Xunantunich Maya Site in Cayo, Belize

by Nelita Castillo
xunantunich

Maiden of the Rock   

In the Maya language, Xunantunich means “maiden of the rock” or “stone woman.” The Xu is pronounced like shoe.  It is situated on the Western or George Price Highway, 80 miles west of Belize City, across the river from the village of San Jose Soccotz. It can be reached by ferry daily between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. This site is less than 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) from some lovely rapids of the Mopan River and provides an impressive view of the entire river valley.

There is a legend from the 1800s which tells of a village gentleman who, while hunting, saw a beautiful Maya woman in traditional dress; her embroidered huipil (wipil). Of course, he approached her, but she quickly disappeared into the cave. After relating the sighting, other villagers, including the priest, returned to the site but saw nothing. Thereafter, there are stories of other villagers who claimed to have seen her, but upon trying to catch up with her, she always disappeared.   

xunantunich

Photo Courtesy: Leonardo Melendez Photography

What You Will See  

Xunantunich consists of six plazas surrounded by more than 26 temples and palaces. The top of El Castillo sits on a limestone cavern and affords a panoramic view of the entire expanse of the ruin and the surrounding jungle.  

Period  

Xunantunich is a Classic Period ceremonial center. The site core occupies 0nly 300 square meters (2,700 square feet) but the periphery covers several square kilometers. In Group A, Structure A-6 (El Castillo) rises 40 meters (130) feet above the plaza level, making it one of the tallest buildings in Belize. On this structure, there are two temples. The lower temple is famous for its large stucco frieze. A mask with larger ears is believed to represent the sun god. Next to this mask, there is a moon sign with a border of signs representing Venus. Data from excavations at Xunantunich suggest that it was successful in the Terminal Classic (A.D. 750-900) period, about the time of the “Maya collapse.” However, at this same time, Tikal, about 48 kilometers (32 miles) away, was already abandoned.   

Group B investigations revealed it to be a Middle Classic residential area. In the 1950s burials were uncovered along with caches that were “donated” to the Cambridge University Museum and the Museum of Volkerunde in Hamburg, Germany. It is also worth mentioning the two major archaeologists who contributed to the excavation and development of Xunantunich. They were Dr. Richard Leventhal of UCLA and Dr. Wendy Ashmore of the University of Pennsylvania. Their work determined the socio-political development of this Maya city as well as the development of the site as a tourist destination.  

What Friezes Revealed  

Excavations were carried out on the southern site which includes a series of plazas, buildings, and a ballcourt. Excavations were also carried out on the west side of El Castillo (the Castle). Moreover, these excavations revealed a monumental plaster frieze with Skyland frames frequently associated with accession. There is a three-dimensional seated figure flanked by leaflike elements terminating in knots. A seated figure, probably a ruler, wears elaborately 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 for women to hold while giving birth.    

xunantunich

Other Excavations  

Other excavations focused on the outlying elite residential plaza Group D. Here a sacbe (white way) running from Group D north was found.  Much consolidation work was also done. Experts were brought in from the Archaeological Institute in Mexico to preserve the plaster frieze uncovered on the west side of El Castillo.   

This site is truly mystical. Furthermore, visit the museum first to see the 3-D model and the relics kept there for preservation. An expert guide will show you perfect paths specifically cleared for visitors, from both the front and side of the temple.  

What to Bring 

We recommend bringing sturdy footwear and hat, also use insect repellent and sunblock, so you can enjoy plentiful your tour. 

Written by Nelita Castillo

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