Lamanai – lah-mah-NA-I – (North central Belize)
Maya for “submerged crocodile” (loose translation)
Lamanai is located on the west bank of the New River Lagoon in Northern Belize. The Maya were the primary inhabitants of the area but there was also Spanish and British occupation. This ancient Maya city has an amazing occupational span of over 3,000 years. This is one of the most unique features of the site since many Classic period city-states suffered from a decline starting around AD 850. Lamanai continues to thrive during this time as archaeological investigation by D. Pendergast (1981) indicates. He shows that there is enough presence at Lamanai at this time to warrant fairly large-scale buildings to be both improved and newly constructed.
The population estimate for the site at its peak is approximately 50,000 Maya residents both in the main site center as well as the periphery. The site was mapped during the original excavations and approximately 720 structures were located, more then likely there are closer to 900 structures. The dynastic history of Lamanai has been a bit difficult to discern due to the existence of only one stela. Stela 9 is located in the main ceremonial center of Lamanai and depicts a young ruler who was originally identified as Lord Smoking Shell (Closs 1988). Current decipherment by Simon Martin may indicate a somewhat different story. The date panels found on the stela have been partially translated and indicate that the young lord began ruling at Lamanai around AD 608. It is believed he may have taken over rulership of the area from his father or may have been under the rulership of another lord from a different site.
Aside from the unusual feature of over 3,000 years of occupation the site has a unique pattern of arrangement of buildings. The structures were built along the banks of the New River Lagoon from north to south through time in what D. Pendergast refers to as a strip settlement pattern (Pendergast 1981). The site also has beautiful trails that wind through broad leaf forest with wonderful views of the lagoon and wildlife consisting of birds and howler monkeys.
Caracol – kah-rah-KOHL (South Central Belize)
Spanish for “snail”
Caracol is the largest site in Belize – the amount of structures and estimated population – and one of the largest ancient Maya cities of all. The site is located on the Vaca plateau at 500 meters a.s.l. adjacent to the Maya mountains, in south-central Belize. The Maya residing at Caracol reached their cultural peak around AD 700 during the Classic period. At this time it is estimated that as many as 150,000 people lived in the area. The main site center is estimated to have around 677 structures with 128 plaza groups. The surrounding area with the main site center may contain as many as 36,000 structures. This construction includes some of the most unique features of the site, 7 sacbeob or causeways that radiate out from the site center, 2 which terminate at the elite residential area, 2 others end at plaza complexes, and the longest one extends to the subordinate site of Calha Pichik. The 7 sacbeob (walkways) together make up over 22 miles.
There are over 40 stone monuments enabling reconstruction of much of Caracol’s dynastic sequence. Most important is Alter 21 from Group A’s ballcourt playing alley. The center of Alter 21 contains the diagnostic feature of Caracol’s alters, an oversized glyph of the day sign of Ahau (god) surrounded by 160 other glyphs. The event depicted on Alter 21 is probably the most important event to take place in the history of the city. It recounts Caracol’s capture, defeat, and the sacrifice of Tikal’s 21st ruler, Double Bird, in AD 562. After Caracol’s defeat of Tikal the site archaeologically has shown a dramatic increase in population and construction.
Xunantunich – shoo-nahn-too-NEECH (South Central Belize)
Yucatec Maya for “maiden of the rock” or “stone lady” (loose translation)
Xunantunich is a relatively small site located in southern Belize near the Belize River, just east of the Guatemala border. The main ceremonial center is impressive and occupies more than 22 acres. Beyond that residential structures radiate for several miles into the surrounding area. Most of the exposed architecture dates to Late Classic although both Early Classic and Late Preclassic ceramics have been recovered from the site. There may be evidence attesting to a disruption around AD 900 at which time Xunantunich was possibly abandoned. The site appears to have been reoccupied during the Postclassic period. The site is dominated by Structure A-6, a large building complex that extends to 40m in height and contains an elaborate stucco and stone mosaic facade. Thus far only one dated stela has been recovered from the site and it contains a date of Terminal Classic (AD 849).
Tikal – tee-KAHL – (northern Peten region of Guatemala)
A traditional name of unknown meaning, according to William R. Coe
“Place where Spirit Voices are Heard” according to Teobert Maler
Tikal is often referred to as the mother of all Maya sites because it is the largest known Maya center. It was virtually abandoned and was not officially found and reported again until 1848 when the Guatemalan government recorded it. According to William Coe the site center has more then 3,000 separate constructions including temples – five of them more than 125 feet tall – palaces, and shrines. Over 200 stone monuments consisting of stelea and alters, both carved and plain, were found in the site center. As many as 10,000 earlier constructions may lie beneath the already identified buildings. The earliest building at Tikal dates to about 300 BC although occupation has been found to occur even earlier.
Thus far it is believed that Tikal was ruled by a single dynasty throughout its history. According to L. Schele and D. Freidel there were 39 successive rulers of Tikal. The site reached its peak in the Late Classic period when there may have been up to 100,000 or more Maya residing in or near the site center. Numerous polities record the site of Tikal in their monuments and vice versa including Caracol, Uaxactun, Naranjo, and Calakmul.