Local legend tells of a beautiful Maya maiden dressed in traditional garb appearing to a local hunter in the 1800's. She was illuminated by rays of light as she beckoned him into the mouth of a large cavern. Frightened, the man ran back to his village. Since then, many locals claim to have seen the apparition but none dare to enter the cavern that is now identified as the largest structure of Xunantunich (shoe-nan-too-nich) or 'Maiden of the Stone.'

Xunantunich, Maiden of the Stone

The ancient Maya city is situated 600 feet above sea level on a limestone ridge near the Guatemalan border. Habitation began as early as 1000 B.C.E. remaining a small village until the Late Classic period. Between 700-900 A.D., the site became one of the most important centers in the upper Belize River Valley. During this transformation, the largest buildings were constructed.

Xunantunich, Belize, The Botanical Journey

Looking south from Plaza A-3 across A-1 to the largest building, el Castillo.

The Castillo is the largest building standing over 130 feet tall. An archeological investigation reveals several phases of construction. There are no actual temples in the Castillo. Researchers believe the multi-room structure to be a palace where the elite lived and held court. A stairway leads to 7 terraces and 13 doorways, a symbolic  representation of  the levels of Maya heaven. During its occupation, the palace was adorned by large stucco friezes or sculptures in stone. Only a few remain.

Stairway to Maya Heaven, Xunantunich, Belize

Stairway to Maya Heaven

Xunantunich, Belize, The Botanical Journey

The western frieze of el Castillo

The western frieze of the Castillo symbolically represents the Maya World Tree and the feet of a ruler on his throne. The introductory photograph to this blog post is the eastern frieze with the rain god Chaac (middle) and other Maya astrological symbols such as the 'U' for the god of the moon. While occupied, the Palace would have been completely covered in brightly painted limestone and sculptures.

View from the Top, Xunantunich, The Botanical Journey, Belize

View from the Top looking North.

The surrounding 2-mile radius was inhabited by more than a million Maya at the height of occupation. In 800-900 A.D., many Central American Maya sites were abandoned for the Yucatan due to economic or ecological forces. Although the population decreased dramatically at Xunantunich, the site remained a small settlement into the late Postclassic Maya, 1100 A.D. Many of the larger buildings were closed off and inhabitants lived among the smaller dwellings and later visitation was for ritual purposes only. While standing atop of the Castillo and observing the 360-degree view of the vast surrounding sky, I realized that the heavens were the entertainment to the Maya. Similar to our large movie screens, the people gathered to watch celestial events unfold nightly in the sky. The Maya were stargazers, astronomers, and mathematicians correctly calculating the solar and lunar calendar while accurately predicting the past and future galactic events. The Earth was a layer in the cosmos and the heavens above communicated to the world of the living. The Maya World Tree is a reflection of their beliefs as is the architecture of the ruin cities.

Maya World Tree in Museum on Site, Xunantunich, Belize, The Botanical Journey

Maya World Tree, museum at Xunantunich

In college, I studied the Maya and other MesoAmerican cultures. One of my favorite subjects was archeology. Well, to be more exact the exams were my favorite, not so much the painstaking literature. In the Xunantunich museum, I was reminded of those tests. In class, we were given a map of the strata or rock layers and had to identify the artifacts in each layer and how they came to rest. This is a great example of an archeology exam.

This is a much more simplified version but the exams were like a fun mystery puzzle.

This is a much more simplified version. The exams were like a fun mystery puzzle. We had to write an essay about our understanding of the site, such as why is strata J in strata S. Except the exam would only denote the findings and age of the artifacts in strata S were of J origin, why?

I once asked my dad if he could be anything, what would he be? He said an archeologist. Me too! I guess an Anthropologist is a close second. Thus this blog, The Botanical Journey. As always we hope you enjoy our weekly adventures. The above information can be referenced at The Belize Institute of Archeology website To learn more about the spectacular ruins at Xunantunich visit http://nichbelize.org/ia-maya-sites/xunantunich.html

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