5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Xunantunich

Perched on the ridge top sits the ancient city of Xunantunich, overlooking the Mopan River Valley.  From this vantage point, it sees forests, farmland and modern-day communities. Located in western Belize, approximately 2 miles from the Guatemalan border, it is visited by people from all over the world on a daily basis and is one of the top most visited destinations in Belize.  The towering building dubbed “El Castillo” stands 130 feet from the plaza floor and was a palace used by the elite family.  There are also several temples used for ritual and ceremonial gatherings.  Xunantunich hides many secrets that are discovered by archaeologists every year.  Some of these discoveries gain momentum and get international attention, making their way into local news and international magazines, but unfortunately some of them get lost and forgotten over time.  Today, I bring to you five things you probably didn’t know about Xunantunich.

  1. The Ball Court Hoop

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Ball courts were used by the ancient maya to play their ballgame and are made of two buildings  resting parallel, alined north to south, with a playing alley between them.  There are several versions of how this game was played, but the original maya version of the central lowlands is the art of controlling a rubber ball with their bodies.  The ball itself was made from a long strip of cloth soaked in the resin of the rubber tree and bounced from player to player.  To gain points, the ball was kicked across the court towards the other team.  If the ball was not received by that team or it went out of control, then the point was obtained by the team who kicked the ball.  The ball court at Xunantunich is the only one known in Belize to have implemented the hoops to its court.  This idea was of external origins, likely from the Toltecs, with whom the Maya traded, and were implemented very late, around 900 A.D., when other sites were being abandoned.  That is one of the reasons why it was not adapted by other sites.  To score points in this new version, the ball would be kicked through the hoop.

2) Patolli Graffiti

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The patolli is a board game that was played by many people of Mesoamerica, like the Aztecs, Toltecs and Maya, thus, there are several variations of this game.  The game consists of checkered spaces arranged in the shape of a cross, X shape, square, and sometimes even circular shape, that was drawn on hide, incised onto wooden benches and scratched onto stucco plaster.  The game is heavily based on gambling and the objective of the game is to get all your game pieces, grain of corn or black beans, but sometimes jade, across to the other side of the board.  The first to do so won the round. Several patolli game boards have been found at Xunantunich over the years, scratched on the plaster of the floor or on the benches. In 2003 excavations Dr. Yaeger found one to the north of the site in plaza 3. Another one was previously found on a building located on the west side of “El Castillo” and now another just this past summer of 2017, incised on the plaster of a newly consolidated building on the north side of the site.

3) Site Location

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Why did the people of Xunantunich choose to build their city on top of the ridge?  Is it possible that they felt closer to the Gods?  If that is so, why didn’t they build it to the south in the Vaca plateau, which is in view from the top of the tallest building at Xunantunich?  There is no single answer to this question, but a combination of human behaviors that can give us the answer we seek.  Although the ridge where Xunantunich sits is not the highest, it can be seen from everywhere, telling us that they were not hiding, but rather that they wanted to be seen.  They wanted everyone to know where the powerful people lived.  The ridge is also located a mile from the Mopan River, which makes it a strategic location for trade.  Merchants would bring their products for trade from the coast, like salt, preserved fish and products from further inland of Guatemala, such as ceramics, textile and jade.  The ridge also creates a natural defense by way of a very steep slope on the western side of the site, thus allowing the maya to limit their entrances from the east via two causeways.

4) Human Remains at Floor Level

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Finding human remains at Maya sites is nothing new.  Archaeologists have been finding them on sites for the past hundred years.  There are classic burials in the core of the temples where the maya buried their elites, and also terminal burials where some maya people returned to bury their dead in random locations after the city was abandoned.  In at least few instances, human remains have been found at floor level.  If these remains would be below the floors or within the walls, there would be a definition for them, but these remains were found with no grave goods and not positioned in a ritualistic way.  In the early 1960s, Euan MacKie, Ph. D., when excavating at Xunantunich on a building near the south east entrance, discovered human remains at ground level.  The remains that were found was a headless human body, and he never found the head anywhere in that building.  In 2004, Jason Yaeger, Ph. D., also found human remains at ground level in a building at the north end of the site.  It is possible that these remains are evidence of an uprising just before abandonment of the city.  These people may have been attacked and killed in their homes while other people destroyed the roof of the building.  The rubble would then fall on top of their remains, thus preserving them.

5) Spheres

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Carved stones have been found in many, if not all, Maya sites.  Although these stones are documented, most of them go unmentioned, or not fully investigated.  These stones have a round or sphere shape.  They are made from limestone or granite and are found either as a single stone or in pairs.  Its function currently remains unknown, but they may have been used in rituals.  There was only one other culture that made spheres and they were obsessed with making them, and that was the Diquis culture of Costa Rica.  They carved from very large boulders to tiny pebbles.  It is also unknown for what purpose they used those spheres, and it is not believed that the maya had contact with this culture group.  In 1938, Dr. Eric Thompson identified two of these stones at Xunantunich.  They are located to the west of the site core and are made of granite.

Xunantunich is still hiding many of its secrets, and archaeologists have only scratched its surface.  We will wait to see and hear what new discoveries archaeologist will uncover this year, and in many years to come.

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