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Stone Maiden

Xunantunich, Belize
By Dr. Wendy Ashmore associate curator,
American Section

EACH YEAR, SOME 16,000 people visit Xunantunich to ponder the ridge-top ruins towering over this part of western Belize. Wear patterns on grass and stone testify that most people cross directly to the Castillo, a 45-meter-high pyramid, and then climb up various distances to view the magnificent panorama. At least a century ago, the pyramid acquired a legend in which a maiden appeared miraculously at its side and then quickly vanished. The site came to be known as Xunantunich, "the place of the Stone Maiden."
Views of the Castillo, hillsides terraced by ancient farmers, Xunantunich, Belize.
In 1991, the Government of Belize invited Richard Leventhal, director of UCLA's Institute of Archaeology, to develop a project of archaeological research and architectural consolidation for Xunantunich. Leventhal asked me to join him in this effort and organize a settlement survey. With support from Penn and the National Science Foundation, five Penn doctoral students and I became part of the team. After a pilot season in summer 1991, the Xunantunich Archaeological Project (XAP) has conducted four-month field seasons annually from February through mid-June, with the collaboration each year of up to 15 North American students and 60 or more local residents.
From the start of the project, we felt that the issues we could best address would involve the famous collapse of Classic Maya civilization of the ninth and tenth centuries AD Previous work had shown that Xunantunich was occupied during this critical time, so we decided to look at how its rulers responded to potentially mounting stress, and at the impact on the farmers in the adjoining countryside.
Established evidence had suggested that Xunantunich was but the latest in a series of small political and ritual capitals in the area. Any given capital apparently ruled for no more than a few centuries' time, but collectively they spanned some 1,500 years.
We propose that Xunantunich seized local power starting in about AD 800. The Castillo was clearly the focus of activities, and we have documented its fragmentary stucco frieze, originally uncovered in 1950 by Penn's own Linton Satterthwaite, Gr'43. Virginia Fields of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art interprets the sculpture's themes as rulership and accession to power -- certainly apt messages for the building of a self-consciously royal center.
But within a generation or two of the initial takeover, spacious public arenas south of the Castillo already lay abandoned. The formal plaza north of the Castillo became more divided and enclosed, as if progressively restricting the audience for political and religious activities. The plaza farthest north (where today's visitors enter the main ruins) was nearest what we think were the royal residential quarters -- an elevated compound, itself increasingly shut off from the rest of the site.
In the surrounding countryside, the XAP survey crew -- including four Penn doctoral students -- has mapped a series of ancient villages, each built around either a small pyramid or an unusually large residence. One of the largest villages, Actuncan, stands out for being within a kilometer of Xunantunich and for boasting a pyramid 27 meters high. First investigated 30 years ago, Actuncan has now disclosed to us some elaborate stucco masks on the pyramid face, dating back half a millennium or more before Xunantunich's heyday. It also yielded a fragmentary carved stela, dated by its style to the first centuries AD Actuncan seems the likely local predecessor of the ridge-top center of Xunantunich.
We also studied the abundant terracing on nearby hillslopes, and believe that the scale and forms of the terracing and adjoining house remains suggest agriculture was controlled by the farmers themselves, not their kings. Generally, Xunantunich's landscape was a fertile one, and the city's specific location astride key Belize River tributaries had long-term strategic advantages. Still, the turbulence of the Classic Period collapse must have ultimately overwhelmed the local residents, and by perhaps the eleventh century, the crumbling "Stone Maiden" stood as a mute reminder of people who had thrived in the area for more than 1,500 years.
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