While other great cites around it continued to descend into a collapse, the classical city of Xunantunich made a mark with its continued development through history. This late classical destination is popular for its history of a vibrant society and the highest structure ever to be built by man, which has been preserved by nature over a period of 1400 years in the modern day city of Belize. The Xunantunich Mayan ruins hold a special place in history and today they are just as popular as one of the most mythically interesting and architecturally diverse natural tourist spots.
The story behind the name “Xunantunich”
The name “Xunantunich” has been derived from the lyrical language of the Yucatan Mayans and it can be loosely translated to “Stone Woman”. The mystery behind this quite unusual name also heightens the overall impression of these famous ruins in Belize.
The story goes that in the late 1800’s, a local man from San Jose Succotz Belize went wandering near the site of these ruins in search of fresh hunt for his table. When he was just crossing the foundation of the Castillo, he looked up to suddenly see a dazzlingly beautiful maiden appear near the mouth of a particular cave, which was known to be extending well beneath the large Castillo structure.
The man was struck by the amazingly statuesque presence of the woman. It is said the woman was so incredibly sunning she rendered the man speechless. She was dressed in the traditional attire of the Huipil and Pik. She also seemed to be growing with translucence in the direct rays of the sun. The man was overwhelmed by the sight and he threw aside his gun and ran in a panic down the hill back to the village. He recounted the tale to the other villagers who hiked up the hill with their native priest to find the woman.
However, on arriving at the same site marked by the large mound right at the mouth of the cavern, they could not find the stone maiden again. However, local legend holds throughout the years that the woman has made an appearance several times to several other people through the years. Yet, no one has been able to follow the maiden back through the mouth of the cave in to the tunnel.
Unsurprisingly, this immensely romantic and mystical local legend fuels a lot of interest from tourists coming in from all over the world. Every year a whole flock of people takes it upon themselves to test out if they can see the stone maiden or find the courage to follow the tunnel through the mouth of the cavern. However, apart from the myths and legends, the Xunantunich Mayan ruins have also contributed immensely to the rebuilding of the history of the city through a variety of quite valuable archeological treasures unearthed from within the ruins.
Xunantunich- The glowing resource for archaeological treasures through time
First explored for archaeological remains during the 1800’s, Xunantunich has since remained a rich resource for a wide range of archaeological treasures that have thrown a clear light on the various lifestyles and historical periods of the Mayan and Yucatan culture of the area. Dr. Thomas Gann, a British explorer and medical officer started the explorations in this area. In 1904, the archaeological site was first photographed as a visual record, which has been displayed n the esteemed Peabody Museum of Archeology situated in Cambridge, Massachusetts for a number of significant years. There was a wide gap of about 20 years post this record during which the site was left alone and no excavation teams were dispatched to further explore and analyze.
However, in 1924, Dr. Gann returned to the area with his team to unearth a wide variety of findings that have been catalogued but it was not possible to trace their exact placement in history. till date a large number f museums around the word and private collectors display parts of these excavated artifacts without any clue to their origin or historical placement except their antique authenticity and their Mayan roots.
In 1990, the University of California under the supervision of Dr. Richard Leventhal started its excavation and restoration project in the area, which is still underway with continuous new artifacts being discovered along the way, which have been duly catalogued and studied under the university’s direction. Quite early, after the project started a complete center for visitors was built in the city, which proudly highlights a model of the actual site, visual records, maps, and graphical visualizations of the significant dates and major events, which led to the gradual development of modern day structure of Xunantunich Mayan ruins in Belize.
Major findings from the area reveal a glorious past for the city of Xunantunich
Each noted artifact or major finding in this area has been thoroughly studied. Some of them have sadly remained without proper back-story to support their place in history. However, some of the major archaeological discoveries in the area have been corroborated, presenting a glorious visualization for life as it might have been during the thriving culture of the Xunantunich.
The plaster Frieze- In the 1900s, a structurally huge plaster frieze was discovered in the area. This structure had sky land frames, and was associated with the huge attainment that used to once encircle the entire El Castillo. A three-dimensional figure seated and flanked by elements which closely resemble leaves and ending in intricate pattern of knots. There are similar knotted patterns depicted on the feet of the seated figure as well. Another figure is shown in a dancing posture holding on to the ropes from the seated figure’s throne. It has been identified that these ropes depict the birthing ropes, which housed to be advanced from the main beams of the houses. They were used by women to center themselves during the birthing process.
A Stela excavated at Xunantunich- The excavation of the stela also revealed the emblem of the glyph which is assumed to be a pattern of the larger Peten city of Naranjo (modern day Guatemala). This association clearly suggests that Xunantunich might have been a satellite city to the larger Peten. However, when the superior authority of the Naranjo started to decline, the elders and elites of the Xunantunich society might have taken over charge and started their overture to develop their city further. This reveals that while most of the their surrounding cities of this region were in the path of decline mostly due to the Terminal classic period of 800-900 AD, the glory and fortune of the city of Xunantunich were continuously developing forward. In fact, the Structure Al, which s the major Castillo in the area was also constructed during this golden period of the city.
Most recent archeological discovery in Xunantunich Mayan ruins at Belize
Xunantunich has remained a favorite for many eminent archeologists, since the area has remained a constant font of discoveries and artifacts. Even this year (2016), Dr. Jamie Awe, NICH with the consistent support of the country of Belize has managed to discover the largest tomb of Belize within the ruins of Xunantunich. The tomb has been declared the largest to be found in the area until date. It has significant skeletal remains of male elite with Mayan or Yucatan roots. The tomb also contains several valuable artifacts, such as personal belongings and jade beads that have been documented and still being studied for corroboration of period and placement in history.
Xunantunich Mayan ruins today – What should modern visitors expect
Today the epic city of Xunantunich is a very popular visitors’ destination. Modern visitors should expect panoramic views and acres of untamed lands to hike around the ruins. The architectural buffs will have a wild time going through the nuances of the Stucco frieze and El Castillo structures, which were built so long ago when even imagining such elaborate structures seems like impossibility.
The most significant ceremonial center within the city is accessible by ferry everyday and it lies at about 11.5 kilometers from the rushing rapids of the Mopan River.
You can also hike or take a conveyance up to the Classical Period site, which offers a stunning view of the entire range and river valley surrounding the city. The core of the main site covers merely 300 meters square. However, the peripheral region of the site covers several miles of untamed lush land.
The El Castillo rises to above 40 meters from the Plaza level. It is the tallest structures in Belize. You can find two major temples on this structure. The Lower Temple encompasses the famous Stucco Frieze. There is a mask, which is a probable representation of the Sun god. The moon sign appears along side of the mask. The moon sign is encompassed with a border of signs, which probably depict Venus.
Tips for visiting the amazing Xunantunich Mayan Temples
The Mayan temples are situated at about 2 hrs. West from Belize City.
About 35-40 minutes from Belize Adventure Inc.
You can enjoy an amazing riverside view with a tour on the specific hand cranked ferry.
The main site is partially accommodating to wheelchairs.
You can shop for souvenirs and special gifts from the main gift shop within the site. Find special stone and wood products with local Mayan influence on the designs.
You can also explore the lush jungles at the foothills of the unspoiled Maya mountains and surrounded by the pristine beauty of the Vaca Lake.
Other surrounding Mayan ruins to the main site include Cahal Pech, Actun Kan, El Pilar, and Caracol plus a cave called Che Chem Ha. All of these sites are easily accessed from your main stay.