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Oct 27, 2022

Revisiting the Ancient Maya World at Xunantunich

The Xunantunich Archaeological Site has been among Belize’s favourite tourist attractions, particularly because of the splendor that one experiences when they ascend atop El Castillo – the tallest ancient building in the country. But did you know that when the Classic Mayas occupied the site and conducted their rituals there, it had a different name? In this week’s edition of Belize on Reel and on the occasion of International Day of Archaeology, News Five presents a feature on Xunantunich. Marion Ali reports.


Marion Ali, Reporting
Archaeological revelations date its most prosperous years to between nine hundred and twelve hundred A.D., also known as the Classic Period.  But it wasn’t until this century that excavators uncovered the temples that constitute the Xunantunich Maya site. Frank Tzib is an epigrapher from San Antonio Village, Cayo. He reconstructs, decodes and dates hieroglyphics from the Classic Mayas. And he explains that Xunantunich is not the original name for the site we visited today.


Frank Tzib

Frank Tzib, Epigrapher, San Antonio, Cayo

“The original name for Xunantunich is Katyatzwitz, which is clay mountain. Here we have (showing symbols).”


Marion Ali

“How did it change to Xunantunich?”


Frank Tzib

“This was the ancient name, right. When the writing system died, Xunantunich collapsed, no one knew about the name. The ancient Mayas left all of that, even the name.”


But there is also a lore surrounding the present name of the site.


Frank Tzib

“There were some hunters that came here and they said they saw a lady there so they said stone lady, so Xunan, which is lady, Tunich is rock, so lady of the rock.”

There is another interesting revelation that many of us probably did not know about Xunantunich.


Melissa Badillo

Dr. Melissa Badillo, Director, Institute of Archaeology

“People were actually living in this centre. We have evidence of hieroglyphs and graffiti in several buildings which we didn’t know before so people were actually utilizing these spaces and recording events all across time.”


Elfego Panti was only ten years old when Xunantunich was opened to the public in 1950, and the site would become a primary means of his livelihood as a caretaker and a tour guide. Natural deterioration over the decades has required a degree of restoration.

Elfego Panti

Elfego Panti, Former Caretaker, Xunantunich

“The main building, the doorways, walls and the arches all that have been reconstructed, yeah, reinforced. The biggest one is El Castillo – The Castle and it measures one hundred and thirty feet high and that is the main building that has seen most of the restoration.”


But Mother Nature sometimes prevents access to the site. The nearby river, according to Panti, can raise high enough to force closure of the access ferry to Xunantunich.

Elfego Panti

“It’s a yearly problem, the rainy season – just recently you hear on the news that there’s a big flood. That happens almost every year, a few years. For many years the river (level) has gone up.”


But closure due to flooding is not the only problem at the archaeological site. According to the Director of the Institute of Archaeology, Dr Melissa Badillo, agricultural expansions have also led to permanent losses of some of Belize’s patrimony.


Dr. Melissa Badillo

“There’s a lot of agriculture development in the country and it poses a great challenge for us because it means that land is being cleared and sometimes irrespective of whatever is on the property. From recent surveys that we’ve been able to do with the use of Lidar technology, we see that Maya mounds are scattered across the entire country of Belize, so without a doubt there has to be some destruction but we are striving to get to that balance.”


To promote the message about the importance of archaeological sites and their link to Belize’s tourism, Dr. Badillo says the Institute of Archaeology conducts open fairs as it did today at Xunantunich.


Dr Melissa Badillo

“The factors – sustainable development, climate change, climate factors – all those the Mayas were faced with as well but they were able to utilize the landscape, utilize the natural resources to their advantage. But again it reached a point where it could not be sustained so we saw the decline of their civilization, so we should take into consideration those factors because the same applies today.”


Sylvia Batty is the Director of Heritage Education Network Belize, a non-government organization that promotes archaeology in Belize. They engage in showcasing archaeology as a fun topic.

Sylvia Batty

Sylvia Batty, Director of Heritage Education Network, Belize

“What we do is find creative ways to engage students, to engage the public…so what we did is we wrote…this book is actually based at Xunantunich. 0All of these small pieces of stone tools still tell us information…they were making pieces like this.”


Aside from the effort to preserve the relics of the past, however, Tzib creates his own pieces like a personal hieroglyph to document his family’s migration to their present home.


Frank Tzib

“I decided, why not do something as the ancient Mayas would do and commemorate a rock? So we went to live at our place in 2010 and 2010 I carved this out. We start with the introductory phrase, which is Eyut – and then it happened, you know, the Mayas were very poetic. And then it happened December tenth, 2010, the Tzib family came to live here, in San Antonio.”

And while there are now three groups of Mayas in this region, originally, there was only one Maya people with one language.


Frank Tzib

“Yucatec Mayas came from the north, Mopan and K’ekchi’ came from the west, which is from Guatemala. This is not referring to the groups we have now specifically but this is an ancient language, which we call Classic Maya.”


Marion Ali for News Five.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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