Thousands of years ago, the Maya empire stretched from Mexico in the north down to El Salvador in the south. They built enormous stone cities in the middle of the jungle, only to abandon them around the year 900 AD for reasons still unknown to modern archeologists. One of the largest Maya cities ever built, now called Xunantunich, was lost for centuries until it was discovered by accident when a villager in Belize came across a ghost of an ancient Maya maiden in the 1890s.
At the time, Belize was still a British colony, and so an expedition set out from the capital to explore the villager’s stories. They then discovered the site of Xunantunich, a Maya term meaning “stone woman”. Xunantunich is unique in that it is the oldest continuously excavated Maya site in the country. One of the biggest and most impressive Maya buildings ever found was discovered in Xunantunich. Known as “El Castillo” (The Castle), it is covered in elaborately carved friezes, and remains the second-tallest tallest man-made structures in Belize. One of the figures carved on El Castillo is a three-dimensional seated person that may be the woman that the villager saw when he stumbled upon the site.
Despite more than a century of ongoing work, Xunantunich continues to yield up new treasures. In 2016, an archeological expedition was digging through the floor of the main temple when they discovered the largest royal Maya tomb ever found. Inside were the remains of a noble accompanied by the bones of an animal, perhaps a deer or jaguar, as well as several obsidian weapons and other objects. But what excited archeologists was the discovery of a series of tablets inscribed with hieroglyphics that revealed the secret history of the Snake Dynasty that once ruled the region, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tikal that now lies just across the border in Guatemala.
Xunantunich is an enormous area. The central core of the city (“downtown”) measures more than one square mile in area with six large plazas containing 26 palaces and temples. For ease in navigation, today the site is divided into four sections: Group A, Group B, Group C, and Group D. Group A encompasses the city core while the other sections were once used by farmers to grow the vast amounts of crops needed to feed the city.
You can book a tour of the Maya ruins of Xunantunich with the Caves Branch Lodge by clicking here.
Further Reading on Xunantunich
A History of Xunantunich
Xunantunich is the modern name for an ancient Maya archeological site located in the Cayo District of Belize
approximately half a mile (one kilometer) from the border with Guatemala.
Pronounced in various ways, Xunantunich in the Mayan language means “Sculpture of Lady” or “Stone Lady” from the Mopan term “Xunan” (noble lady) and Yucatec term “Tuunich” (sculpturing stone). Xunantunich is often referred to as the “Stone Woman” however as reports of a ghostly woman in white with fiery red eyes have been reported at the site for more than 100 years.
Excavations at Xunantunich began in the 1890s when the British colonial administration sent Thomas Gann to investigate the area. Unfortunately, Gann was not very skilled at archeology and used dynamite to clear the site, destroying many artifacts and several buildings. It was only in 1959 that professional archeological work began at the site. Xunantunich was the first ancient Maya site that was opened to the public.
It is believed that Xunantunich was founded during the Preclassic Maya Era (roughly 1000 BC to 250 AD). Originally, it is believed that Xunantunich was little more than a collection of small villages. However, around the year 600, Xunantunich began to grow significantly in size. This is when the larger buildings at the site were constructed, including El Castillo (The Castle), still the second-tallest human-made structure in Belize. For unknown reasons, Xunantunich was then abandoned around the year 750 AD.
Today, the excavated core of Xunantunich measures about one square mile (2.6 square kilometers) in size and is formed by six plazas containing more than two dozen temples and palaces. El Castillo, the largest structure, measures approximately 130 feet (40 meters) tall and has several stucco friezes on its exterior that depict scenes from Maya mythology. El Castillo is located in the exact center of the city.
There is also a large ball court complex in the heart of Xunantunich where the Mesoamerican ball game was played. A combination sporting and religious event, the losers of a ball game competition were often ritually killed as a sacrifice to the gods. Many of the buildings, including the core pyramid, have yet to be fully excavated but a number of potsherds have been recovered showing that Xunantunich was an active trade partner with other Maya cities in the region.
In 2016, an archeological team led by Jaime Awe working at Xunantunich found the largest royal Maya tomb ever discovered. A large number of high-value items were recovered as well as the remains of a man between 20 and 30 years old.