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A view across the main plaza of Xunantunich to El Castillo

Tomb of a Possible Royal Found at Ancient Maya Site of Xunantunich in Belize

Much of the legacy and wealth of the ancient Maya city of Xunantunich in Belize was dispersed by a British medical officer who excavated (some would say looted) it in the 19 th century, but last week archaeologists discovered a large tomb, possibly of a royal person.

This is the first tomb discovered at Xunantunich. It contains the skeleton of a person to whom reverence apparently was shown in the tomb’s construction, writes The Reporter newspaper of Belize. In the tomb, archaeologists found ceramics, jade stones and the bones of an animal, which they say may have been a jaguar or deer based on its long femurs.

Experts examined the human skeleton’s femurs and the appearance of the skull and teeth to determine he was a man around age 20 to 30.

Archaeologist Jaime Awe is on the team conducting the excavations and told The Reporter:

‘What’s amazing about the discovery of this tomb is that, we know that archaeologists have been working at Xunantunich since the 1890s. That’s more than a century of continuous archaeological work at the site. And, never before have we found a tomb. Well, this tomb is also remarkable in other ways, it is one of the largest burial chambers we have ever found.’

The team has to fully excavate the tomb, but preliminary investigation shows it measures between 5 and 8 meters (16.4 to 26.25 feet) deep.

Local legends say a mysterious woman appeared in the late 1800s to a man of the nearby village of San Jose Succotz and then disappeared into a wall at El Castillo, a towering ancient building. Xunantunich, a modern name, means Stone Woman. She has reportedly appeared to others at El Castillo.

In 1892 Dr. Thomas Gann, a British medical officer began exploring the site. He excavated for some years then left it for a time.

“After this, activities at the site were abandoned until 1924, with the return of Gann,” says an article written by Dr. Awe on Belize.com. “Records show that in his second visit, he unearthed much Maya treasures, history of which have been lost and the whereabouts unknown. It is believed and quite possible that many museums and private collectors of Maya Artifacts are displaying these items, with no idea of their origin.”

Excavations of the site, which flourished around 700 to 1000 AD and then declined, came and went over the years. Since 1990 Richard Leventhal of the University of California at Los Angeles has been conducting excavations.

A rich legacy of artifacts was taken from the site in the late 19 th and early 20 th centuries. This man-jaguar from a Mexican Maya site shows the type of thing that may be in collections dispersed around the world. ( Wikimedia Commons photo /Jebulon)

Xunantunich sits on an artificially leveled limestone ridge about 183 meters (600 feet) above sea level. Dwellings extended out from this central area, which houses El Castillo, for several square kilometers. El Castillo itself, at 40 meters (131 feet) tall was a shrine, administrative hub and home for the rulers of Xunantunich, says Belize.com. On the eastern and western summits of El Castillo are large stucco friezes with carvings of astronomical symbols representing the sun god the moon and Venus.

Some of the fascinating carvings on the summit of El Castillo

Some of the fascinating carvings on the summit of El Castillo ( Wikimedia Commons photo /Roy Googin)

People possibly settled the site as early as 600 BC, but it did not reach its zenith for about 1,300 years, when many Maya cities in the region were declining.

A stela that appears to show the emblem of the large city of Naranjo in what is now Guatemala suggests Xunantunich was a satellite of Naranjo. The influence and authority of Naranjo waned, then the elites of Xunantunich possibly gained control of their city and made efforts to improve it. There was major construction on El Castillo and other buildings.

“Despite their rapid rise, however, the Xunantunich lineage was not to outlast their former Naranjo patrons by much,” Belize.com says.

Development slowed after 830 AD, and by 900 to 1000 Xunantunich was nowhere near what it had been in the 8 th and 9 th centuries. Archaeologists have tentatively concluded that the city was reoccupied in the 10 th century after being abandoned for a time.

The site now has a visitor’s center.

Top image: A view across the main plaza of Xunantunich to El Castillo ( Flickr photo /Thomas Shahan)

By Mark Miller

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