Xunantunich (“Stone Lady” in Mayan) is located in western Belize approximately two miles from the Belizean-Guatemalan border. The site lies just north of San Jose Succotz, across the Western Highway and Mopan River, and is accessible only via hand-cranked ferry and a one mile hike (or taxi ride) uphill. And, for a small tip, the ferry driver will let you crank your way across!
Xunantunich was constructed from approximately 650 to 1000 AD. Although discovered and partially excavated in the 1890s, the entrance sign bearing the caption “Discovered 1938” references the excavation by J. Eric Thompson in that year. More recently, the site has been excavated and restored by Dr. Richard Leventhal (UCLA) and Dr. Wendy Ashmore (University of Pennsylvania) from 1991 through 1997. Dr. Jaime Awe, director of the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance (BVAR) Project (and native San Ignacio archaeologist), also excavated the site and led the preservation and replication of its friezes.
The predominant pyramidal structure at Xunantunich is “El Castillo,” the second tallest structure in Belize, second only to the “Sky Palace” at the Mayan archaeological site Caracol. El Castillo is famed for its friezes that buttress its eastern and western sides, the northern and southern friezes having deteriorated.
The eastern and western friezes are fiberglass replicas that were placed approximately three feet in front of the original stucco friezes, thus burying and protecting the centuries-old stucco beneath dirt. To reproduce the friezes, three-dimensional clay replicas were made on site, on which latex and gauze molds were produced, into which fiberglass was poured. The eastern frieze was constructed in four sections that were individually hoisted into place with ropes and pulleys.
El Castillo is accessible via stairs to tourists, including its roof comb which rises approximately 130 feet above the jungle, featuring dramatic panoramas of the entire site and the lush landscape. The roof comb is supported by a perfectly preserved corbel vault, the triangular stepped ceiling common in the architecture of the Mayan (which lacked classic arches).
While touring the Xunantunich museum, examine the excavation team photographs closely and you’ll see some familiar faces. Many of the artisans at the Riverside Shops once excavated Xunantunich among other ruins such as Cahal Pech and Caracol. Having gained years of archaeological fieldwork experience, they not only produce magnificent wood and stone carvings, but also replicas of Belizean archaeological artifacts with Mayan glyphs and classic design.