Archaeology of Lubaantun

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Introduction

Lubaantun is a Late Classic Maya site near the village of San Pedro Columbia in the midst of the Rio Grande and San Antonio Indian Reservations. Lubaantun, "the place of fallen stones," is situated within the Rio Grande drainage basin, in the Toledo District. The site is accessible from the Southern Highway, via San Pedro Columbia or the Silver Creek road.

The environment of Lubaantun is bounded by the seacoast on the east, the Maya Mountains on the north and west, and swampland on the south.

The site is well known for its mass of mould-made ceramic whistle figurines, metates (grinding stones) and manos (grinding tools), and its "stepped" (stair-like) architecture. Lubaantun has three ballcourts, to the east, west, and south of the major religious buildings.

Streams flow on either edge of the site core, and the elevation ranges from 30m at the stream banks, to 60m at the extreme northern portion of the site. Given its size, the lack of carved stone monuments (stelae) at Lubaantun is a curious point of interest.

Geography & Environment

Lubaantun is located at the foothills of the Maya Mountains. This archaeological region is known as the Southern Maya Lowlands and extends north to the Yucatan peninsula (Mexico), and south to the Copan valley (Honduras). The environment is characterized by rich soils, very well suited to growing cacao and maize, a high rainfall throughout the year, and distinct wet and dry seasons. There is access to limestone and granite materials, rainforest and marine resources.

Population

This city centre, like all in ancient Maya territory, probably had a permanent population with periodic increases as people came in from surrounding areas for gatherings, festivals, feasts, ceremonies, speeches, and social dances. Population estimates can be made based on archaeological settlement surveys. Using an average of 15 people per plazuela or household group, the population density at the central core of Lubaantun is estimated at 600 people per square kilometer.

Occupation Span

The period of occupancy for any ancient Maya site is determined by dates that have been recorded on monumental architecture (such as stelae and ballcourt markers) and/or pottery that can be identified in a chronological sequence of ceramic types. These types correspond to specific sites and time periods. Based on correlation of ceramic and architectural evidence, the period of major settlement activity at Lubaantun occurred between AD 730-860 in the Late Classic Period. The settlement of Lubaantun may have been the result of expansion from the earlier centres of Pusilha and Uxbenka, which in turn, may have been expansions from the Peten, Verapaz and Usumacinta regions.

Political Organization

Information about the political organization of Lubaantun, and its relationship to other sites in the Maya Lowlands, is based on interpretation. There is a debate among archaeologists about how to reconstruct the ancient social and political landscape. One theory (the centralized state) sees the larger sites as dominant centres with varying degrees of political and economic control over minor or smaller centres. A contrasting view (the segmentary state) presents each site as an autonomous community, allied to other centres by religious and family ties. Both theories provide for the continually changing nature of the social and political system.

We know that centres in the Southern Belize region, including Lubaantun, Nim Li Punit, Pusilha, and Uxbenka were interrelated in some way. It is argued that Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit politically emerged from the earlier centres of Pusilha and Uxbenka. The Southern Belize centres were allied to other sites in Alta Verapaz and Peten (Guatemala), along the Usumacinta River (Guatemala/Mexico), and in the area of Copan (Honduras).

Economy & Commerce

An abundance of non-perishable trade items was found at Lubaantun and surrounding areas. In particular, manos and metates (grinding stones and crushing tools) were found throughout the site. Lifelike pottery figurines were found in great quantities during excavations (and in nearby modern Maya villages). One figurine depicts a man using a drum and rattle, and wearing a cacao pod. Many others portray ballplayers adorned with various items of ballgame regalia. Some of these were made using pottery moulds, and identical figures have been found at various sites, some as far away as Altar de Sacrificios, Coban and Uaxactun (all in Guatemala). It seems that Lubaantun was built at a choice location in order to access the naturals resources and exploit the pre-existing trade networks to their full potential.

Language

The ancient words spoken at the site of Lubaantun were probably a dialect of Cholan, the language of the Classic Maya heartland. This ancient way of speaking has developed into several distinct languages, including modern Chontal, Chol, Tzotzil, Tzeltal and Chorti. The Cholan Maya were decimated by the onslaught of European diseases and forced to relocate by European "authorities" in the 1600’s. Survivors fled to the highlands of Alta Verapaz (Guatemala) to live with their relatives among the Kekchi, with whom they had longstanding social and economics links. In recent times, the Kekchi have migrated east, down the mountains, and into present day Belize, retracing the paths once trod by their ancestors. The ancient city of Lubaantun is now surrounded by the modern Kekchi and Mopan villages San Antonio, San Pedro Columbia and San Miguel.

Architecture

The architecture at Lubaantun is generally consistent with regional patterns. Throughout the Maya area, for example, houses and religious structures of differing sizes are arranged around open, rectangular plazas. The most complex city-centres of the largest sites are variations on that same design. An unexplained anomaly at Lubaantun is the complete absence of stelae in this city with three ballcourts and large-scale building construction.

Architectural features of Southern Belize

  • vertical, narrow or broad stepped facings
  • no stone superstructures on major buildings
  • ballcourt structures with stepped faces
  • ballcourts enclosed by low freestanding walls
  • no corbelled vaulting (Maya arches)

Excavation History

The site at Lubaantun was first excavated in 1915 by R.E.W. Merwin of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum. At that time the site was known as the "Rio Grande Ruins." Merwin produced the first measured site plan, and he found and exported three sculptured ballcourt markers from Lubaantun’s south ballcourt to the Peabody museum. In 1938, Sylvanus Morley dated the ballcourt markers to AD 780-790 and published Merwin’s site plan.

Thomas Gann visited the Rio Grande ruins in 1924 and renamed the site "Lubaantun." Gann excavated using dynamite to remove rock and soil, destroying many mounds and artifacts in the process. T.A. Joyce mapped the ceremonial centre for the British Museum in 1926. In 1927, G. Laws surveyed and mapped the site to an accurate latitude and longitude. Norman Hammond began work at Lubaantun in 1970, under the auspices of the British Musuem of Harvard.

In 1998, the Maya Archaeological Sites Development Programme, in corporation with the European Union, and the Belize Government’s Department of Archaeology, carried out restoration, consolidation and the construction of an interpretive Visitor Centre at Lubaantun.

Lubaantun: An Ancient Maya City

The ancient city of Lubaantun is built on a massive platform constructed during a period of just over one hundred years in the Late Classic (AD 730-860). Archaeologists have suggested that Lubaantun was an administrative centre regulating trade and that nearby Nim Li Punit functioned as the regal centre of religion, ceremony and ritual. The absence of stelae at Lubaantun is intriguing since other sites in the area have stelae carve with hieroglyphic inscriptions.

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