The Mayans settled alongside the lakes and rivers. Trade flourishes and towering ceremonial centers are raised
The sun rises over the lake and stirs the forest that surrounds Lamanai, while crocodiles lie on the shore. From lake to sea, trade continues in Altun Ha, dedicated to the Sun god. But the largest ceremonial center, and most recondite, is arguably the impressive Caracol, located atop a hill.
For within, the landscape is dominated by the Maya Mountains, where adventure awaits in caves, waterfalls and canyons. An exuberant nature that hides the very high friezes of the temples of Xunantunich on the shores of the Mopan River.
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Cerro Maya, also known as Cerros, was first established in the final part of the Middle Pre-Classic period (600-300 B.C.). The first inhabitants of the area practiced a mixed economy based on agriculture and hunting. They had access to varied resources and, due to their location on the coast and their proximity to the estuary of the Hondo and Nuevo Rivers, Cerros developed rapidly.
In the Late Pre-Classic period, the village transformed into a large city that could control the majority of the local transportation of maritime merchandise (shells, salt, etc.) and maritime imports (such as jade and obsidian) to the interior sites, such as Nohmul and Lamanai. As the city developed commercially, several temples and palaces were built in the center of the site together with a large and extensive canal, in addition to agricultural areas that were built on the periphery. Despite these achievements and for relatively unknown reasons, the site experienced a rapid decline at the start of the Early Classic period. It was not until the Terminal Classic period when its activity in the center was renewed.
The majority of the monumental architecture on the site is found within this area and includes at least four large temples, several palace buildings and two ball courts. The most famous temples of Cerros are found on the northern end of the site, at a point that is deep in the Chetumal Bay. Excavations of this structure discovered two pairs of large painted stucco figures. The eastern masks represented the rising sun and the western one represented the waning sun. The northeastern part of the figure represented Venus as the morning star, and the western part represented Venus as the evening star.
The Santa Rita site dates back to around 1200 B.C. Archaeologists determined this date through comparisons with ceramics from Cuello, one of the first types in the area. The Classic period is represented by a building with a series of interconnected doors and rooms. The central room had a niche where offerings were burned. Two buried persons dated back to around the year 500 were discovered here. The first buried person is a woman with jewelry and polychrome ceramics. The second buried person was found within a large tomb. This buried person is probably a lord of war and was buried with a manta ray stinger used for blood letting rituals. In the Post-Classic period, Santa Rita was characterized by the introduction of turquoise and gold, with a style inspired by Aztec jewelry.
Serpon Sugar Mill
The Serpon sugar mill is the country's first historical reserve. Hidden in the jungle one-and-a-half kilometers from the access road to the village of Sittee River, it is an important milestone in the colonial history of Belize. It is the remnants of the steam-powered sugar mill that was established in 1865 by the Serpon company, which marked the start of the industrial era for Belize.
It is thought that at its height, the Serpon sugar factory produced and sent around 770 kg of sugar every month. In the 19th Century, Serpon was a technological marvel, with its main mill, boiler, beam engine, furnace and hot air exchanger all controlled by steam. It was a great advancement compared to the manual process used previously by the mestizos and Mayans.
Lamanai is the Mayan word for "submerged crocodile." The name of the site - "Lamanay" or "Lamayna" - was recorded by the Franciscan missionaries in the 17th Century. It is one of the only places that preserves its original name and is found in one of the largest ceremonial centers of Belize. The name Lamanai helps to explain the reason for the numerous crocodiles on the site. There are figures of crocodiles in effigies, as well as in the decoration and in the headdresses of a large part of a limestone mask that is found in one of the site's main structures.
There are eight main plazas that form the central part of Lamanai. On the northern end of the site's center, there is an enormous platform (90m x 110m), support for several buildings that are 28 m in height. To the side of this site is an ancient port.
A path through the ancient central heart of Lamanai brings a visitor to a temple decorated with masks. There is one exposed mask, unique in the Mayan world. It is found hidden in the left side of the staircase because it is cut with sculpted limestone blocks instead of being constructed from gypsum over a stone core. The facial features of the masks are clearly related to the characteristics of Olmec iconography, as seen on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, particularly in the upper lip and its wide nose. The masks are each adorned with a headdress that represents a crocodile.
The temple also contains a tomb with the remains of a man adorned with jade and shell objects, accompanied by a large variety of textiles, carpets and other perishable objects. Nearby there was a second tomb, almost dating back to the same date, occupied by a woman. The two buried persons undoubtedly represent a succession of Lamanai leaders, perhaps husband and wife or brother and sister.
The name "Altun Ha," literally "Pond of Rocks," is a rough translation of the Yucatan Mayan name of a nearby village with the same name. The site includes at least 500 visible structures or mounds. At its peak, the population of Altun Ha and the surrounding vicinity ranged from 8000-10,000 inhabitants, with around 3000 people living in the central core of the city.
The first evidence of settlements in Altun Ha dates back to 200 B.C., although it is likely that nomadic hunters lived in the area long before then. The first permanent buildings were erected in an area west of the central precinct, now no longer accessible to visitors. The first building in the central precinct may date to the time of Christ. The first major construction took place around 100 A.D. in the form of a temple close to the principal reservior, but by the start of the Classic period (250 A.D.), focus had been shifted to the area that visitors see nowadays.
Although there is no single factor that explains the fall of the Mayan civilization, there is some evidence that regional conflicts could have contributed to the fall of the Mayans at Altun Ha.
The center of Altun Ha was not completely abandoned after the fall, but appears to have been occupied for around 100 years after activity had ceased. It was once again reoccupied 200 years later during the 13th and 14th centuries.
El Pilar was named after the establishment of a military camp in the area. It is one of the largest Classic Mayan sites in Belize, with a well-defined ceremonial section for both public and private lands. There are at least 15 patios or plazas with a surface of 50 acres. The center has a ball court in the south, a main palace in the north and a road that goes toward Guatemala. The site encompasses approximately 75 hectares. Some buildings are between 15 to 18 meters tall. There are water reserves in the site that supplied the inhabitants with water during the dry season. El Pilar is located just 50 kilometers away from Tikal in Guatemala.
The first archaeological report on El Pilar was created in 1972 when the Archaeological Commissioner visited the site after receiving notices of looting. Anabel Ford, from the University of California, began her archaeological work of the Belize River (BRASS) in 1982. At that time, Ford inspected the area. In 1993 and 1994, extensive excavations took place on the site. One of its major attributes is the panoramic view. In the mid-'90s, El Pilar became a protected reserve.
Archaeological investigations from 1988 to 2002 indicate that Cahal Pech was erected at some time around 1200 B.C. and abandoned around 800-900 A.D. The site is particularly important due to the information that it has provided regarding the first Mayan population in western Belize. The cultural remains suggest that the first inhabitants of the area were relatively sophisticated. They built large circular platforms that were used for ceremonial purposes, carved Olmec Mesoamerican sculptures with symbols in ceramic, imported jade and obsidian from Guatemala, modeled many small figures in feminine forms and produced decorative beads that were made from shells gathered from the Caribbean coast.
During the Late Pre-Classic period (300 B.C.-300 A.D.), Cahal Pech became one of the most important centers in the Belize River Valley region. A relatively large temple from this period has remained and can still be seen. The first recovered carved stela in Belize was also found in Cahal Pech. The stela represents a human being with the maw (mouth) of a jaguar or a monster, which may represent one of the first rulers of the site.
Xunantunich means "maiden of the rock" or "stone woman" in the Mayan language. It is a ceremonial center from the Classic period. The center of this site occupies only 300 square meters, but the periphery covers several square kilometers. One of the structures rises 130 meters above the plaza's level, which is why it is one of the tallest buildings in Belize. There are two temples over this structure. The smaller temple is famous for its large stucco frieze and a mask with large ears, probably the Sun God. Next to this mask is a sign of the moon with a border and signs that represent Venus.
Excavations took place on the western side of El Castillo, which revealed an enormous gypsum frieze. There are three seated figures, flanked by leaves as decorative elements that end in knots. One of the figures is seated, creating wrist bracelets with knots; another is in a dancing position, grabbing some cords that are identified as the umbilical cords that extend from a beam of the house from the women during birth.
The Barton Creek Cave is located in a subterranean environment; therefore, it is treated as a fragile place, easily disturbed by humanity.
Barton Creek Cave is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Cayo District. In addition to its natural beauty, the site has a wide range of cultural remains left in the cave by the ancient Mayans. Artifacts, hearths, cave formations and human remains were deposited on ledges above the river, which indicates that the cave was of great ritual importance for the ancient inhabitants of the region.
The Barton Creek Cave is part of a large river system and is one of the longest subterranean sites in Belize. Cultural remains, however, have only been found in the first kilometer downstream from the entrance. This kilometer-long space contains ten ledges above the river, with evidence of the ancient Mayans' activities. The first ledge is found to the left just inside the entrance of the cave and continues on for about 30 meters beyond the Maya Bridge that extends over the river. It is important to note that the so-called Maya Bridge was not constructed or modified in any way by the Mayans. The bridge is a natural formation when the river level lowers, due to the riverbed erosion.
This is located in Caana, which in the Mayan language means "sky palace." Caana is made up of palaces and temples.
The epicenter contains the majority of the largest buildings in Caracol, with all of the main causeways leading into or out of the area. In addition to the two ball courts, it has other buildings. The large size of and easy access to the lower open areas make it likely that the places were used for public activities. The 11 causeways also typify the Caracol site and represent an internal road system. In Caracol, the causeways served mainly as transportation routes within the site and for communication.
The study and excavation data collected in Caracol indicate that the majority of the small plaza areas functioned as residences. The distribution of the burial data, in combination with the size of the structure and the complexity of the group, indicate a wide distribution of the wealth. The data examined indicate that the social organization of Caracol included not only the elites/specialists living in the urban centers and peasants living in the peripheral areas, but also a "middle class," which constituted a sizeable portion of the community. The integration of the residential groups with a terrace system indicates that the occupants were involved in some aspect of agriculture. There is also evidence of artesian specialization. The distribution of the flint workshops in the context of the general solution tried to push toward the completion of the Caracol roads that act as marketplaces for the exchange of raw materials and finished products produced by the individual homes and for acquiring imported articles, all this under the control of the bureaucracy and taxes of the Caracol Government.
Nim Li Punit
The name Nim Li Punit comes from one of the twenty sculptures in the place of the six stelae. The sculpture represents a figure wearing a large headdress. In the Mayan language of Kekchi, Nim Li Punit means "The Large Hat." The monument in which this sculpture appears is the largest stela in Belize.
Nim Li Punit is considered as a commercial center with two plazas, one taller than the other. It has 25 stelae, of which 8 are carved. The largest structure is about one meter by one meter and is constructed of dry sandstone, typical of the sites in Southern Belize. There are three ball courts and a plaza. The concentration of so many stelae makes this a unique site.
Nim Li Punit was occupied during a large part of the Late-Classic period.
Furthermore, another stela was found, as well as a real tomb in the acropolis with 36 ceramic vessels and other objects of value. The carved stela is particularly interesting since it contains the emblem glyph of Copán. This indicates that the sites in Southern Belize could have had political relationships with their larger neighbor in Honduras.
The ancient city of Lubaantun was erected over a large platform constructed during a period of just over a hundred years in the Late Classic period (730-860 A.D.). Archaeologists have suggested that Lubaantun was an administrative center that regulated commerce and that, next to Nim Li Punit, functioned as the real center for the religion, ceremonies and rituals. This Late-Classic ceremonial center is characterized by its unusual construction style characteristic of Southern Belize. The pyramids and large residences are made of stone blocks, covered with some type of mortar. The buildings located on the top were made of perishable materials instead of brickwork, so therefore they were not preserved. The name in the Mayan language is "place of fallen rocks."
Lubaantun has three ball courts to the east, west and south of the most important religious buildings.