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XUNANTUNICH-Cayo District, Belize
Xunantunich, “Maiden of the Rock/Stone Woman”, is a Middle Classic (400-600 A.D.) archaeological zone located in the western part of Belize along the border with Guatemala. It is situated on a high ridge overlooking the Mopan River. This strategic location allowed for the control of trade along this important river, and through the adjoining valley.
Xunantunich is set within a tropical forest preserve with a compact core center. The extent of the entire site has been determined to be about 3 sq miles/7 sq kms.
The site is easily reached from Belize City or Orange Walk by the Western Highway to San Ignacio. From there it is about 8 miles/ 13 kms to San Jose Sucozt. To enter the site the river needs to be crossed by means of a whimsical, hand operated cable ferry.
HOURS: 8 A.M-5 P.M.
ENTRANCE FEE: U.S. $5/BZD $10
SERVICES: Visitor center, bathrooms, and drinking water. The small village of San Jose Sucozt is across the river.
ON-SITE MUSEUM: No
ACCOMMODATIONS: None on-site. Food and lodging can be found in San Ignacio, and Orange Walk Town.
GPS: 17d 06' 00" N, 89d 08' 08" W
HISTORY AND EXPLORATION
Xunantunich had its beginnings in the Late Pre Classic (300 B.C.-200 A.D.). The site began to expand in the Early Classic (200-600 A.D), and grew in importance as a commercial center since it controlled the trade along the river and through the adjoining valley.
Although there have been a number of stelae (carved stone markers) located here, the historical record is sparse. A stela recovered here has a late date recording a Katun ending on 10.1.0.0.0, November 28, 849 A.D. It is thought that Xunantunich may have benefited with the arrival of nobles from Naranjo when that city experienced a decline. The site was occupied into the Terminal Classic (900-1200 A.D).
Xunantunich was first reported on by Thomas Gann in the 1890’s. There followed explorations and excavations by Eric Thompson in the 1930’s, and later by A.H. Anderson, Linton Satterthwaite, Euan Mackie, and Peter Schmidt. Dr. Jaime Awe of the Belize Institute of Archaeology has been over-seeing some of the current investigations.
The ceremonial, civic, and residential areas of Xunantunich are composed of four main groups arranged around several plazas. These contain over two dozen pyramids, temples, palaces, and other structures, and are aligned on a north/south axis. A number of burials have been uncovered through excavation work. The rain forest is a very dominant feature here with the bare minimum cut back to be able to observe the structures. Many of the structures still remain to be excavated.
Group A contains the most important structures at the site. It is the ceremonial and civic heart of the city.
Structure A6 is known as “El Castillo”. This is a large pyramidal structure that reaches a height of 130 feet/40 meters, and is the tallest structure at the site. Its summit, which houses two temples, has a commanding view over the Mopan River Valley and on into Guatemala. A broad stairway leads up from the plaza to a terrace which at one point contained small temple structures. Further up are two larger temple structures that designate different construction phases. The lower of the two temples was constructed around 800 A.D., and contains the remains of an elaborate frieze that once wrapped around the temple. Only the east façade remains intact. It has astronomical associations including references to the Sun, Moon, and Venus.
In the center of the main plaza in front of El Castillo is a truncated pyramid. This structure is partially restored and rises up on four tiers with a double central stairway. The remains of a temple are located at the top. On both the east and west sides of the plaza are rectangular platforms with temple structures in various states of excavation and restoration.
Further to the north is Structure A-3. This structure consists of a raised platform containing a courtyard surrounded by small temples on the east and west side, and a larger truncated pyramid with a central stairway on the north side.
Behind the west plaza temple structure is the site’s main ball court. This structure is unrestored. Behind the ball court and to the north is Group B.
Group B is a residential section in a partially excavated condition. Groups C and D are south of El Castillo and are also considered residential sectors, and have received little excavation or restoration.