be seen towering above the forest.
Nazario Ku, Lamanai Curator
Nazario Ku has been the curator at Lamanai for a year, but has worked at different sites around the country for over ten years.
"Maya here started as a settlement around 1500 B.C. and they flourished as a city state around the 2nd century B.C., which is a long time between. This is one of the uniqueness of Lamanai because it was inhabited for around 3,000 and over. The highest peak of the Lamanai was about the 6th to the 7th century A.D. even though at the 10th century A.D., they were performing sacrificial rites. There were still offerings to the Gods and what makes Lamanai unique, is that when other city states were falling into decline, Lamanai was still going on strong."
Lamanai is located on 950 acres of archeological reserve and features more than a hundred minor structures and over a dozen major ones. This ruin called the
Although not half as fantastic as it must have been in ancient times, when men, women, and children crowded the market place exchanging exotic goods from all over the Maya world.
In the game, warriors competed to win the honour of being sacrificed on the high altar, so that their blood could renew the life of the Sun God. Life at Lamanai was highly organised and the people were self sufficient, though shells, jade and clay found in the area indicate plenty of outside contact.
In its own way, the ornate craftsmanship of the brick and ironwork is as much a wonder as the limestone and mortar ten centuries earlier. The English mill, the Spanish church and the Maya temples have created an attraction for tourists that is among
A number of companies operate tours to Lamanai. Most boats leave from the
Lamanai is an ancient Maya center known to have been occupied continuously for two millennia (approximately 300 B.C. - AD. 1680). Narrowly stretched along the west bank of the New River Lagoon, Lamanai illustrates an unusual settlement pattern among Maya sites. Usually built as one or more ceremonial plazas encircled by residential clusters, Lamanai ceremonial areas are close to the river with residential areas to the north, west, and south. To date, only 5% of the site has been investigated (by Dr. David M. Pendergast of the
Because of the late occupation, the site's name - "Lamanay" or "Lamayna"- was recorded by Franciscan missionaries in the seventeenth century and is thus the original Maya name. In 1978 it was realized that Lama'an/ayin means "Submerged Crocodile", a fact which, as archaeologist David Pendergast points out, helps to explain the numerous crocodile representations at the site, including figurine headdresses, vessel decorations and the headdress of a four metre-high limestone mask on the platform of a 6th century temple.
From that time the story of the site has been revealed by archaeologists digging through the layers of the past to unearth early structures beneath later ones: buried deep within the 6th century masked temple mentioned before was a small, superbly preserved Late Preclassic temple dating from c. 100 B.C. with plaster masks resembling those from Cerros. The massive NIO-43 is of the same date but it too had been modified several times, the last being in the Late Classic, c. 600 A.D.
Late in the Classic Period the northern parts of the site appear to have been de-sacralized: areas of formerly ceremonial ground were converted for residential use, while the southern sector became the focus of ceremonial activity. In the southern sector, Classic structures were surmounted by Postclassic ceremonial buildings and new religious structures were erected. Plausibly the smaller, less spectacular nature of the Postclassic structures reflects a lessening supply of labour and a less hierarchical society than that of the Classic.
In addition to its Maya structures Lamanai also has historic archaeological remains including two 16th century Christian churches, a 19th century sugar mill intact with flywheel and boiler, and a sunken, bricklaid reservoir. Occupation of Lamanai over the centuries thus includes Maya of all periods, British sugar cane growers and sugar manufacturers, Spanish clergy and Chinese factory workers. European, North American and Maya materials were used here so that Lamanai artifacts are of stone, clay, wood, bone, shell, jade, gold, copper, glass, iron and even liquid mercury.
Generally, site occupation during the Protoclassic Period was developed and extensive. Residential and ceremonial concentration was in the northern precinct and the lagoon shore. The Protoclassic is characterized by diversity in architectural form in contrast to the rigidity of control shown in ceramics and the general nature of dedicatory offerings.
The Classic Period ceremonial constructions are concentrated more toward the central area; however, there was continued construction in the northern precinct and new construction in the southern area. The residential area in the northern precinct continued to be in use.
It appears that many were leaving these northern centers toward the end of the Late Classic Period, but there was continued Classic Construction in the southern precinct. Motifs developed here before the 12th century were later adopted at Mayapan, a large Yucatan Maya center occupied from 1200 - 1750 A.D.
The Postclassic Period was generally a time of gradual decline, however, the population at Lamanai was ceremonially active and in communication with other areas of the Maya lowlands. This indicates that the complete breakdown of Classic societies, as is characteristic of neighboring centers, was not the case here. Lamanai stability may be a result of strong community leaders or due to the resources of its location; such as food supplier and trade.
In the early 16th century, Spanish missionaries arrived and built a church south of the southern precinct. The community also moved south either before or after the Spanish came. Modem squatters live in scattered settlements along the lagoon.
N9-56, the dominant structure of the central ceremonial precinct, stands 56 feet high. This is the most thoroughly investigated of the larger buildings at Lamanai and spans a longer period of time than most. The primary structure, built during the Early Classic Period, is exceptionally well-preserved with architectural features such as corner stairs and molding free terraces. Dating is based on a vessel in the interment at the base of the structure, at the front of the stairs. Although not unique to Lamanai construction or grave content, it represents a major deviation from typical Maya tombs which usually consisted of a vaulted chamber with or without a bench on which the body was lain. A grave of similar construction was found at Cuello and was dated 200-300 A.D., much earlier than the 400700 A.D. date indicated at Lamanai.
The tomb at Lamanai was constructed on the floor atop a pile of burned wooden artifacts. The body was positioned upon the pile so that the hips rested in a larger redware basalridge dish, while stones and earth supported the upper body in the unburned area. A wall of stone and clay underlaid the burned material and surrounded the body to a height of 11 inches. A red pigment was applied to the corpse and then layered with clay. The area was then filled with such artifacts as wooden-backed jade ear ornaments carved with human faces, wooden figurines with jade ear ornaments, and platted and corded textiles. A wooden framework was built atop the foundation and covered with lime plaster bandages made of a course textile, creating a cocoon effect. Fine red textiles overlay the courser material. Mortar and stone was then built around the cocoon with a row of capstones, covered in a mass of chert chips, obsidian flake blades and cores.
It was customary to raze structures before modification. The two-chambered building that once stood atop this structure was destroyed, leaving only the building layout in black paint on the platform surface, a feature seen at
When razed, certain parts of units were destroyed or left in place, often creating problems for engineers of the new structure. The remaining units, in this case, are large, unusual masks on the stairside outsets on the south side of the structure. Unfortunately, the upper mask was removed during construction, so only the back panel remains. The lower mask resembles Olmec (an influential
Masks partially excavated on the north side closely resemble those at Cerros. These features reinforce the theory that the correct name of the site is "Lama'an/ayin."
Crocodiles occupied an exalted place in the Maya pantheon and it is believed they were protected rather than offered in religious rites since no interment has included crocodilian remains.
Use of N9-56 during the Late Classic Period was inferred by Mayapan type figurine censers, broken and scattered over the front, sides and back of the mound in the customary ritual manner. This debris overflowed in front of this structure, onto a group of small low platforms (N9-56) built during the Late Classic Period. The platforms were faced with vertical stones and coated in stucco. The central platform was built to support a Classic Period stela (a dedicatory monolith), relocated here from an unknown location in the Late Classic Period. Its carved side once faced an uncarved, relocated stela to its south.
9-2 is an isolated major building on the lagoon north of the N9-56 group, and has expanded our information concerning Protoclassic use for the area. The platform contained two offerings resembling those from N9-56 platform and indicate a 1st century A.D. date. The P9-2 platform itself does not appear to have supported a chambered structure. similar to P9-2, in that there was no chambered building atop its center. Unlike P9-2 there was a building on the extension which overlooked the harbor.
P9-25 is the largest complex at the northern end of the site. A platform 297 x 363 x 59 feet supported buildings 30 feet high. Final modification occurred around 400 A.D. but earlier constructions are indicated; a project for future excavations.
The harbor is now seen as a large depression. The rational behind calling this a harbor rests partly on its shape and that it holds water during the rainy season. (Excavation is now, under consideration.) In areas bordering the harbor, there is ceramic evidence of Late Protoclassic construction.
N10-43 is the tallest structure at Lamanai. Reaching 33 meters, its building sequence is the most securely dated Preclassic structure in the Maya area. Plastered surfaces and hearths indicate residential use of N10-43 before it was chosen as a ceremonial site.
A second century B.C. construction offering from within the building contained a redware dish with flaring sides. Inside the vessel was a juvenile bird skeleton with its beak and frontal skull missing as well as the bones from one or more other birds. The bulk of construction was completed in the Protoclassic Period. An early version of the Lamanai building type is characterized by a large multi-terraced platform, without a chambered building at its summit. Masks flank the lower center and side stairs where there is a large landing that supported a platform which served as a base for a chambered structure. Three sets of stairs (referred to as a tripartite pattern) were built both at the lower and upper levels to scale the side of the building. Atop the upper stairs were two small chambered buildings built upon double terraced platforms which face inward toward a third unit. This unit also has a tripartite pattern of steps flanked by masks, but there is no structure at its summit. This upper structure arrangement is unique at Lamanai though the tripartite stairs are typical Classic innovations. An offering of ceramic vessels within the building suggests a date of 100 B.C.
During the Late Classic Period, N10-43 was drastically reconstructed. A long, single room building which spans the first landing replaced the small structure mentioned above. The tripartite stairs on all three levels were made one and the summit structure was removed.
An offering consisted of obsidian cores, thousands of blades and chips, jade, shells, and a large black on red bowl probably related to those found in N10-9. N10-43 continued to be used during the Postclassi