Thick jungle vines and choking vegetation have not dissuaded archaeologists in their quest to uncover the mysterious past of a hidden treasure nestled in deep foliage straddling the border of Belize and Guatemala. El Pilar is the site of ancient constructions described as “unusual” by researchers, and most of the twenty-five-plus structures remain unexplored, still buried by a thick canopy and undergrowth.
Archaeologists have been studying the ancient Mayan site for decades, but only recently with the help of advanced remote sensing technology have they been able to delve deep under the soil and jungle brush to reveal what is a highly unusual complex, dubbed the ‘Citadel’.
According to a recent report in Popular Archaeology , the Citadel is unlike the other constructions found at El Pilar. It appears to be a defensive structure, set apart from the other buildings at the location.
The Maya house site Tzunu'un at the ancient Maya city center El Pilar (Belize/Guatemala). Tzunu'un means "hummingbird" in Mayan. CC BY-SA 3.0
Using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and a helicopter to survey the location, “scientists were able to outline the construction features perched atop a ridge with the appearance of fortifications, consisting of concentric terracing and six structures, including two ‘temples’, each about five meters high,” writes Popular Archaeology.
Once the team identified where they needed to investigate, in March 2015, the researchers returned and proceeded with careful and limited excavations. Thick underbrush and vines challenged progress, and it was revealed the site had been a victim of extensive looting, with debris left behind. Deep tunnels and trenches had been burrowed into temples on the Citadel, and it was clear some beautiful dressed stone had been pried out with picks. Despite the looters’ destruction, archaeologists were able to get a better understanding of El Pilar and the ancient Citadel.
It is hoped that the ceramic shards found at the site will tell more about the history of the Maya peoples.
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Anabel Ford , director of the Pilar Program at the MesoAmerican Research Center, University of California, says of the unique nature of the Citadel, “It shares nothing in common with Classic Maya centers: no clear open plaza, no cardinal structure orientation, and curiously no evident relationship to the major Classic site of El Pilar, little more than 600 meters away.”
Belizean newspaper El Guardian reports that the Citadel’s footprint spreads across 10,000 square meters (107,639 square feet) and the 4 meter- (13 feet-) high ramparts encircle a natural hill. The protective intent is clear say the researchers, and it blends ingenuity with defense.
The lower ramparts have been dug out from quarrying, producing vertical faces that cannot be scaled by invaders. Upper levels are made with retaining walls and fill, a defensive technique said to have been employed at many Maya monuments, explained Ford.
Archway at Plaza Jobo in El Pilar (Belize side).
Most striking of all was the discovery the placement of the temples and platforms. Contrary to expectations that the edges would be aligned to the cardinal directions, the main central temple at the peak of the hill is oriented to the southeast.
LiDAR image shows the El Pilar Citadel with currently-detected structures and their relative dimensions and locations at the top of the ridge, including the two lower ramparts. Credit: BRASS/El Pilar
Until recent years these types of searches for monuments covered in vegetation and centuries of soil would have proven near impossible for researchers. Drones and LiDAR technology make these investigations possible today. LiDAR was developed in the 1960s to analyze oceans and ice in the Arctic, but has been employed since in topography, geology and mapping.
The thick canopy and choking vines, while protective of the site, had to be dealt with before limited excavations could take place. Credit: BRASS/El Pilar
The main thrust of initial Belize River Archaeological Settlement Survey ( BRASS) investigations was to survey the sites see how the ancient people were living, where they built monuments, and what kind of work they were doing specifically at El Pilar. It was learned that residents grew some of their food through what is called “forest garden” agriculture , where the forest itself is cultivated.
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Maya nut or Ramon nut on the forest floor at El Pilar.
“El Pilar is considered the largest site in the Belize River region, boasting over 25 known plazas and hundreds of other structures, covering an area of about 120 acres. Monumental construction at El Pilar began in the Middle Preclassic period, around 800 BCE, and at its height centuries later it supported more than 20,000 people,” writes Popular Archaeology.
Careful excavations and further collaborative studies are set to continue under the direction of Ford and her team. The MesoAmerican Research Center writes that the research programs at El Pilar, “promote cultural heritage stewardship, nature conservation, and community development. Relying on collaboration of local villagers, nations of the region, and international scholars these program are bringing the vision to fruition.”
Indeed, as much as it dogged the archaeologists, it was the thick foliage which provided protection from the worst looting. Conservation for the Maya constructions is foremost, and the jungle brush continues to preserve the monuments until such a time as they can be carefully rediscovered by experts.
More information on the preservation of the preservation of ancient cultivation and forest gardens at El Pilar can be found at the Facebook page “ El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora & Fauna ”.
The mysteries and discoveries continue to unfold at this intriguing ancient site.
Featured Image: LiDAR image showing the contral area of El Pilar, and the Citadel to the far right, (east of the core area). Credit: BRASS/El Pilar
By Liz Leafloor