Xunantunich: Whose house is this?

Photo credit: Bill Perkins

Thomas Gann, an English Doctor, conducted the first archaeological research in the 1890’s at the site of Xunantunich. “The Stone Lady”, “Maiden of the Rock” referring to a villager tale about a woman who appeared from ‘a cave on the mountain to a couple hunters as they rested at the bottom of said mountain. We know today that the mountain in this tale was a pyramid-style palace (goes against the grain for palaces) that today we know as “El Castillo” (The castle). This “mountain”, to add, is the second tallest structure the ancient Maya ever built in what was to become the country of Belize. After Thomas Gann, other researchers who have helped the world know more of Xunantunich were: J. Eric S. Thompson (1942), Euan MacKie (1961), Joseph Palacio and Elizabeth Graham (1979), Gordon Wiley (1965), Peter Schmidt (1974), David Pendergast (1981), Jennifer Tascheck (1991), and among many other researchers Richard Leventhal, Wendy Ashmore, Jaime Awe, Jason Yeager, Kathleen Brown, worked their magic (and a few are still doing so), to make us better understand this highly visited site for tourism purposes within the country of Belize. The question is: who lived here?

What we should realize is that there were no borderlines as we have today as between countries. There was however limitations to property based on one kingdom from another. Some were fully independent and others – and it seems Xunantunich was one of them – governed by larger, more powerful kingdoms. In fact, the name Xunantunich is not the original name (this name was given to it by the local population of the village of San Jose Succotz, just across the river from this majestic site). The village is a Yucatec Maya village who spokeYucatec (most of the new generation do not speak the language anymore), Belizeans, whose ancestors came from the Yucatan Peninsula in as early as the turn of the 1800’s.

In conversations with anthropologists and archaeologists, it is learned that the ancient Maya who built these cities within what is now the country of Belize were either Chol or Cholan speakers. Presently, the people that speak these languages live in small pockets in the highlands of Guatemala and Mexico. The only three Maya languages spoken in Belize are Yucatec, Kekchi and Mopan. These are very different languages than the Yucatec that is today sparsely spoken in the villages of Western Belize today.

Then there’s something else: archaeologists have recognized that perhaps Xunantunich was not the major center within the area. There is thinking that Buena Vista a few kilometers North of Xunantunich was the power broker (lots more research still remain). There is also the certainty, other than linguistics, the ceramic profile of Xunantunich reflect a rich, overwhelming connection to Naranjo, a very powerful classic period site (250AD-900AD). The ceramics, for the most part have the name glyph of Naranjo all over them. In fact, it seems that after Naranjo fell around 820AD, architecturally, Xunantunich also changed in its dimension, as if, or perhaps with certainty, to accommodate the royalty that came from Naranjo.

Then, during the 2003 Tourism Development Project work at the site, a team working on the El Castillo, the most dominating architectural piece within the site, discovered a piece of a stela on the North wall of the El Castillo building. It had a glyph on it. After epigraphers read it, they came up with the name Kat Yatz Witz, meaning, Clay is the Alms of the Mountain. Could this be the original name of the site? This opens up a whole Pandora’s Box of questions about who lived at Xunantunich.

Come to Belize. Let NINE take you to this incredible site and let us share this great story with you. Visit us at www.ninebelize.com

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