A Legacy in Stone
Modern Maya archeology emerged from the expeditions of John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood between 1839 and 1842. Their discovery of ruined cities in the jungles of Mesoamerica caught the imagination of the academic world and began the search to unlock the mystery of the Maya. Belize forms part of the Mundo Maya, which stretches from southern Mexico down through Central America. Belize’s ounce large Mayan population (estimated at over 1 million), along with findings like Caracol’s military victory over the mighty city of Tikal in Guatemala, have led archeologists to conclude that Belize was a major political power in the Mayan world. Ounce part of large ceremonial and trading centers, temples now lay silent surrounded by dense jungle. As you walk through the plazas you will learn of a culture rooted in gods, war and sacrifice; while climbing the taller temples yields spectacular views. It is helpful to visualize what they would have looked like at the peak of Mayan civilization (Classic Period 250-900 AD). Imagine replacing the surrounding jungle with wide open areas of farmland, roads and public plazas, with the temples plastered and painted in various colors. Today, many are part of natural reserves, harboring lush vegetation, birds and wildlife.
At the end of the Classic Period, the Maya abandoned their great cities leaving them exposed to the corroding elements of nature. Theories abound, but no one really knows for sure what halted the progress of their civilization. The Cayo district has many ruins. Caracol is Belize’s largest site which toppled the mighty city of Tikal in neighboring Guatemala, shutting it down for 130 years. Xunantunich lays on top of a limestone ridge overlooking the Mopan River Valley and Guatemala’s Peten forests. Its tallest temple, El Castillo, is 135 feet and features a hieroglyphic frieze. Tikal, in neighboring Guatemala, can also be visited from here. It is one of the most impressive ruins of the Maya world, with 3,000 excavated structures and 250 mapped stelae. Lamanai lays in the Orange Walk district, nestled beside the New River Lagoon. Its High Temple is the largest Pre Classic structure of the entire Maya world. Unlike other sites, it was still occupied when the Spanish arrived, as evidenced by 2 Christian church ruins. North of Belize City lays Altun Ha, the most well excavated site in the country. It was here that the solid jade head of the sun god Kinich Ahau was excavated. Lubaantun lays in Punta Gorda and features a unique architecture with terraces and rounded corners. The mysterious crystal skull was excavated here.
The country’s Mayan archaeological sites are a reminder that within these primeval jungles, there ounce existed a great civilization that reached its glory when Paris was just a small village. This was a cultural florescence that lasted longer than the Roman Empire. Carefully observing the tropical sky, the Maya developed a series of complex calendars based on the movement of the sun, moon and planets. They meshed together in a continuous system of cycles used for agricultural, religious and political purposes. They invented the concept of zero and made astonishing advancements in math and science. War and sacrifice were a religious and cultural imperative sustaining their gods and ensuring the continuation of the agricultural cycle. The Maya carved stone monuments called stele, inscribing them with sensational stories of war and peace. One of only five complete writing systems developed in world history, the hieroglyphic writing system the Maya devised was ingenious. They not only recorded calendrical, astronomical and religious information, but their history as well. And while it took more than 100 years to crack the Maya code, today the names of rulers, dates and achievements can be unearthed and recorded in history. Although the collapse of their civilization is still a mystery, the Maya are still very much alive in Belize today. Composed of 3 distinct lineages: Kechi, Mopan and Yucatecan, they still preserve their unique languages and cultural heritage.
Many of Belize’s Mayan ruins remain unexcavated and archeologists continue their research. For example, only a small part of the 177 square kilometers that make up Caracol has been mapped, identifying 5,000 of an estimated 36,000 structures. According to John Morris, an archeologist with Belize’s Institute of Archeology, a lifetime of exploration remains to be done on this site alone. La Milpa, in the Orange Walk district, is mostly unexcavated and covered in jungle. It is the third largest site in the country and believed to have rivaled the mighty city of Tikal in neighboring Guatemala in size and power. Archeologists mapping the site have identified 24 plazas, about 85 major structures and many stelae. Funding and planning for archeology is a lengthy process, one which looters use to their advantage. Tunnels left on temples are often found, dug by looters in search of artifacts to sell in the Pre-Colombian black market. As new findings are made, the history of the Maya develops new depth. Archeologists, ethnologists, art historians and linguists continue to unravel the ongoing mystery with constant new discoveries of temples and artifacts, each with a story to tell.