Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Ancient Maya Cities of the Eastern Lowlands$

Brett A. Houk

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780813060637

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2015

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813060637.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM FLORIDA SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.florida.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright University Press of Florida, 2020. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in FLASO for personal use. Subscriber: null; date: 17 January 2020

Southern Belize

Southern Belize

(p.84) 5 Southern Belize
Ancient Maya Cities of the Eastern Lowlands

Brett A. Houk

Marilyn A. Masson

Michael E. Smith

John W. Janusek

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

More so than any other area of the eastern lowlands, southern Belize developed a distinctive regional tradition, influenced by its geographical isolation. The major sites in the region share common urban planning and architectural traits not seen in other parts of Belize. Following a description of the natural setting of southern Belize, this chapter discusses the four largest and best-documented sites in the region–Pusilhá, Uxbenka, Lubaantun, and Nim Li Punit. Southern Belize is notable for the high frequency of carved monuments, the small stela plazas, and the curious lack of textual reference to neighboring cities. Another important characteristic of the region is that the major cities lacked Preclassic antecedent architecture, as the region apparently was not heavily settled until the Early Classic period. Southern Belize, isolated and unique, is atypical when stacked along side the rest of the eastern lowlands in terms of chronology, architecture, use of stelae, settlement patterning, and concepts of city building.

Keywords:   southern Belize, Pusilhá, Uxbenka, Lubaantun, Nim Li Punit, stelae, Stela plaza

More so than any other area of the eastern lowlands, southern Belize developed a distinctive regional tradition. As Richard Leventhal (1990:138) observed, the region’s geographical isolation contributed to greater “internal homogeneity and external heterogeneity” with respect to architecture and hieroglyphic traits. The similarities generally shared by the major sites in the region include a lack of vaulted buildings, tombs without vaults, the sequential reuse of tombs, rare masonry superstructure walls, the integration of major structures into the natural topography and modified hills with architectural facades, few freestanding pyramids, ball courts enclosed by walls, common hieroglyphic monuments, and inconsistent lunar series information on monuments (Braswell et al. 2011:115; Braswell and Prufer 2009:45).

The four largest and best-documented sites in the region are Pusilhá, Uxbenka, Lubaantun, and Nim Li Punit (Figure 5.1). Beyond these four, Phillip Wanyerka (2009:24) reports 32 major sites in the region, 10 of which contain readable hieroglyphic texts. As will become clear, the sites in southern Belize are the least urban of the eastern lowland kingdoms and represent a distinct style of settlement design, architecture, and political expression.


Southern Belize, due to its remoteness, is one of the most poorly understood regions of the Maya lowlands in general (see Prufer et al. 2011:202), despite having the greatest concentration of hieroglyphic texts in Belize (see Wanyerka 2009). The major sites in the region are found in the Toledo Foothills, part of a ring of eroded and dissected Cretaceous limestone that surrounds the uplifted and older volcanic and metamorphic horst of the Maya Mountains (King et al. 1992:37; Rice 1993:15). The Maya Mountains lie west and north of the foothills, and a narrow band of coastal plain extends from the base of the hills to (p.85)

Southern Belize

Figure 5.1. Map of southern and central Belize showing sites discussed in the text.

Base map courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech, SRTM mission.

(p.86) the Caribbean Sea on the east. The swampy Sarstoon River basin to the south forms the modern border between Belize and Guatemala and was the final geographic boundary that made the area remote and isolated in ancient times, just as it does today (Prufer et al. 2011:202).

More rain falls in southern Belize than any other part of the country. This contributes to the region’s lush tropical forests and feeds numerous short rivers and streams that drain the southern slopes of the Maya Mountains and the Toledo Foothills (Wright et al. 1959:27–28). These drainages include, from west to east, the Pusilhá River, which feeds the Moho River, the Río Grande, the Golden Stream, and the Monkey River.

The Maya of southern Belize had access to important volcanic rocks, including basalt and granite as well as slate and shale (Graham 1987:753–756). Beyond volcanic resources, the region also supplied limestone, mudstone, and sandstone, all of which make excellent construction materials and influenced the regional architectural style in southern Belize. The Maya found that cleaved pieces of sandstone and mudstone could be used to make massive stelae (Wanyerka 2009:155).



Pusilhá is the westernmost and largest major center in southern Belize, situated less than 2 km east of the Guatemalan border and between 180 and 250 m above sea level (Hammond 1975:272). Uxbenka is approximately 19 km to the northeast. The ruins of Pusilhá occupy the hilly banks of the Pusilhá River, one of the small waterways draining the Maya Mountains in southern Belize. The Pusilhá River, also known as the Machaca River, joins the Poité River east of the site to form the Moho River, which flows into the Caribbean Sea some 40 km east-southeast of the ruins. Braswell (2002:2) reports the 6-km2 settlement zone is sharply circumscribed by the Maya Mountains in all directions but the east, where the narrow Moho River valley passes through the hilly terrain. A northwest mountain pass provided access into the Maya Mountains.


Acting on a report from the forestry department, members of the British Museum Expedition to British Honduras visited the ruins of Pusilhá in 1927, making note of an ancient Maya bridge spanning the Pusilhá River and substantial settlement in the vicinity (Joyce et al. 1927:315–316). The museum studied the (p.87) ruins over the course of three subsequent field seasons, spurred by the discovery of numerous carved monuments with Long Count dates in a portion of the site known as the Stela Plaza. Ultimately, five of the best stelae from the site were cut up and transported to the British Museum where they remain (Braswell 2002:5; Braswell, Prager, and Bill 2005:65; Hammond 1975:273–274). The British Museum crews excavated structures in several groups at the site but were generally disappointed with the artifacts recovered, except from Pottery Cave, a nearby cavern that yielded many fine polychrome sherds (Braswell 2002:5). Sylvanus Morley (1938) subsequently visited the site and published an account of the inscriptions.

Despite the impressive collection of carved stelae, once Morley departed, Pusilhá largely languished in obscurity until Norman Hammond (1975:272–274) visited it as part of his project at Lubaantun. Hammond’s (1975:274) work at the site was limited to clearing and photographing the bridge abutments and excavating a pottery dump in a cave near the site.

In 1979 and 1980, Richard Leventhal’s (1990) Southern Belize Archaeological Project conducted mapping and excavation at Pusilhá, concluding the site had two distinct focal points: the Stela Plaza to the north and the Gateway Hill Acropolis to the south, characterized by contrasting architecture and urban features. Leventhal’s teams conducted limited settlement survey and discovered two ball courts along with several previously unknown architectural groups.

Following a few minor studies of the monuments and ruins, which did not result in published reports, Geoffrey Braswell (2002) began the Pusilhá Archaeological Project in 2001. Braswell’s teams spent eight seasons at the site, and the research resulted in numerous publications and five master’s theses (Braswell et al. 2009:1). In 2008 Braswell’s focus expanded to include much of the Toledo District, and the project was rebranded the Toledo Regional Interaction Project, or TRIP (Braswell et al. 2009:1).

Site Plan and Urban Features

Much of the monumental architecture at Pusilhá occupies a series of hills between the Poité River to the north and the Pusilhá River to the south, although the Gateway Hill group is south of the Pusilhá River (Figure 5.2). The surrounding countryside is dotted with smaller residential groups (Braswell, Prager, and Bill 2005; Volta 2007).

Braswell (2007:74) describes the Gateway Hill Acropolis as the most important architectural group at Pusilhá, noting that an ancient toponym for the site consists of a set of stairs and the glyph witz, meaning “mountain.” Based (p.88)

Southern Belize

Figure 5.2. Map of Pusilhá, after Prager et al. (2014:Figure 10.3). Contour interval is 5 m, but contours are approximate and only intended to show general terrain features. Areas with no contour lines are unmapped.

(p.89) on the physical appearance of the acropolis, it is likely that the toponym refers to this massive architectural group. The acropolis includes a series of platforms and structures that climbs a 79-m hill on the south side of the Pusilhá River. Following the natural north-northwest to south-southeast orientation of the hill, the group begins at the river where the British Museum expedition first documented bridge abutments (see Joyce et al. 1927:315–316) and extends south-southeast for over 500 m. The series of climbing platforms built into the hill face begins south of the bridge and leads to the first terrace of the acropolis. Two large boulders with low platforms below them are situated on the lower slope of the acropolis below the first terrace, flanked by two sets of stairs and terraced ramps (Braswell 2007:75). A 20-m-long ramp or sacbe leads down from the first terrace to the south end of Ballcourt II, which is bordered immediately to the west by the Pusilhá River.

A stair leads to the east from the first terrace up to the second terrace, a platform flanked by three structures on its eastern side. Atop this terrace near its southern end are two more large boulders that create the gateway after which the acropolis is named (Braswell 2007:75).

The mass of the acropolis lies to the south of the gateway boulders, covering the summit and western side of the hill with structures. The Operation 8 structure, the largest and tallest building, occupies the southern and highest level of the acropolis; it is a temple-pyramid with extensions to the north and south. This structure served as the royal funerary monument for a Late Classic ruler of the site, as discussed later (Pitcavage 2008:32–33). The Operation 9 structure, immediately to the north of the Operation 8 structure, is the second-largest pyramid at the site, but excavations showed it to be a stone facade covering a natural bedrock feature, in keeping with the southern Belize tendency to integrate the natural topography into the architecture (Braswell, Prager, and Bill 2005:79–80).

North of the river on a natural rise is the Stela Plaza, which was home to 22 carved stelae, 4 zoomorphic altars, and at least 4 round altars before the British Museum began working there (Braswell 2002:3). The plaza measures approximately 50 m north-northwest to south-southeast by about 40 m wide. Structure I, a temple-pyramid with extensions on either side, forms the southern boundary of the plaza, and a line of three structures (Structures IV, V, and VI) delineates the eastern edge. The northern and western edges are marked by single structures. The area to the north of Structure I was the setting for most of the carved monuments; a map from the 1928 British Museum expedition to the site shows 12 stelae in a row in front of the structure, with 3 others just north of the line and 2 more at the northwestern corner of Structure I (p.90) (Joyce et al. 1928:Figure 2). Braswell’s (2002) initial cleaning of the plaza resulted in the discovery of 88 monument fragments primarily in the vicinity of this stela row, a previously unrecorded stela (the twenty-second), and a fourth zoomorphic altar, one more than reported by previous researchers.

Approximately 190 m to the east-southeast of the Stela Plaza on a bench of an adjacent hill is a walled platform that is home to Ballcourt I. A 15-m-wide sacbe connects the two groups, running across the undulating terrain for approximately 130 m—as mapped, the sacbe does not extend the full distance between the two groups. The midway point of the sacbe is flanked by groups of small structures on either side. Ballcourt I, like Ballcourt II across the river, is an example of the southern Belize style of walled ball courts noted by Leventhal (1990:138). The enclosures comprise freestanding walls with bases made of several courses of cut stones. The upper sections of the walls were presumably made of perishable materials (Leventhal 1990:138).

The Moho Plaza is on a low flat plain over 1.5 km southwest of the Stela Plaza and perhaps could be considered a secondary center within the Pusilhá suburban settlement (Figure 5.3). Despite being so far away from the rest of the monumental architecture, the Moho Plaza is the second-largest architectural group at the site, measuring approximately 105 m north-northwest to south-southeast and 75 m wide. The plaza is framed by three long platforms on its eastern side, a large range building (Structure VI) on its southern side, several smaller mounds on its western side, and a ball court on its northern side. This, the third ball court at Pusilhá, is the largest ball court in southern Belize (Braswell, Prager, Bill, et al. 2005:224). Two badly looted mounds in the southwestern corner of the plaza may be another small ball court (Braswell 2002:14). Structure VI on the southern side of the plaza has a hieroglyphic stair with a calendar round dedication date believed to fall in 798 CE (Braswell 2002:14).

Braswell (2007:72–73) observed a distinct architectural pattern at Pusilhá, which he termed “Special Function Group.” Conforming to and perhaps establishing the idiosyncratic preference in Pusilhá architectural orientation, these Special Function Groups are defined by three structures on the eastern side of a plaza, accompanied by the two principal structures in the plaza occupying the northern and southern ends. These principal structures are often square in plan, rather than rectangular like the eastern buildings. Among the eastern buildings, the tallest is usually the southern structure, not the central one. Finally, the western side of the plaza is much more open and contains only one structure.

Braswell (2007:73) notes at least three Special Function Groups at Pusilhá, (p.91)

Southern Belize

Figure 5.3. Map of Moho Plaza at Pusilhá, after Braswell (2002:Figure 4).

including the Stela Plaza and the Moho Plaza. The artifact assemblage from these groups contrasts with the typical pattern at Pusilhá. The ceramics commonly contain incense burner fragments, while utilitarian vessel forms are rare. Animal bones and river-snail shells are completely absent from these areas of the site but are common in residential contexts.


Pusilhá was founded near the end of the Early Classic period, according to hieroglyphic texts at the site (Braswell and Prufer 2009:47). Ceramic material from this period, however, is only known from Pottery Cave, a group aproximately (p.92) 300 m north of the Gateway Hill Acropolis on the northern side of the Pusilhá River (Braswell et al. 2008:55). Based on ceramic data from the epicenter, Braswell, Prager, and Bill (2005:66) propose a four-phase sequence for the occupation at Pusilhá: early Late Classic (600–700 CE), late Late Classic (700–780 CE), Terminal Classic (780–850 CE), and Postclassic (950–1100 CE). The site’s first inhabitants appear to have come from the southwestern Petén, based on ceramic data (Bill and Braswell 2005; Braswell 2007).

The Stela Plaza appears to be a largely Late Classic construction, based on the abundant Long Count dates from monuments there (see Braswell et al. 2004), and the Gateway Hill Acropolis has a strong Terminal Classic occupation, evidenced by numerous burials dating to that period (Pitcavage 2008; Pitcavage and Braswell 2010). Braswell, Prager, and Bill (2005:68) note finding large amounts of Terminal Classic ceramics from floor and surface contexts at the site. They also report that at least two people “were left dead on the surface of the plaza” in front of the Operation 8 structure at the end of the acropolis’ occupation (Braswell, Prager, and Bill 2005:81).

Braswell, Prager, Bill, et al. (2005:224) speculate that the Moho Plaza dates to the Terminal Classic period as well, quite late in the occupation history of the site. The 798 CE date for the Structure VI hieroglyphic stair is the latest recorded date at the site, and there are architectural similarities to Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit, two sites that peaked after 800 CE. Additionally, Ballcourt III is oriented east–west, a typically late manner of building ball courts, and it is not walled like Ballcourts I and II. The group’s setting, on a low-lying plain rather than hilltop, also differs from the older groups.

Evidence for a Postclassic occupation at the site was recovered at “the Bulldozed Mound” platform (Braswell 2007:70), a group about 600 m east of the Stela Plaza. In at least this area of the site, a small group of people using crude and nonstandardized ceramics eked out a living for several generations after the rest of the site had been abandoned.

Political History

With its numerous hieroglyphic texts, it is possible to reconstruct the political history of Pusilhá in more detail than nearly any other city in the eastern lowlands (Table 5.1). Within the texts are the names of 38 individuals. Eleven of them employ the title of divine ruler of the site, which was known in the Classic period as “Un,” meaning “avocado” (Braswell, Prager, Bill, et al. 2005:228). Both Wanyerka (2009) and Prager (2002; and reported in Braswell et al. 2004; Braswell, Prager, Bill, et al. 2005; Prager et al. 2014) have completed epigraphic studies of the texts at Pusilhá and present slightly different (p.93)

Table 5.1. Political history of Pusilhá


Long Count

Gregorian Date

Events and Notes

K’awil Chan K’inich (Ruler A)

June 17, 571


December 5, 573

Celebrated period ending, Stelae O? and P

August 22, 593

Celebrated period ending, Stela Q

April 24, 595

War-related event, but it is unclear if Pusilhá suffered or won; antagonist may have been Altun Ha

K’ak’ U Ti’ Chan (Ruler B)

November 8, 647

Celebrated period ending to glorify deeds of father, Ruler A, Stelae D and P

Muyal Nah K’uhul [unreadable] K’ak’U Ruler C

October 12, 652

Accession at age of 66 years, celebrated period ending, and engaged in battle with another site and took a captive, Stela H

Ruler D

June 29, 672

Celebrated period ending, Stela K

Ruler E

December 3, 771

Celebrated period ending, Stela M

Ix Ich’ak … K’inich–

December 4, 771–

Maximum possible period of reign, only

(Ruler F)

August 19, 731

female named in dynastic texts

Ruler G

August 20, 731

Celebrated period ending with stone-binding ritual, son of Ruler F, Stela E

Ruler X5?

May 7, 751

Possible ruler, celebrated period ending and performed hand-scattering event, Stela F

Ruler X3?

March 24, 798

Dedicated Hieroglyphic Stair 1

Source: After Prager et al. 2014.

interpretations of the political history of the site. The following summarizes the reconstruction put forth by the Pusilhá Archaeological Project (Braswell 2007; Braswell et al. 2004; Braswell, Prager, Bill, et al. 2005; Prager 2002; Prager et al. 2014). For a more detailed discussion, please refer to Prager (2002) and Prager et al. (2014).

Ruler A, K’awiil Chan K’inich, founded the Pusilhá dynasty in 571 CE. He used the title Ochk’in K’aloomte,’ a rare title also used at Copán by the dynastic founder (Braswell 2007:68; Wanyerka 2009:379). During his reign, Ruler A may have had ties with Copán, and he named his son, Ruler B, after the eleventh ruler at Copán, K’ak’ U Ti’ Chan (Prager et al. 2014). Wanyerka (2009) indicates that a Pusilhá lord is shown on a bench witnessing the accession of Copán’s sixteenth ruler in 763 CE, some 116 years later, which suggests that ties between the cities persisted deep into the Late Classic period.

Among the known rulers of Pusilhá, Prager identifies Ruler F as a queen who ruled sometime prior to 731 CE (Braswell, Prager, Bill, et al. 2005:229). Excavations at the Operation 8 structure in the Gateway Hill Acropolis possibly (p.94) uncovered the tomb of her successor, Ruler G (Braswell, Prager, and Bill 2005:82; Prager et al. 2014).

Little is known of the final Terminal Classic rulers at the site. The final date at Pusilhá comes from the Moho Plaza’s hieroglyphic stair in 798 CE (Prager et al. 2014), but occupation and presumably the royal dynasty continued past this date.

Braswell, Prager, Bill, et al. (2005:230) observe that the antagonistic nature of the political history of Pusilhá is notable, as at least eight conflicts are mentioned between 594 and 731 CE. However, where the enemy’s name survives, it is invariably of some small polity whose location has not yet been identified, including a place called B’alam (Braswell, Prager, Bill, et al. 2005:230). Curiously, the larger centers of Classic Maya world (i.e., Copán, Quiriguá, Tikal, Caracol, and Calakmul) and the nearby southern Belize cities (i.e., Uxbenka, Lubaantun, and Nim Li Punit) are not named on the carved monuments at Pusilhá, although other hieroglyphic evidence suggests contacts with Caracol (Braswell, Prager, Bill, et al. 2005:231).


Pusilhá has many standard urban features found at most of the cities in this book, including public plazas, private courtyards, a sacbe, carved stone monuments, an impressive number of ball courts, temple-pyramids, and an acropolis group. In its overall layout, the major architectural groups are more dispersed than is common at cities in other parts of the eastern lowlands but are similar to the pattern at Uxbenka. In large part, this is probably an engineering accommodation to the hilly terrain of southern Belize. The base of the Gateway Hill Acropolis is over 600 m away from the Stela Plaza, and the Moho Plaza is even farther away at 1.5 km.

In many ways Pusilhá fits the stereotype for a southern Belize city, demonstrating all of the traits mentioned in the beginning of this chapter that define the regional pattern. The temple-pyramids in its southern acropolis, particularly Structure 9, are examples of the illusion of monumentality created by blending natural topography with architectural facades, what Leventhal (1990:138) called the “Hollywood set” style of construction. Two of the city’s three (possibly four) ball courts are surrounded by walled enclosures, and the large buildings lack masonry superstructures and vaulted rooms. The site’s stela plaza also has counterparts at two of the other major southern Belize cities.

Pusilhá nonetheless has important idiosyncratic features that distinguish it from its neighbors. The persistent north-northwest to south-southeast alignment of structures and groups is uncommon at other sites, for example. The (p.95) most obvious architectural feature of distinction is its bridge, an extremely rare type of construction among Maya cities. Less obvious is the Special Function Group. The pattern is reminiscent of the in-line triadic shrines noted by Awe (2013) in the Belize Valley.

The absence of textual references to the major sites of the southern lowlands seems to reflect the isolated nature of southern Belize during the Classic period. More difficult to explain, however, is the failure of Pusilhá’s scribes to discuss the neighboring sites with emblem glyphs. If the isolation of the area contributed to the development of a regional style, why did it not also result in greater political interaction between the major centers of southern Belize?



Uxbenka is approximately 19 km northeast of Pusilhá and 13 km west-southwest of Lubaantun in the rolling foothills of the Maya Mountains. The site is at the western end of an exposed formation known as the Toledo series, a sedimentary formation of primarily fine-grained siltstones and sandstones, which contrasts with the belt of limestone exposed in the foothills to the north. This formation is also home to Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit. Although Uxbenka is some 34 km inland, it had easy access to both coastal and inland trade routes (Braswell and Prufer 2009:46). The major architectural groups at the site occupy hilltops covered in broadleaf forest and dense patches of secondary growth.


Leventhal’s (1992:145) Southern Belize Archaeological Project first discovered Uxbenka in 1984, although Thompson (1939:280) may have visited an outlying group of the ruins previously (see also Hammond 1975:274). In 1989 and 1990, Leventhal’s teams surveyed parts of the site and conducted limited testing excavations to collect chronological data (Prufer 2005:4). In 2005 Keith Prufer (2005) began the Uxbenka Archaeological Project, which completed its ninth season of research in 2013 (Prufer and Thompson 2013).

Site Plan and Urban Features

Uxbenka’s monumental architecture, like that of neighboring Pusilhá, is dispersed over multiple ridges and hilltops (Figure 5.4). Prufer (2005:7–8) defines three clusters of architecture including Group A, a set of five plazas (p.96) (Groups B–F) arranged in a north–south line, and a hilltop acropolis (Group G). The most well-known architectural complex is Group A, which is home to 23 stela (see Braswell and Prufer 2009:46; Leventhal 1992:148). Located approximately 500 m southeast of Groups B and C, Uxbenka’s stela plaza is at the eastern edge of the site’s epicenter. The plaza itself is not large, measuring at its widest 55 m east–west by only 35 m north–south; its size was likely constrained by the size and shape of the hilltop upon which the plaza was built (Figure 5.5). Nevertheless, the final form of the plaza resulted in significant modifications to the hilltop, as over 3.5 m of fill was used along the southern and eastern edges of the plaza to expand and level the plaza floor (Prufer et al. 2011:208).

Six generally modest structures surround the plaza in a roughly circular arrangement. The tallest and most massive is Structure A-1, a 10-m-high temple-pyramid built on a much wider platform, which supports smaller flanking buildings. The majority of the plaza’s stelae are found in an east–west line in front of Structure A-1. Leventhal’s project excavated a collapsed but unlooted tomb in front of Structure A-4 in the plaza (Leventhal 1990:Figure 8.4; Prufer 2005:8).

Southern Belize

Figure 5.4. Map of Uxbenka, after Prufer et al. (2011:Figure 3).

Southern Belize

Figure 5.5. Map of Uxbenka’s Stela Plaza, after (Prufer et al. 2011:Figure 4).

Tomb location based on Leventhal (1990:Figure 8.4).

Approximately 75 m to the south of Group A on an adjacent hilltop is Group K. This large and open plaza has a long, low range building on its western edge and only four other structures. A stairway attached to the north side of the northern structure leads down from the plaza and faces its counterpart at the base of Group A (Prufer 2005:8).

The core of the city is arguably the 550-m stretch of modified ridge that is home to the plazas and buildings of Groups B through F (Figure 5.6). At the northern and highest end of this line of architecture is Group B, a narrow plaza measuring almost 70 m north–south by 30 m east–west. The steeply sloping hillsides at the plaza’s margins are faced with cut stone terraces, visually exaggerating the monumentality of the group (Prufer 2005:13). The plaza and most of its structures are oriented approximately 15° east of north. At the northern end of the plaza is tallest structure in the group, Structure B-4, an (p.98) 8-m-high temple-pyramid. The eastern and western margins are flanked by lower platforms. A badly looted ball court is located in the southern portion of the plaza, and Structure C-1 forms the southern edge of the plaza and the northern edge of Group C. Stairways on either side of Structure C-1 provided access between the two groups (Prufer 2005:12–13).

Group C’s 60-m-long plaza is several meters lower in elevation than Group B and straddles the crest of the ridge, which narrows from north to south. Following the landform, Plaza C narrows from 45 m wide to 20 m wide. The eastern and western edges are defined by long, low mounds, and the southern end is a stone terrace that drops steeply. The only monumental building is Structure C-1 at the northern end (Prufer 2005:15).

Group D is located below and approximately 75 m south of Group C; here the ridge top widens and begins to rise as it turns to the east. Group D has a ball court along the western edge of the plaza and a large, low platform on its eastern side. Excavations in the ball court’s alley recovered a massive central marker, which measured over 1.4 m in diameter. The upper face of the marker was decorated with a bas relief carving of a circle, raised about 5 cm above the surface of the stone. Prufer (2007:15) suggests only this smaller design was exposed on the surface when the ball court was in use. The eastern platform, which has no structures on its summit, is less than 2 m high but measures over 60 m on each side. Prufer (2005:15) reports that it “may have been partially or completely paved with large limestone slabs.” A raised step and a low platform separate Groups D and E.

Group E occupies a finger of the ridge that juts southward. As is the case in Group C, the ridge’s topography constrains the plaza in Group E. The 80-m-long plaza narrows from 40 m wide to 30 m from north to south. The architecture in the group consists of low range structures along the eastern, western, and southern edges of the plaza. The ridge and the line of architecture ends with Group F at its southern and lowest end. Group F’s small courtyard is open on its western edge, allowing a view of the Group G Acropolis.

The acropolis at the site is separated from the other architecture by a saddle in the ridge and occupies two modified hilltops, which have been faced with cut stones to convey the appearance of a massive two-tiered platform. Despite the impression of monumentality created by modifications to the hilltops, the architecture in the acropolis consists of only six small structures, none taller than 3.5 m. Three buildings occupy the higher southern terrace, and three occupy the lower northern terrace; all six face inward onto their respective courtyards. Prufer (2005:16) reports three looted plaza tombs on the north face of the upper terrace. (p.99)

Southern Belize

Figure 5.6. Map of Uxbenka Groups B–F, based on Prufer et al. (2011:Figure 4).

(p.100) Chronology

The most remarkable thing about Uxbenka in a regional context is its antiquity. Radiocarbon dates from Group A indicate the first occupation of the site dates to the Late Preclassic period. The earliest structures on the hilltop were low, earthen mounds with plaster surfaces but no masonry construction (Prufer et al. 2011:208). Early Classic construction subsequently buried these mounds as the Stela Plaza began to take shape. Radiocarbon dating suggests the earliest stone buildings were constructed between 250 and 400 CE; most of the Early Classic structures show no evidence of subsequent remodeling other than frequently being replastered (Prufer et al. 2011:210, 212). Structure A-1, the largest building in the group, is the exception, showing an Early Classic remodeling of its western flank (Prufer et al. 2011:210). At least four of the stelae in the plaza date to this period (Wanyerka 2009:220), and the newly discovered Stela 23 has the earliest Long Count date (, or 455 CE) in southern Belize (Braswell and Prufer 2009:47).

Initial construction also occurred at Group B during the Early Classic period, with construction episodes every 40 to 50 years. The visible structures in Group B, however, postdate 500 CE and demonstrate Late Classic use (Prufer et al. 2011:212).

The site grew to its maximum size and final configuration during the first part of the Late Classic period, but the Stela Plaza was not renovated after 500 CE. It functioned as a “monument garden dedicated to the founding ancestors,” and the seat of political power at the site shifted to Plaza B (Prufer et al. 2011:219). The last dated monument in the Stela Plaza is Stela 15, which marks the period ending in 780 CE (Wanyerka 2009:267). Braswell and Prufer (2009:47) report that the decline and abandonment of the site are not well understood but “likely coincided with the rapid abandonment of most political centers in the region” after 800 CE; however, detailed radiocarbon dating reported by Aquino et al. (2013:277) narrow the time frame for the site’s abandonment to the beginning of the tenth century CE during the Terminal Classic period.

Political History

The hieroglyphic inscriptions at Uxbenka provide tantalizing data related to the early political history of the site. Although Stela 23 is the earliest dated monument, Stela 11 is even older. The monument was discovered in 1984, broken into three pieces. It depicts an Early Classic king holding a double-headed serpent bar. Stylistically, it resembles Early Classic monuments from (p.101) the central Petén, and the iconographic motif of Tikal’s king Chak Tok Ich’aak I (Jaguar Paw) is displayed on the loincloth of the ruler (Wanyerka 2009:220). The motif is not a retrospective mention of the ruler but rather appears to date to Chak Tok Ich’aak I’s reign, which began in 360 CE and ended abruptly in 378 CE when Sihyaj K’ahk’ (Fire Is Born) arrived at Tikal (Prufer et al. 2011:218; Wanyerka 2009:246).

Interpreting Stela 11 and what it signifies about the political relationship between Tikal and Uxbenka is challenging, but Wanyerka (2005:183) suggests that one of Tikal’s kings (either Chak Tok Ich’aak I or his successor, Yax Nuun Ahiin I) could have founded Uxbenka as a vassal kingdom. Wanyerka (2005:184, 2009:245) also proposes that Stela 11 originally stood at Tikal and was “exiled” to Uxbenka following the Teotihuacan Entrada. Its placement at Uxbenka would have been part of the post-378 CE expansion of Tikal’s hegemony across the southern lowlands. Even if that interpretation is not correct, the clear depiction of a Tikal king on a monument at Uxbenka indicates important ties between the two cities as early as the late fourth century CE (see Prufer et al. 2011:218).

The central Petén influence is seen in the other three Early Classic monuments at Uxbenka. Unfortunately, only Stelae 23, with its period ending date in 455 CE, can be dated on the basis of anything other than style. Aside from Stela 11, none of the Early Classic monuments contain preserved texts that illuminate the political history of the site.

The Late Classic corpus of monuments includes four stelae with legible dates. Stela 14 has a Long Count date between and, or 672 to 692 CE. Stela 19 contains a tentative Long Count date of (684 CE) among its 36 weathered glyph blocks, but no other information is legible. Stela 22 has a 751 CE period ending date and the outline of an emblem glyph. Though the main sign is not legible, the glyph demonstrates that Uxbenka was an independent kingdom at least during the Late Classic period (Wanyerka 2009:259–264). The rulers of Uxbenka claimed divine status by using the royal title of k’uhul ajaw on three of the Late Classic stelae (Wanyerka 2009:281). Stela 15 is the latest monument with a date and commemorates a fire-scattering ritual to celebrate the period ending in 780 CE (Wanyerka 2009:267).

Unfortunately, despite its impressive number of stelae, Uxbenka’s corpus of hieroglyphic texts is highly eroded and not terribly informative. Wanyerka (2009) suggests the early ties to the central Petén and Tikal waned at the end of the Early Classic as Tikal slipped into its hiatus. Uxbenka emerged from the Early Classic into a transformed southern Belize region marked by the rapid (p.102) rise of three other emblem-glyph bearing kingdoms, and the southeastern part of the Maya world may have had greater influence in the region than did Tikal during the Early Classic (Wanyerka 2009). What is particularly curious, and frustrating for those of us trying to reconstruct the political landscape of southern Belize, is that none of the cities with stelae make mention of another kingdom in the region in their texts, as noted earlier (Braswell and Prufer 2009:51).


Uxbenka currently holds the distinction of being the oldest site in southern Belize, although recent work at Nim Li Punit may be challenging that status (discussed in the following). The site provides the only evidence for Early Classic political contact in the possibly exiled Stela 11. Perhaps southern Belize was an area of interest for the Early Classic kings of Tikal, but any aspirations for long-term political ties were forgotten following the death of Chak Tok Ich’aak I.

Like Pusilhá, Uxbenka’s monumental core is dispersed across a series of hills and ridges. Unlike Pusilhá, the architecture at Uxbenka generally follows a more standard orientation, approximately 13° east of north. The architects at Uxbenka, beginning in the Early Classic period, built their plazas on modified hilltops and enhanced the monumentality of their city by facing the slopes of those hilltops. In the case of the acropolis, such facing stones covered the top 18 m of the hillside (Prufer 2005:15). For the most part, the structures at Uxbenka are small, however. The tallest building is Structure A-1, but, at 10 m tall, it would only be a moderately tall building at most cities discussed in this book.

Among the architectural inventory are two ball courts, a sacbe, plazas, a stela plaza, temple pyramids, and an acropolis. As is the case with most other cities in the region, Uxbenka does not have a clearly defined palace group, and its buildings lack full-height masonry walls and vaulted ceilings. The city, given its antiquity, may have set the standard for urban architecture and influenced the designs of its later neighbors.



Lubaantun is located in the lush broadleaf forest of the Maya Mountains’ foothills, 15 km west-southwest of Nim Li Punit, 13 km east-northeast of Uxbenka, (p.103) and 27 km northwest of the coast. The site’s core is approximately 50 m above sea level (Hammond 1975:259) and occupies the strip of exposed rock known as the Toledo series, an interbedded sedimentary formation including fine-grained siltstone, sandstone, and limestone within 3 to 4 km of the site (Hammond 1975:15). This formation is well bedded and jointed, and the Maya found that the finer sandstone and limestone, in particular, made excellent and easily obtained facing stones for their monumental buildings (Hammond 1975:16).

The Cretaceous limestone hills north of the site have been severely eroded by the heavy rainfall of southern Belize, and the small streams and rivers draining them have steep-sided valleys and often disappear underground only to emerge again farther downstream (Hammond 1975:17). Lubaantun is 2 km east of the Río Columbia, one of the short rivers draining the Toledo Foothills. Feeding the river are creeks that run in deep gullies east and west of Lubaantun, forming natural borders for the site (Hammond 1975:17). Downstream of Lubaantun, the Río Columbia joins the Río Grande, which drains into the Caribbean Sea north of the modern town of Punta Gorda.


Norman Hammond (1975:31–42) provides a detailed review of the early investigations at Lubaantun, the longest known and most frequently studied site in southern Belize. The ruins of Lubaantun, called Río Grande Ruins until 1924, have been known since at least the late 1800s, discovered shortly after the region was settled by Confederate expatriates following the American Civil War, and there is a possibility Spanish explorers visited the ruins prior to that (Hammond 1975:31).

Thomas Gann, acting on orders from the governor of the colony, visited the ruins in 1903, conducted limited excavations and mapping, and published various versions of his expedition in England over the next two years. Gann’s accounts prompted R. E. Merwin to visit the ruins in 1915 as part of a Peabody Museum of Harvard expedition to eastern Yucatan. Merwin mapped the site, described its architecture, documented the site’s ball court, and removed three carved ball court markers, which he shipped to the Peabody Museum. Merwin was the first researcher to point out the lack of masonry superstructures, a common trait in southern Belize (Hammond 1975:31–32).

The most infamous period of investigations at Lubaantun came in 1924–1926, when Thomas Gann returned, this time with F. A. Mitchell-Hedges and Lady Richmond-Brown (whom Mitchell-Hedges later adopted as his daughter). It was during their third season of work that Mitchell-Hedges and Richmond-Brown reportedly discovered a crystal skull under an altar at the site.

(p.104) More scholarly research resulted from Gann’s expeditions as T. A. Joyce at the British Museum became interested in the site. Joyce organized two seasons (1926 and 1927) at Lubaantun and an additional three at Pusilhá (1928–1930); although Gann was attached to these expeditions, so too was J. Eric Thompson (see Hammond 1975:39–41; Joyce et al. 1927).

In 1970 Norman Hammond (1975) conducted his dissertation research at Lubaantun and published a comprehensive monograph on the work entitled, Lubaantun: A Classic Maya Realm. Hammond (1975:2–4) selected the Toledo District to conduct his research in part because so little was known about its archaeology, but he was also interested in searching for Preclassic sites. He was drawn to Lubaantun because it “displayed a number of interesting and idiosyncratic features, including the absence of stelae and vaulted architecture, and the unusual ‘stepped perpendicular’ architecture of the main substructures.” He returned in 1971 to conduct a survey of southern Belize, confirming the locations of 22 sites in the region (Leventhal 1990:131).

Peter Dunham (1990) conducted dissertation research at Xnaheb, a small Late Classic center situated midway between Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit. His work was an element of Leventhal’s Southern Belize Archaeological Project and investigated the development of Xnaheb as a boundary center between the two larger centers (Dunham 1990).

In 1997 and 1998 the then Department of Archaeology conducted excavations, conservation, and restoration work at Lubaantun as part of the Maya Archaeological Sites Development Programme (MASDP), funded by the European Union (Awe 2012:75; Trein 2007:27). MASDP was the first project of its kind to be directed by Belizean archaeologists (Awe 2012:75). In 2009 Geoffrey Braswell and colleagues (2011) began a new study of Lubaantun as part of TRIP. The project focuses on the political and economic relationships between Lubaantun, Nim Li Punit, and Pusilhá (Braswell et al. 2011:116).

Site Plan and Urban Features

Lubaantun’s epicenter covers a natural, north–south oriented ridge bordered by two creeks and their steep-sided gullies (Figure 5.7). The ridge, though undulating, generally rises in elevation from south to north. The monumental core of the site stretches 335 m south to north and is approximately 155 m wide at its widest point. Given the natural rise of the ridge top, the northern end of the site is 20 m higher than the southern end (Hammond 1975:66). As Hammond (1975:66–67) describes it, the core of the city comprises a number of “hill platforms” designed to flatten the slope of the ridge and provide level building surfaces; the first platforms occupied the spine of the ridge, and later (p.105)

Southern Belize

Figure 5.7. Map of Lubaantun, after Hammond (1975:Figure 21). Contour interval is 10 m.

(p.106) ones developed along its sides. The plan of the site, therefore, “is the result of the way in which these platforms articulate and the extent to which they modify or are governed in form and location by the microtopography of the ridge” (Hammond 1975:66).

The city’s layout demonstrates a pronounced north–south axis, mirroring the underlying ridge’s orientation. As mapped by Hammond, the site core comprises over 100 structures, which are built around and/or on 20 courtyards/plazas and numerous platforms. The courtyards and plazas range in size from as small as 80 m2 (Plaza XV) to as large as 2,250 m2 (Plaza V).

Plaza IV occupies both the physical and symbolic center of the city. It is a 70-m-long plaza, bound on the north by Structure 14, a long, low building that provided access between Plazas IV and V via stairways on either side. Two large temple-pyramids, Structures 10 and 12, flank the eastern side of Plaza IV (Figure 5.8). On the western side are a series of low platform-like structures, including Structure 33, the third major temple-pyramid in the center of the city (Hammond 1975:72). The structure is a square platform measuring 22 m on a side with stairs on both its eastern and western faces.

Immediately south of Plaza IV are Plaza III and Plaza II, separated from

Southern Belize

Figure 5.8. Photograph of Structure 12 at Lubaantun

(photograph by the author).

(p.107) one another by a ball court. It was from the alleyway of this court that Merwin removed the three carved ball court markers in 1915 (Hammond 1975:148). Two low structures form the southern edge of Plaza II, and behind them the retaining walls of Platform 5, which supports the ball court and Plazas II and III, drop steeply to Plaza I, an open space with only two low structures near either of its southern corners. This plaza and two structures that project off its platform to the south form the southern end of the site core.

The largest plaza at the site in terms of area, Plaza V, is north of Structure 14 and 3 m lower in elevation (Figure 5.9). Structure 55, a wide platform with a broad central stair and two smaller structures on either end, is across the open plaza from Structure 14. North of Structure 55 is a series of climbing platforms and buildings masking the southern face of a natural rise in the ridge. The extreme northern end of the site did not include any major structures and was at least partly residential (Hammond 1975:66).

On the eastern and western sides of Plaza V are elevated platforms supporting smaller plazas and primarily ceremonial structures. To the east are Plazas

Southern Belize

Figure 5.9. Photograph of Plaza V at Lubaantun facing south from Structure 55. Structure 14 is in the center of the photograph, with Structure 12 visible behind it to the southeast

(photograph by the author).

(p.108) XVI and XVII, separated by a ball court (Structures 21 and 22). To the west are Plazas VIII and XIV, also separated by a ball court (Structures 39 and 40).

To the southwest of Plaza XIV and its ball court, the architecture steps down in elevation onto Plaza VII. Structure 44, a temple-pyramid fronting an elevated plaza behind it, marks the northern end of Plaza VII. Several low structures form the western edge, and the southern edge of the plaza is open, dropping steeply to Platform 85.

The architects at Lubaantun employed a stepped-perpendicular style of constructing terraces; every two or three vertical courses of stones on a platform face would be stepped back at least 10 cm, a technique that provided greater stability for high platform faces (Figure 5.10). A variation on this technique was employed to create stepped, rather than sloping, ball court aprons (Hammond 1975:147). The ball court markers found in the southern ball court, described below, all show the game being played in front of a stepped building. This style of ball court architecture is uncommon but is also found at Chan Chich in northwestern Belize.

Southern Belize

Figure 5.10. Photograph of the stepped-perpendicular style of construction at Lubaantun

(photograph by the author).


Geoffrey Braswell’s team interprets the area south of, and possibly including Structure 33, to be “a small acropolis-style palace” (Fauvelle et al. 2013:243). Although this area, marked as Platforms 104 and 105 on Hammond’s (1975) map, is depicted as a flat platform, Braswell’s crew describes it as “a complex set of rooms and corridors,” which Hammond chose to map as a platform pending excavations to clarify the architecture (Fauvelle et al. 2013:243).

Lubaantun does not have a sacbe, although sacbeob are present in the regional architectural inventory. Despite this omission, the site possesses other urban features expected of a city its size, including large plazas, temple-pyramids, and three ball courts, an impressive number.


Lubaantun is an oddity in the sample of cities described in this book because it is an entirely Late Classic development. Hammond (1975) subdivided the construction sequence of the city into five phases, all of which took place between the early eighth century and the middle ninth century CE as defined by Tepeu 2 and Tepeu 3 ceramics (Hammond 1981:177). These phases, based on ceramics and construction sequences, are not further refined by calendar dates but represent a relative sequence of construction events spanning only 100 to 150 years.

What follows is a greatly condensed summary of the site’s chronology based on Hammond’s (1975:51–66) detailed account. The earliest occupation at the site was found beneath Plaza IV and comprised house platforms, middens, and several nondomestic structures built on the natural rise in the center of the site. The second phase involved a major expansion of the modified hilltop, extending the artificial platforms to the north and south. By the end of Phase 2, the ceremonial center “consisted of two broad platforms on different levels, linked by steps” and extending from Plaza II in the south to Plaza V in the north (Hammond 1975:53). The southern ball court at the site was constructed during this phase, as were three temple-pyramids: Structures 10, 12, and 33.

The next stage of construction saw the site core expand to the east and west. The eastward expansion accompanied renovations to Structures 10 and 12 and involved piling massive boulder fill along the eastern side of the hill, burying earlier retaining platforms and creating a wider and taller surface for the ceremonial structures. The westward expansion was due to the addition of new plazas and structures to the west of Structure 33, which was also enlarged in Phase 3 (Hammond 1975:55–56). North of Plaza V, new platforms and structures were added to the southern face of the natural hill at the northern end of the site as part of this phase (Hammond 1975:58).

(p.110) Phase 4 growth was concentrated on the western side of the city as new platforms, plazas, and structures were built lower down the hillside and closer to the creek. This phase included a renovation to Structure 44 to convert it into the small temple-pyramid facing south into the newly created Plaza VII. The Structures 39 and 40 ball court also dates to Phase 4.

The site reached its greatest extent during Phase 5, which is dated to the Terminal Classic period based on associated Fine Orange ceramics (Hammond 1975:65–66). The Structure 21 and 22 ball court dates to this phase, as do the latest phase of Structure 55 and a series of climbing platforms leading up the hill slope north of Structure 55.

Hammond (1975:66) does not specifically address the abandonment of Lubaantun but notes that the entire length of occupation is estimated to be between 100 and 150 years, indicating an occupational period of ca. 700 to 850 CE. Braswell and Prufer (2009:50) suggest an 890 CE ending date for the occupation based on their reading of Hammond’s work. The site was apparently not reoccupied, or even revisited, during the Postclassic period (Braswell et al. 2011:125).

Political History

Although southern Belize is known for its unusually high number of carved monuments relative to other parts of the eastern lowlands, Lubaantun has no stelae and only three carved ball court markers. Morley stylistically dated the three markers from the southern ball court to 780–790 CE, and that temporal frame remains an accepted estimate even today (see Wanyerka 2003:18). All three markers depict two players engaged in a ball game; they face each other with the ball between them and the stepped face of the ball court in the background. Although each marker contains between 6 and 13 glyph blocks, most of the text is too eroded to read. The damaged text on Ballcourt Marker 2 may reference either Quiriguá or Copán, two larger sites in Guatemala and Honduras, respectively. Ballcourt Marker 3 appears to have an emblem glyph for Lubaantun, and the same glyph appears on two broken ceramic figural plaques on display in the site’s visitor center. The same glyph appears at Naj Tunich cave, 30 km west of Lubaantun (Wanyerka 2009:415).

This newly discovered emblem glyph has important implications for understanding Lubaantun’s political role in southern Belize. Subsequent to his Lubaantun monograph, Hammond (1981:179) speculated that Lubaantun may have been the political and economic capital of a polity in which Nim Li Punit, discussed later, was the ritual center. Braswell and Prufer (2009:46) considered this unlikely given the distance between the two sites, and both sites’ (p.111) possessing emblem glyphs argues for their both being independent polities (Wanyerka 2009).


Lubaantun’s site core has a pronounced north–south axis and was constructed over the comparatively short span of 100 to 150 years but still demonstrates five major phases of expansion as documented by Norman Hammond’s (1975) excavations. Lubaantun shares vernacular architectural traits with its southern Belize neighbors, including the technique of integrating structures and platforms into the natural topography, most obvious in the series of platforms and structures that climbs the face of the hill at the north end of the site core.

A striking trait of the southern cities, well displayed at Lubaantun, is size and quality of the stones used in the facings of walls and platforms. The builders employed both fine-grained limestone and Toledo sandstone to craft blocks up to 2 m long by 60 cm high (Hammond 1975:71). The result is a distinctly different feel to the architecture when compared to that of other areas of the eastern lowlands (see Figure 5.8).

In other respects, the city is very different from its neighbors. Its site plan is compact and stands in sharp contrast to the dispersed site cores of Pusilhá and Uxbenka to the southwest. Geoffrey Braswell (personal communication, 2013) compares the mapped portion of Lubaantun to the acropolis at Pusilhá, noting “what we call Lubaantun is just the acropolis of a larger center/community.” The problem is that no one has mapped the wider settlement area, leaving us with an incomplete understanding of the site.

Most striking, however, is that Lubaantun, despite its size and its apparent political independence, does not have any stelae. Perhaps its idiosyncratic elements can be explained by the city’s late founding date. By the eighth century when Lubaantun was founded, stelae dedication was waning at the other cities in the region and the Stela Plaza at Uxbenka had already been relegated to a monument garden, rather than the architectural focus of dynastic power.

Nim Li Punit


Nim Li Punit is approximately 15 km east-northeast of Lubaantun. The two sites share similar settings as both are built in the band of Toledo series rocks in the foothills arcing around the base of the Maya Mountains. The site occupies a high ridge covered in broadleaf forest overlooking a tributary of Golden (p.112) Stream, one of the short waterways draining the foothills to the Caribbean Sea, approximately 13 km to the southeast.


Less is known about Nim Li Punit than any other major site in southern Belize (Braswell and Prufer 2009:48), although that is changing. Despite its proximity to southern Belize’s major road, Nim Li Punit escaped discovery until 1976, when an oil-exploration company bulldozed a stone substructure while running a seismic survey line. The archaeological commissioner, Joseph O. Palacio, visited the ruins and discovered the site’s stela plaza. Inspired by the portrait of a king on Stela 14, Palacio named the site after the Kekchi Mayan term for large headdress. Palacio invited Norman Hammond to conduct a preliminary study of the ruins, and a small crew from the Corozal Project at Cuello (see Chapter 9) spent three days mapping, photographing, illustrating, and testing the ruins (Hammond et al. 1999:1–2).

Richard Leventhal’s (1990) Southern Belize Archaeological Project began studying the ruins in 1983 and determined they are larger than Hammond et al. (1999) suspected. In addition to discovering two previously unmapped groups of buildings, Leventhal (1990) salvaged a royal tomb at the site. MASDP carried out limited excavations and more extensive conservation work at Nim Li Punit in the late 1990s (Awe 2012:75; Trein 2007:27), including salvage work on two additional royal tombs (Braswell and Prufer 2009:48).

In 2010 TRIP began a new study of Nim Li Punit as part of their regional investigations of southern Belize (Fauvelle et al. 2013). At Nim Li Punit, their focus has been on structures at the southern end of the site core, which they interpret to be a royal palace.

Site Plan and Urban Features

The epicenter of Nim Li Punit comprises three major groups of architecture (Figure 5.11). The South Group, home to the stela plaza, and the East Group are a connected line of architecture built along a north–south axis that extends for approximately 325 m. The West Group occupies a hilltop about 60 m from the other groups and separated by a narrow stream. The orientation of the architecture at the city is consistent internally but differs from the orientations seen at most other sites in Belize. Most of the structures in the South Group are 4–5° west of north; only Pusilhá has a similar west-of-north style of orientation.

The South Group anchors the southern end of the site core and includes about a dozen structures grouped around two platforms of different elevations. (p.113)

Southern Belize

Figure 5.11. Map of Nim Li Punit, after Leventhal (1990:Figure 8.2).

(p.114) The main plaza, which occupies the lower of the two platforms, is elevated about 5 m above the natural terrain to the east and south and measures approximately 55 m north–south by 30 m east–west (Hammond et al. 1999:2). Access to the main plaza is from its northern end where a stairway leads down to another platform and the site’s ball court. Hammond et al. (1999:Figure 2) mapped 23 stelae or stelae fragments in the main plaza, noting that several of the fragments probably could be refit. This appears to have been the case as Braswell and Prufer (2009:48) report 21 stelae at the site. Only Stelae 1 and 16 were standing when the site was first mapped (Hammond et al. 1999:4). At approximately 1,840 m2, the main plaza at Nim Li Punit is the smallest of the three stela plazas found at the major sites in southern Belize. Uxbenka’s Stela Plaza checks in at approximately 1,930 m2, and Pusilhá’s measures approximately 2,560 m2.

Structure 2 is an 11-m-tall temple-pyramid with an outset stairway. It is the tallest structure at the site and dominates the western side of the main plaza. It faces Structure 4, a 63-m-long, 3-m-tall range building the marks the eastern edge of the main plaza. The lone structure on the southern edge of the plaza is Structure 3, a 24-m-long mound that is also 3 m tall.

Attached to the western side and northwestern corner of the main plaza is a higher platform that supports not only the bulk of Structure 2’s pyramid-substructure but also six other buildings grouped around an irregularly shaped plaza. This is known as the Plaza of the Royal Tombs today; three collapsed tombs were excavated there in the 1980s and 1990s (Fauvelle et al. 2013:243). Leventhal’s (1990:132) team excavated Tomb 1, a royal tomb with the remains of 5 people who were buried with 39 or 40 ceramic vessels and various other artifacts including jade diadems and stingray spines (see also Fauvelle et al. 2013:243), in front of Structure 5. The tomb fits the pattern of sequential tombs in the region as it held the remains of 5 individuals interred separately. MASDP excavated Tombs 2 and 3 in front of Structure 8, a 40-m-long and 2-m-tall mound that marks the western edge of the plaza (Fauvelle et al. 2013:243). The 3.5-m-tall Structure 7 marks the northern edge of the plaza.

Members of TRIP concluded the group of buildings and associated plaza constitute a “habitation group-style palace” (Fauvelle et al. 2013:243). They interpret Structure 8 to have possibly been a council house based on the lack of caches, burials, and middens (Fauvelle et al. 2013:247). Structure 7 and its two outbuildings they more confidently interpret to be the royal residence of the kings of Nim Li Punit (Fauvelle et al. 2013:248). The identification is based on the architectural form and elaboration as well as the content and number of caches found in the structure (Fauvelle et al. 2013:248).

(p.115) The ball court at the site is located north of the main plaza and consists of Structures 12 and 13, two 20-m-long buildings separated by a 6-m-wide playing alley. Low benches at the base of each mound, however, restrict the alley’s width to about 3.5 m. Excavations recovered a single plain limestone marker in the center of the alley (Hammond et al. 1999:4). Although not entirely evident from published maps, Leventhal (1990:138) describes the ball court as being walled.

The East Group is north of the ball court and consists of a complex series of platforms and four plazas that climb the gentle slope of the ridge as it rises to the north (Leventhal 1990:132). The highest platform in this series occupies the high point of the ridge and includes nine low structures rather haphazardly arranged around a common plaza.

Leventhal (1990:132) describes the West Group “as the smallest of the central architectural clusters, although still impressive in its scale.” The group includes two terraces—an upper one and a lower one—and over a dozen structures. The largest structure occupies the western side of the lower terrace and is approximately 6 m tall.


Until recently, little could be said about the chronology of Nim Li Punit outside of the 76-year period covered by its carved monuments. The limited excavations at the site prior to TRIP’s work did not produce enough data to determine a construction sequence for the major groups, and the ceramics from the site had not been formally analyzed. Thankfully, the preliminary work accomplished since 2010 has sketched out a ceramic chronology for the site. The earliest ceramics thus far discovered come from fill and primary context in the southern part of the site and date to the Early Classic, ca. 400 CE. TRIP researchers attribute the bulk of the construction at the site including the West Group and the final phase of the South Group, however, to the Late Classic (600–830 CE) and early Terminal Classic (830–850/900 CE) periods (Fauvelle et al. 2013:246).

Political History

Stelae dedication at the site occurred in two bursts: the first (based on the latest historical dates on the monuments) between 734 and 741 CE in the Late Classic period and the second between 790 and 831 CE in the Terminal Classic period (Fauvelle et al. 2013:246). Recorded history at Nim Li Punit begins with Stela 15, which was erected in 734 CE. The stela depicts three individuals conducting a scattering ritual framed by upper and lower registers of hieroglyphs, (p.116) which are supplemented by 19 secondary glyph blocks, including site’s the emblem glyph, in the figural scene (Wanyerka 2003:74–75).

Stela 2 was apparently erected in 738 CE, although its text makes mention of a date in 726 CE and the period ending in 731 CE. The monument depicts two standing individuals facing a third seated person. They are engaged in a scattering ritual atop an elaborate Witz’ monster pedestal, which is accompanied by a water-lily jaguar and a snake. Wanyerka’s (2003:46–49) reading of the text suggests it deals with the accession of a king of Nim Li Punit that was attended by a lord from the “Water-Scroll” site, which may be Altun Ha in northern Belize, and another lord from either Copán or Quiriguá—an interpretation that Braswell and Prufer (2009:49) do not favor.

Stela 1 also depicts a scattering ritual to commemorate the period ending in 741 CE. Lajun Ka’an, a king of Nim Li Punit, faces a seated figure with a ceramic bowl on the floor between them. The figures are atop an unusual Witz’ monster pedestal with a large mat design below it.

Braswell’s TRIP team speculates that the 50-year hiatus in stelae dedication at the site after 741 CE could be related to an intriguing possibility. The royal dynasty may have pulled up its roots and relocated to the smaller site of Xnaheb, located approximately midway between Nim Li Punit and Lubaantun, where the only dated monument was dedicated in 780 CE (Fauvelle et al. 2013:246; Wanyerka 2003:88).

Monument placement began again with Stela 21 in 790 CE; this monument mentions a fire ritual and a scattering ritual associated with the period ending. The king involved is a divine lord from Nim Li Punit, nicknamed “Macaw Jaguar God of the Underworld,” who is shown alone, holding a K’awiil scepter. The main sign of the Nim Li Punit emblem glyph is spelled syllabically on this monument as Kawam, a word that may refer to a bird of prey (Wanyerka 2003:80–81).

Stela 14 is a remarkable monument because of its massive size. At 9.29-m tall, it is the second-tallest stela in the Maya world (Wanyerka 2003:68). The monument depicts a single person conducting a scattering ritual, probably to commemorate the period ending in 800 CE. The stela names the same king seen on Stela 21, as well as his parents; his mother was a noble-woman from the as-yet-unidentified site of B’alam (Wanyerka 2003:68–69).

Stela 7 is a highly eroded monument that shows two standing figures atop a Witz’ monster pedestal celebrating the period ending in 810 CE. Unfortunately, its eroded text yields no additional information of note.

Stela 3 is an odd monument that includes a single 7 Ajaw glyph, curiously written backwards. This apparently represents a Short Count calendar date, (p.117) a shorthand method of naming period endings based on their associated Tzolk’in date. In this case, the most likely Long Count date corresponding to 7 Ajaw is in 830 CE (Wanyerka 2003:53). Braswell and Prufer (2009:49) suggest the stela is a post-abandonment monument.

Wanyerka (2003:74) believes the texts on Stelae 2, 15, and 21 provide political references to Copán and Quiriguá, two important centers in the southeastern lowlands of Honduras and Guatemala. Braswell and Prufer (2009:49) argue for a more cautious interpretation because the emblem glyphs for Copán and Quiriguá do not show up in any of the texts, nor do they name individuals known from those sites. Furthermore, none of the nearby emblem-glyph bearing kingdoms is mentioned in the texts.


Using the methods to rank sites discussed in Chapter 10, Nim Li Punit is smaller than the other southern Belize Late Classic cities. Geoffrey Braswell (personal communication, 2013) points out that Nim Li Punit and Uxbenka have the least nucleation of large architecture. Despite its differences, Nim Li Punit shares much in common with them the other sites in the region, including the integration of the natural topography into the urban architecture and the lack of vaulted buildings. The ritual heart of the city was clearly the South Group with its almost two dozen stela, central temple-pyramid, elevated palace group, and royal tombs.

Our understanding of the city’s age and role in the regional political arena is sure to change based on the recent and ongoing work by TRIP. Significantly, the discovery of Early Classic ceramics in primary contexts has the potential to challenge Uxebenka’s status as the oldest city in the region.

Discussion and Concluding Remarks

Of all the regions discussed in this book, southern Belize is the most meaningful as a reflection of ancient Maya developments. In other words, not only is the region a useful geographic subdivision, but it also appears to be culturally significant. The centers of southern Belize developed and shared an architectural style that is distinct from the other areas of Belize. Were they really cities, however? Three of the four sites discussed here are clearly royal centers, and Lubaantun could easily be argued to be royal as well, assuming it had an emblem glyph. Geoffrey Braswell (personal communication, 2013) notes that there is little that is truly urban in the region, and he prefers to classify the sites as “royal manor houses embedded in a rural framework.” For the purposes of (p.118) this book, however, it is reasonable to view the major sites of southern Belize as functionally equivalent to the cities described in the following chapters. They are regal-ritual centers and the seats of independent royal courts. In terms of size, they certainly fall at the bottom of the rank ordering presented in Chapter 10, but they still served their rural hinterlands as the central administrative bodies for their polities.

The region is notable for its high frequency of carved monuments, its small stela plazas, and the curious lack of textual reference to neighboring cities. Furthermore, the complete lack of stelae at Lubaantun is puzzling given the site’s size and the ubiquity of stelae at other sites in the region.

Another important characteristic of the region is that the major cities lacked Preclassic antecedent architecture, as the region apparently was not heavily settled until the Early Classic period. Most of the other major centers of the eastern lowlands are all built on the remains of Preclassic villages; those villages not only affected the location of urban developments but also influenced and constrained subsequent architectural growth to varying degrees.

Southern Belize, isolated and unique, is atypical when stacked alongside the rest of the eastern lowlands in terms of chronology, architecture, use of stone monuments, settlement patterning, and concepts of city building. In fact, no starker contrast exists than that between the southern kingdoms and the mighty site of Caracol on the other side of the Maya Mountains. Caracol represents a completely different kind of urban development and political force: it engulfed its neighbors, challenged the Early Classic power structure in the southern lowlands, and dominates Chapter 6 of this book.