Archaeology of Santa Rita

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Ancient Chetumal belonged to a federation of principalities or mini-states called the League of Mayapan. At first, membership in this league was voluntary but soon one family group, the Cocoms from Sotuta, became dominant and the other principalities were forced to remain members, since their royal families were held more or less hostage in Mayapan. In 1441 the Xui family led an uprising against the Cocoms and as a result the League of Mayapan fell. The ancient Belizean state of Chetumal, run by the Can family, allied itself loosely with the Cocoms, fighting side by side in one of many Maya civil wars just prior to the Spanish arrival.

Spain did attempt to conquer Belize but failed. The Spanish conquistador, Francisco de Mantejo, tried to subjugate the peninsula of Yucatan between  1527-29. The first attempt ended in chaos. Later on, Alonso de Davila, Montejo’s lieutenant, was sent south to pacify the Maya principality of Chetumal. Montejo by now had conquered the Yucatan Maya. Davilla found the town of Chetumal abandoned. He named it Villa Real. The abandonment of Chetumal was part of a well-thought-out plan. The Maya were well advised not to attack the Spanish in open battle since the Spanish had the advantage of superior firearms and mounted horsemen.

The Maya chieftain of ancient Chetumal had an unusual son-in-law, a renegade Spaniard named Gonzalo Guerrero. Guerrero and other Spanish soldiers had been shipwrecked in 1511, south of Jamaica. It took the survivors about 13 days to reach the coast of Yucatan. Five Spaniards were sacrificed immediately, but the rest escaped. When Hernan Cortes, conqueror of the Aztecs, reached Yucatan in 1519, only two of the original Spanish shipwrecked survivors were alive: Geronimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero. Cortes naturally wanted to see them and sent messages for them to come and see him.  Apparently Guerrero refused the offer saying he was not free. According to Geronimo de Aguilar (who later became an indispensable translator for Cortes), Guerrero was ashamed to visit Cortes because he had his nose and ears pierced, and his hands and feet tattooed, according to Maya custom. He also had a Maya wife and three children. Around the time of Davila’s attempt to conquer Chetumal, it is assumed that Guerrero had risen to become military advisor to Nachancan, the ruler of Chetumal. Gonzalo Guerrero is looked upon as “the father of the Mestizos” in this area and as the first European to adopt Belize as his own and to fight in its defense. So, in answer to Davila’s requests to submit to Spain and pay tribute, Nachancan disdainfully replied that he did not desire peace and that the only tribute he would pay would be “turkeys in the shape of spears and maize in the shape of arrows.” Davila entered Belizean territory and renamed Chetumal: Villa Real. The decision of the Maya to withdraw into the bushes and from there carry on hit-and-run guerilla tactics against the Spanish as they stepped out to obtain food proved successful. These tactics of the Maya weakened the Spanish forces and as a result they became prisoners in Chetumal surrounded by the Maya. Eighteen months later, the surviving Spanish fled south to Omoa, Honduras after a journey of terrible hardships.

Over 450 years ago the Belize Maya faced the then greatest power, Spain, and fought courageously to defend liberty. The examples of these early inhabitants of Belize should instill in us courage and pride to keep our heads high in today’s world and not lose the basic sense of what it means to identify ourselves as Belizeans and have a true and lasting commitment to Belize.

The site of Santa Rita dates from around 1200 B.C. Archaeologists determined this date through ceramic comparisons with Swasey pottery from Cuello, one of the earliest types in the area. The Classic Period is represented by a building with a series of interconnected doorways and rooms.  The central room had a niche where offerings were burnt. Two burials, dating to about A.D. 500, were unearthed here.  The first burial is of a woman with distinct jewelry and polychrome pottery. The second burial was found inside a large tomb. This burial is probably that of a warlord – interred with a ceremonial flint bar representing leadership and a stingray spine used for bloodletting rituals. Post-Classic Santa Rita is characterized by the introduction of turquoise and gold ear-flares in a style reminiscent of Aztec jewelry.

At the start of the 1900’s, British medical doctor Thomas Gann, an amateur treasure-hunter, discovered a beautiful mural in Mixtec style at Santa Rita. Unfortunately, the mural or fresco was destroyed shortly after its discovery by superstitious locals. It was not until Arlen and Diane Chase of the Corozal Post-Classic Project carried out systematic excavations between 1979 and 1985 that substantial research was done at Santa Rita.

Today because of Corozal Town’s expansion much of the site is being destroyed.  The area at one time had extensive raised fields that supported large cacao plantations. The proximity to the sea also made marine products widely available.