bullet Up



"Stone Woman"




Cahal Pech


Baking Pot






Pooks Hill











In comparison to other Belize River Valley sites, the culture history of Xunantunich is relatively short.  Evidence gathered by archaeologists suggest that although early settlers may have established a small village at the site during the Middle Preclassic (600-300 B.C.) period, the ancient city, as we know it, rose to prominence and declined from about 700 A.D. to 1000 A.D.  This rather late development is unusual because it indicates that while most other cities in the region were waning during the troubled Terminal Classic period (800-900 A.D.), the fortunes of Xunantunich were on the rise.  Why was this so?  A stela at Xunantunich, that probably depicts the emblem glyph of the large Peten city of Naranjo, suggests that Xunantunich may have been a sattelite of the former city.  As the authority of Naranjo faltered, the local elite lineage at Xunantunich may have asserted control of the city and expended great effort to develop it.  The subsequent rapid growth is indicated by major construction efforts on Structure A-1, the Castillo (Str. A-6) and other buildings at the site.  Despite their rapid rise, however, the Xunantunich lineage was not to outlast their former Naranjo patrons by much.  The last date recorded on a stela (Stela 9) at the site is 830 A.D.  Thereafter we know that Maya activity continued into the Early Postclassic period (900-1000 A.D.) but by this time the pace of development was nowhere what it was in the ninth century.  The Early Postclassic period is also very unclear and it is possible that activities during this time may have been associated with small groups who attempted to reoccupy the city after abandonment. 

The Site

The center of Xunantunich sits on an artificially leveled limestone ridge that stands almost 183 meters above sea level.  From this core area the site radiates outward, encompassing settlements that extend for several square kilometers.  The epicenter consists of four major architectural groups. 

The most prominent of these is Group A, which is dominated by the 40 meter tall Structure A-6 or “El Castillo”.  Often misinterpreted as the primary temple of the site, this massive structure is actually a large palace complex that likely served as dwelling and administrative hub for the elite rulers of the center.  Towards the eastern and western summit of the Castillo are large stucco friezes whose carved elements primarily represent astronomical symbols (e.g. the sun god, moon, and Venus). To the north, east and west of the Castillo are several other structures that served as temples (e.g. A-1 to A-4), ancestral shrines (stela house), and palaces (A-10, 12, 13).   Eight stelae and four altars were found in Plaza A.  Only three of the stelae and one of the altars were carved and all were discovered along the southern base of Str. A-1.  Inscribed calendrical notations on the carved monuments all date to the Late Classic period. Group A also contains one of the two ball courts discovered at the site (Structures A-18 and A-19).

Group B predominantly contains residential architecture.  The seven buildings in this section of the site were first investigated by Eric Thompson in the early 1900’s.  In the late 1970’s Elizabeth Graham and David Pendergast also worked in this area and recorded evidence for Postclassic activity.

Group C is located to the south of the Castillo.  Like Group B, it contains several structures that may have served as residences for people of relatively high status.  In contrast to Group B, however, Group C also has a small ballcourt.

Located to the southeast of the Castillo, Group D consists of 16 mounds.  Most of the architecture focuses towards a large pyramidal structure that sits on the east side of an impressive courtyard group.  Two plain stelae were discovered in the courtyard as well as a sacbe (causeway) which links Group D to the main causeway that leads into Group A.  

Beside the Late Classic monuments, the stucco friezes, and Terminal Classic architecture, Xunantunich is also well known for its many cached offerings that contain numerous eccentric flints and obsidian objects. 

Archaeological Work

Early explorations of Xunantunich were conducted in 1894 and 1895 by British medical doctor, Thomas Gann.  In 1904 Teobert Mahler of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University took photographs and produced a plan for structure A-6. Upon his return in 1924, Gann uncovered and removed several artifacts, as well as the carved hieroglyphs which encircled altar 1; we presently have no knowledge of the whereabouts of those glyphs.

In 1938 the British archaeologist Sir J. Eric S. Thompson excavated some of the middle-class residential buildings in Group B and in 1949 A. H. Anderson rediscovered the remains of the stucco frieze, one-third of which Linton Satterthwaite excavated in the following year. In 1952 and 1953 an amateur British archaeologist, Michael Stewart, recovered several caches (ceremonial offerings) and donated the objects to the Cambridge University Museum and the Museum of Volkerkunde and Vorgeschichte in Hamburg, West Germany. Stewart returned in 1957 to sink exploratory trenches into the C-group.

Euan Mackie of the Cambridge University Expedition to British Honduras of 1959 and 1960 excavated what he believed were a palace and a residential structure in the A-group and suggested that the site had been abandoned c. 900 A.D. due to an earthquake. In the same year A.H. Anderson continued his work on the stucco frieze.  In 1968 and 1971 Peter Schmidt, the Archaeological Commissioner, excavated and consolidated several structures. Joseph Palacio, the Archaeology Commissioner from 1971 to 1976, consolidated the stucco frieze and in 1978 and 1979 his successor, Elizabeth Graham carried out small-scale excavations and completed the restoration of the frieze. In 1979 looting at the site prompted Graham and David Pendergast to do salvage work to the west of Group A.

Large-scale, systematic excavation was first conducted at the site between 1992 and 1996 by Richard Leventhal from UCLA and Wendy Ashmore from the University of Pennsylvania.  Under Leventhal and Ashmore the site core was remapped, Structure A-1 and the west frieze were conserved, structures in the center and periphery were tested, and a comprehensive map of the site’s sustaining area was completed.  Between 2000 and 2001 further intensive work was conducted by the Tourism Development Project under the supervision of Jaime Awe, Juan Luis Bonor and Carolyn Audet.  The latter excavated and conserved the front of the Castillo, the east frieze, the Group A ballcourt, and Structures A-4, A-11, A-14, and A-15.

Locale and Access

Xunantunich lies directly on the tourist route for those leaving Belize for Tikal in Guatemala or vice versa and is easily accessible from the main Western Highway. Less than one mile below the site are the surging rapids of the Mopan River, which is perfect for canoeing, kayaking, rubber-rafting and swimming. The actual reserve covers .25 sq. km. and is fast becoming the only piece of “jungle” in an agriculturally developed area. The view from the summit of A-6 is superb.

The reserve is located across the river from the village of San Jose Succotz, near the Western Border. It can be reached by ferry daily anytime between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm. Daily public transportation provide many scheduled trips through Succotz and accommodation is available in neighbouring Benque Viejo del Carmen or in San Ignacio town, 8 miles away. The reserve also has restrooms, picnic areas and gift shops which sell cold drinks and souvenirs.



Copywrite: Belize Valley Archaeology Reconnaissance - Last Updated November 22, 2002


Copyright © 2001 Belize Valley Archaeology Reconnaissance. All rights reserved