James, our guide, picks us up in the morning and we head for our destination a few hours away along a dirt road and past more than one army sentry. James is Mayan from the village of Ox Mul Kah now called San Antonia Village (post Spain occupation of course.) He owns a farm with his brothers, is on the village council of elders, and we talk about his efforts to preserve the native language that he speaks, as does his family, as their primary way of conversing; although the national language here in Belize, a commonwealth of England, is of course, English. We talk about village life, Belize, and the villages fight for self-government in the wake of discovering natural gas reserves. Surprisingly to me, with no electricity, no refrigeration, no hospitals, the village Mayans are fighting not for profits from their own land but to be left alone with the quality of life such as it is. It is a life James loves.
We are on our way to Ox Witz Ha or commonly know as Caracol — the largest center of the Mayan civilization. The Mayans lived from 400 BC to 1400 AD with their hey day between 500 and 1000 AD. James’ great uncle Rosa Mai, a logger, is the one who originally found the ruins in 1938 and it was excavated (partially) in 1950. His great uncle’s name is on a plaque in front.
(hard to see in this photo, but this is a family of eight howling monkeys in the tree in the photo below. There is no mistaking their presence through. The monkeys sound like that T-Rex in Jurassic Park and just as loud. We came across these at the very edge of the jungle as we entered the archeology site.)
The site was home of 150,000 Mayans during its golden years. Compare this with 300,000 total in all of Belize today. Its competitor at the time was Tecal in Guatamala about 50 miles away. The ancient city is broken into the lower class, middle class, the astronomers, and the upper class. We start our discovery in that same order at the bottom of the hill.
This is very similar to how the site was found in 1938.
The Mayans buried their dead in tombs underneath their own homes. These structures were houses of the leaders of the lower class. On top would be a thatch roof with a family living on top. Below are tombs like the one below, a majority of them still untouched and unknown. James explains that only 8% of the site has been excavated.
In this tomb above they found a mummified child. We make our way upland. Like Dante’s Inferno, the Mayans hold this tree as a symbol of the 14 layers of reality above ground and 7 levels of hell below.
I quickly make mental notes and decide that if you were Mayan in say the 900’s you didn’t want to be the lower class because you had to do all the work, and frankly, I’m feeling a little lazy in this stage of my life. You didn’t want to be a soldier nation because there were battles all the time in this warrior nation and apart from getting clubbed to death with an obsidian edged mallet, you also had to walk a great deal in dense jungle with jaguars, snakes, and spiders all over the place; you certainly didn’t want to be an athlete because many times the game of ōllamaliztli ended with the winners being sacrificed; and you definitely didn’t want to be in the upper class because if you were caught by neighboring villages you were sacrificed; and you didn’t want to be a cute girl during a draught for the very same reason. No, the best Mayan to be was in the middle class, quietly tucked away making a nice living practicing art or architecture. We make are way to that part of the excavation.
On the way we come across a camp of young college archeology students. I think of my son, Cameron, who wants to be an archeologist and easily picture him classifying bones, putting together pottery shards, and playing guitar at night for a group of coeds under the Mayan night sky.
(this is their sink)
A mile upland and we come to the middle class neighborhood.
As with the lower class, and all Mayans of that period, they too buried their dead in tombs below where they lived. We make our way into one of the excavated tombs.
with only our flashlights we look at the mortar and rock fitting that is so well preserved thousands of years later. It was amazing to see the work of hands long long dead and forgotten. Yes, the middle class had it going!
We decide on a life mission. To traipse through jungles with a band of villagers carrying survival needs and enough rum and allspice leaves for our mojitos to look for buried civilizations. Next we go to the observatory and the size of the structures blew our minds.
On the way we come across one of the many tablets depicting historical events.
This one depicted the very high king and most successful ruler King Waters. He went to war with the Guatemalan Tecál king. He was rebuffed the first time and his son, King Ka the second went to a neighboring city and stole the princess. They married and the two cities went to war against Tecál and won. King Waters himself sacrificed the ruler on the alter. This is the king below.
(on top of one of the observatories)
Finally we go to the center — the upper class. I cannot describe nor can the camera catch the size and awesomeness of what we saw.
On top of a very long flight of steps with many levels we make it to where the sacrifices were done in front of the crowd below. This is the alter now weathered.
Kathi, now herself a student of Mesoamerican culture, announced then and there that she would make it very plain if she were Mayan that she was not a virgin. It might take well known and intimate relationships with 20 or 30 high priests or upper class statesmen but there would be no ambiguity and obviously her sacrifice during a drought would only bring havoc and disappointment from the gods. She’s definitely a survivor.
It was very peaceful on top of this ancient tower. We spent twenty minutes in just silence and contemplation. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the people below going about their way of life, howling monkeys in the background.
We head home, glad to be born in a time and place of Starbucks, strip-malls, and reality TV.