Ancient Maya citadel discovered in Belize is an anomaly
Many centuries ago on the border of Belize and Guatemala, Maya people built a large city surrounded by a cultivated jungle garden that was home to around 20,000 people, which archaeologists call El Pilar. They had large structures, including palaces and pyramids, and paved their plazas in lime plaster to divert rainwater into reservoirs. Archaeologists using lasers from the air have recently identified a fortress-like structure nearby covered by vegetation.
Using Light Detection and Ranging lasers from a helicopter, archaeologists have identified a citadel-type structure now forested over near the ruins of El Pilar. Though a team of archaeologists has been studying the ruins for more than 20 years, this fortress 600 meters (656 yards) away from the edge of the main town was unknown until they started using LiDAR to study the landscape a couple of years ago.
The Maya began building monumental structures at El Pilar about 800 BC. The ruins of the stone buildings are largely covered over by forest except a house called the Hummingbird. Archaeologists have been allowing the ruins to stay forested over to preserve them while carefully digging and exposing structures in limited areas.
Archaeologists working at the site are trying to gain an understanding of the lives of the everyday people, as opposed to the elites and rulers. One fact they’ve discovered at El Pilar is that the residents fed themselves in part through what is called “forest garden” agriculture, where the forest itself is cultivated.
The Maya house site Tzunu’un, which means means “hummingbird” in Mayan (Congobongo1041/ Wikimedia Commons )
The new discovery in Belize is somewhat of an anomaly compared to the other monuments that have already been studied in the area.
“We discovered a completely new component of the greater site that does not meet with any traditional expectations,” Anabel Ford of the University of California-Santa Barbara, the lead archaeologist, told Popular Archaeology . “It shares nothing in common with Classic Maya centers: no clear open plaza, no cardinal structure orientation, and curiously no evident relationship to the major Classic site of El Pilar, little more than 600 meters away.”
The endangered species of Brosimum Alicastrum tree or Maya nut tree provides a nutritious nut or seed. The Maya people of the area grew a forest garden that provided bountiful food to the Mayan city of El Pilar, which once had 20,000 residents. (Congobongo1041/ Wikimedia Commons )
Ford calls the structure on a nearby hill the Citadel because of its fortress-like construction. It has concentric terraces, arranged as if in defensive fortifications. Also in the Citadel are four buildings that the archaeologists call temples, each about 3 to 4 meters (3.3 to 4.4 yards) tall. The era of construction will remain unknown until archaeologists excavate it and examine ceramics and do C14 dating of organic materials around the ruins. Ford said it would take one season to determine whether the ruins are from the pre-Classic period prior to 250 BC, the Classic period of 200 to 1000 AD or the post-Classic era after 1200 AD.
- Maya Water Temple Complex discovered where ritual offerings were made to placate the Rain God
- Ancient Maya Altars, Sculpted Artwork Discovered in Guatemala
- Pre-Maya hunters and farmers may have collaborated in building temples
El Pilar is on the border of western Belize and northeastern Guatemala. It is the largest Maya site identified in the Belize River area. It has hundreds of structures, including 25 plazas. Centuries after construction began around 800 BC more than 20,000 people lived in the city, which covers 120 acres, the article in Popular Archaeology states.
Ford wrote an article for Popular Archaeology about El Pilar a couple of years ago in which she said: “With the exception of a fully exposed Maya house structure, pyramidal temples appear as hills covered with vegetation and trees, ball courts are still disguised like natural extensions of the jungle landscape, and elite residential buildings are detectable only as mere rises beneath the forest canopy. But this is not because archaeologists have not had the opportunity to excavate the site like they have at the famous tourist-draws of Tikal or Caracol. It is actually by design.”
“At El Pilar, conservation is foremost, and the concept, known as ‘Archaeology Under the Canopy’ says that the monuments are best protected beneath the forest foliage. The objective is thus to selectively and partially expose only strategic areas, features that would visually demonstrate essential knowledge about the site. In addition, in keeping with the focus at El Pilar on researching Maya lifeways (as opposed to the lives and remains of rulers and elites), the site is both an open-air laboratory and showcase for learning about and demonstrating the traditional Maya agricultural practice of forest gardening, a methodology for sustainability thought to be a key to the prosperity and florescence of the Maya civilization.”
An example of Archaeology Under the Canopy in Plaza Axcanan at El Pilar. Notice the partial exposure of the outer wall of the monument, while the inner walls are protected by the thatched roof. The rest of the monument is protected by plant foliage and soil so it will be preserved for future generations. ( Wikimedia Commons )
Before finding the Citadel, archaeologists had identified three large sections of architecture at El Pilar, one in Guatemala and two in Belize. Nohol Pilar in Belize has a plastered plaza called Plaza Copal of more than 1.5 acres. Around it are four large pyramids and a ball court. An elite residential area is at the south. Entrances to the plaza are from the north via a staircase and from the south via a ramp. The area called Xaman Pilar in Belize has a maze of plazas, palace structures, stairways, pyramids and underground tunnels.
Nohol Pilar is connected to Pilar Poniente in Guatemala by a system of plazas and causeways. Pilar Poniente also has a great pyramid and ball court and large plazas.
The people of El Pilar paved the plazas in lime plaster to divert rainwater to reservoirs.
“Surrounding the monumental ‘downtown’ district was a large population living in residential compound,” wrote D. Clarence Wernecke, a participant in the studies at El Pilar, in an article at Belize First . Archaeologists have found nearly 540 structures per square mile. Working with conservation experts under the direction of the Belize Department of Archaeology, they have found unique and representative Maya architecture, including part of a Maya palace, a temple-pyramid and an arched underground tunnel made form stone. The Maya lived in scattered, small compounds that had significant areas with no construction in them.
“It is our belief that the Maya practiced a special kind of polyculture, raising a number of intermingled crops around their homes,” Wernecke wrote. “This has been called ‘forest garden’ agriculture. The area around Tzunu'un has been carefully pruned and weeded to promote the type of tree, bush and root crops that the Maya would have utilized and other plants have been brought in to complete the forest garden.”
Maya nut or Ramon nut on the forest floor at El Pilar (Congobongo1041/ Wikimedia Commons )
Featured image: This Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) image shows the outlines of the central area of Pilar. At far right is the Citadel. (see below for a detail of the Citadel) (BRASS/El Pilar image)
By Mark Miller