New Maya history unearthed in Xunantunich, Belize

Central America's Belize continues to provide new archeological insight into an ancient culture. Now they have unearthed the burial tomb of leaders from the Snake Dynasty

Xunantunich, in western Belize, where archaeologists found a tomb of the ‘snake dynasty’. Photograph: Jaime Awe (Image used for educational purposes)
Xunantunich, in western Belize, where archaeologists found a tomb of the ‘snake dynasty’. Photograph: Jaime Awe (Image used for educational purposes)

XUNANTUNICH, Belize, Aug. 6, 2016 — Central America’s Belize is a treasure trove of unearthed archeological sites. Dr. Jaime Awe has revealed that one of the largest burial chambers ever discovered in Central America is in Xunantunich.

Xunantunich is a city on the Mopan river in western Belize. It was a ceremonial center in the final centuries of Maya dominance around 600 to 800 A.D.

“Xunantunich” translates from Yucatec Maya into “stone woman” after the sightings by a hunter of a “ghostly, statuesque woman, dressed in indigenous garb” standing near an entrance to a temple called El Castillo.

The dig site at Xunantunich, in western Belize, where archaeologists found a Photograph: Jaime Awe tomb of the ‘snake dynasty’. Insert the nine eccentrics. Photograph: Kelsey Sullivan, courtesy Jaime Awe (Images used for educational purposes)
The dig site at Xunantunich, in western Belize, where archeologists found a Photograph: Jaime Awe
tomb of the “snake dynasty” (photograph: Jaime Awe).
Insert: the nine eccentrics (photograph: Kelsey Sullivan, courtesy Jaime Awe)
(Images used for educational purposes)

For archeologists and Maya historians, the tomb is an exciting find. It is quite different from other graves that were built “intrusively,” or as additions to existing structures. Xunantunich was built simultaneously with the structure around it—an uncommon practice among Maya cultures—but a common practice among the ancient Egyptians.

The tomb, discovered during the excavation of a covering structure, including the remains of a male adult, somewhere between 20 and 30 years old, lying supine with his head to the south.

Dr. Jaime Awe, an archaeologist from Northern Arizona University and native Belizean, led the effort to unearth the chamber, which is 16 to 26 feet below ground.  Awe has said in interviews that osteologists (who study of the structure of bones, skeletal elements, teeth, microbone morphology, function, disease, pathology, the process of ossification, the resistance and hardness of bones) say the skeleton is of a man who was “athletic” and “quite muscular” at his death.

Also found at the site were jaguar and deer bones, six jade beads, 13 obsidian blades and 36 ceramic vessels.

At the base of the stairway, they found two offering caches with nine obsidian and 28 chert flints and eccentrics—chipped artifacts that resemble flints (inset in the photo above) but are carved into the shapes of animals, leaves or other symbols.

Hieroglyphic panels found in the tomb depict the history of the “snake dynasty” that existed around 1,300 years ago. The rulers of the snake dynasty had a string of conquests in the seventh century and ruled from two capitals, according to Awe.

“It certainly has been a great field season for us,” said Awe, who led a team from his own school, Northern Arizona University, and the Belize Institute of Archaeology. “In other words, it appears that the temple was purposely erected for the primary purpose of enclosing the tomb. Except for a very few rare cases, this is not very typical in ancient Maya architecture.”

Hieroglyphic panels found at the site are thought to be part of a staircase originally built 26 miles to the south, at the ancient city of Caracol. They could provide clues to the snake dynasty’s history.

Travel the World: Visiting Belize and the rich Maya culture

Epigraphers (who study inscriptions or epigraphs as writing) say the city’s ruler, Lord Kan II of the snake dynasty, recorded his defeat of another city, Naranjo, and its leader and the ball game that the leader lost later being sacrificed.

It is believe that the Mayas would settle conflicts on the “game field,” many of which can still be seen in the ruins, with the losers being sacrificed. While ruins are filled with clues as to how the game was played, exact game play is as yet unknown.

Awe said the new panels could be “bookends” to the story of war and sacrifice in the ancient Maya world.

Finds of Maya sacrifice, like the Crystal Maiden of Actun Tunichil Muknal or “ATM” cave mouth are visible throughout Belize.

The Crystal Maiden and the mouth of the cave where she lies
The Crystal Maiden and the mouth of the cave where she lies

The Crystal Maiden was discovered in 1989 in a jungle cave in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve. Accessing the cave requires an hour’s journey from San Ignacio, Belize, followed by an hour’s walk across shallow rivers and through rain forests.

Getting into the cave requires some physical agility; it requires a person to swim into the mouth of the cave (with forehead lights as the only illumination), around and under huge boulders in the cave river, working past large rooms, such as the one known as “The Cathedral,” to the back of the cave where the skeletons of the ritual sacrifices made more than a thousand years ago are.

The skeletons range in age from 1-year-old children to adult mostly in their mid-30s and with children aged 7 to 15.

The skulls all show that they were killed by blunt trauma to the head, while some show the entire skull was crushed. There is also evidence of skull shaping to elongate the skull to an “alien-like” shape.

At the very back of the cave, following a climb over boulders and up what seems to be a less than safe fully extended ladder over 10 feet tall, is perhaps the most famous of these Maya sacrifices, the skeleton of an 18-year-old girl (or 1,018 years old, at this point) known as the “The Crystal Maiden.”

Anthropologists believe that two of her vertebrae were crushed and that she may have died before being tossed to the ground, where she has lain for at least 1,100 years.

The impact of standing in the cave is party creepy, partly awesome.

Due to the water and the minerals in the cave the girl’s skeleton has been completely calcified, giving the bones a sparkling, slightly plump look and inspiring the name “The Crystal Maiden.”

Maya society died out between 800 and 1000, for reasons that are still not understood, but that may have possibly been the result of climate change, disease and war.

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