Maya World – Xunantunich in Belize – A brief history I.

Xunantunich is the largest ceremonial center in the Belize River Valley. Xunantunich was a major ceremonial center during the Classic Period. The site is composed of six major plazas, surrounded by more than twenty five temples and palaces.

Maya World - Xunantunich - archeological site in BelizeXunantunich in Belize

The name Xunantunich – Stone Woman – is of local but relatively recent origin. But the classification of the site as female has prompted some exotic metaphors, sometimes from surprising sources. In the view of some people Xunantunich is a “phallic temple”. But actually there is no reason to believe that the Maya ever classified their ceremonial centres by gender.

Nonetheless, those people are correct in stressing the sexual symbolism of the sacred Maya structures. This in itself is not new: the great majority of religions focus on the power to generate and re-generated on fertility. But what helps us to understand the stelae at Xunantunich and elsewhere is their association with both the power to reproduce and the warlords: since the stelae were both phallic and commemorated the warlord’s victories, the warlords and their ancestors were being portrayed as the source of fertility for all Maya, including of course the peasantry who, as maize producers, were the real source of the group’s fertility.

Xunantunich in Belize - templeXunantunich in Belize – Temple

But why were some of the Xunantunich stelae, now preserved under thatch in the pavilion, dragged to plaza A-I by the Maya who occupied the site after its collapse as a major ceremonial centre? This manipulation of what were the sacred signs and records of the power of earlier warlords and their lineages may suggest a period of social upheaval – perhaps one in which those re-occupying the site after its initial demise erected stelae which they felt to be more appropriate to their status as the new dominant occupants of the site and as the new source of authority and fertility.

Xunantunich was a Classic Period ceremonial centre. Restricted in space, it occupies only 300 sq. metres with elite, middle- and working-class residential structures stretching a few kilometres into the surroundings. The structures of the ceremonial centre itself are labelled as a Group A on the diagram. We think now they were temples. Plazas are labelled in Roman numerals. Group B is a residential group occupied from the 7th to the 10th centuries. Group C structures may comprise a ball court.

Xunantunich in Belize - stucco decorationXunantunich in Belize – stucco decoration

Attention naturally focuses on Group A, for structure A- 6 rises 40 metres (130 ft.) above the level of the plaza. About 10m. (35 ft.) up the north side of the structure there is a wide terrace: it is now covered with debris and earth, but at one time it had buildings standing along its outer edge. The wide stairway that you see about one- third of the way up the front leads up to this terrace. Above the terrace rises a high platform. It is now covered with earth and plants.

On top of this platform are two temples, the upper of which is the later. The Maya built this by covering the lower temple and making a platform out of it.

The lower temple is well known for the frieze – the band of stucco decoration. At one time it extended above the doorways around the entire building.

The carved elements are signs. The mask with the “big ears” and ear ornaments represents the sun god. Next to that is the sign for the moon, and there is a border of signs which stand for Venus and the different days. We do not know who the headless man is, but he was deliberately “beheaded” by the Maya for some reason in the past.

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