Archaeology of Nim Li Punit

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The site was largely occupied in the Late Classic Period. Nim Li Punit was "discovered" by oil company workers in 1976.

Government Archaeologist Jaime Awe and Norman Hammond began to clear and investigate the site shortly thereafter.  Later, Barbara McLeod did a preliminary survey of the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the carved stela.  In 1983, Richard Leventhal surveyed the site and in 1986 sunk test pits. Another stela was found as well as a royal tomb which yielded 36 ceramic vessels and other valuable artifacts.  Like at Lubaantun, the MASD Project in the 1990's also excavated and conserved several structures at the site and they erected a new visitor's center.  During excavations a new carved, Late Classic Period, stela was discovered and a royal tomb was found in the central acropolis.  The carved stela is particularly interesting because it contains the emblem glyph of Copan.  This indicates that the sites in southern Belize may have had political relations with their larger neighbour in Honduras.

Detailed Archaeological Information

Nestled in the foothills of the Maya mountains, off the Southern Highway between Golden Stream and the Rio Grande, Nim Li Punit is just northeast of the modern Maya village of Indian Creek. Although it is considered a minor center, the site has many features that suggest it was once an important religious and political community.

The name Nim Li Punit is derived from a carving on one of the site's twenty six stelae, which depicts a figure wearing a large headdress. In the Maya Kekchi language, nim li punit  means "the big hat." The monument on which this carving appears is the longest stela in Belize (Stela 14), originally located in an area called Plaza of the Stelae.

Other important features at the site include a walled ballcourt (Structures 18 & 19), and a tomb (Str.5) containing a sequence of burials, ceramic vessels, stingray spines, shells, jade and stone carved objects. Several other tombs are located in this "Plaza of the Royal Tombs" which was once a residential area for the ruling family at Nim Li Punit.


These city centres, like all in the 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. The population of Nim Li Punit is estimated to have been 5000-7000, during the major occupation span of the Late Classic Period.

Geography & Environment

Tucked between the mountains and the seacoast, Nim Li Punit lies within the Southern Belize region of ancient Maya Lowland settlement. The Southern Belize region is defined by the Maya Mountains on the north and west, and by the low swamp between the Temash and Sarstoon Rivers in the south. The area around Nim Li Punit has a wide diversity of natural resources, including sandstone which is used as construction material and the rich agricultural Toledo Bed soils.

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. Nim Li Punit has several carved monuments (Stelae 1,2,4,7,14,15). These stelae record dates in the ancient Maya calendar ranging from (AD 721) to (AD 790). Based on a correlation of ceramic evidence and architectural evidence, major settlement activity began at Nim Li Punit during the Middle Classic (AD 400-700), continued through the Late Classic (AD 700-800), and possible into the Postclassic Period (AD 800-1000).

Architecture & Urban Planning

The architecture at Nim Li Punit fits into the pattern of the Southern Belize sub-section of the Maya lowlands. Throughout the Maya area, houses and religious structures of differing sizes are arranged around an open, rectangular plaza. At Nim Li Punit, natural topography was used as a base, over which great amounts of fill were deposited to form platforms and terraces. Sandstone was used as construction material.

Architecture of Southern Belize

  • vertical, stepped or battered facings
  • no stone superstructures on major buildings
  • no corbelled vaulting (Maya arches)
  • many ballcourts in Southern Belize have low freestanding walls surrounding the ballcourt structures and playing zone.

Worldview Architecture

The functions of the core settlement area were public and private, secular and religious. Some archaeologists interpret the spatial layout of city centres as a physical representation of the Maya universe.

"The earth realm, at the center of the universe, is manifested by the house of the chief or ruler, in the center of the site core. The sky world in the northern direction, dwelling place for the spirits of great leaders, can be seen in shrines and burials to the north of the centre. The ballcourt is the intermediary, a place between earth and sky, intervening between the living and the dead. The ballcourt is physically positioned between the palace (present) and the ancestors' shrines (past), where ballgames spiritually mediate an eternal conflict between forces of life and death, day and night."

At Nim Li Punit, this model can be applied to interpret the spatial layout of the core area. The ballcourt is situated between complex to the north, and the royal residences at the site center. Although we can apply this model, we will never know how close modern interpretations are to the understandings of the ancient Maya, or the ways they used to define their world.

Ancient Observatories

The E-Group is an assemblage of buildings that are arranged to provide a fixed location for observing the sun, moon and stars. This architectural feature was first identified at Uaxactun, Guatemala and occurs throughout the ancient Maya area. There is an assemblage that may be an E-Group at Nim Li Punit within the Plaza of the Stelae in the South Group. Several monuments stand in front of a long terrace (Str. 1) marking the spot on the horizon where the sun rises on the equinoxes and solstices (shortest and longest days of the year).


The ancient words spoken at the site of Nim Li Punit 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. In the 1500-1600's, the Cholan Maya were decimated by the onslaught of European diseases and forced to relocate by European "authorities." 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 Nim Li Punit is now surrounded by the modern Kekchi and Mopan villages of Indian Creek and Golden Stream.

Political Organization

There is a debate among archaeologists about how to reconstruct the ancient socio-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 ancient Maya socio-political system.

We know that centres in the Southern Belize region, including Nim Li Punit, Lubaantun, Pusilha, and Uxbenka were interrelated in some way. It is argued that Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit 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).

The records left by ancient kings on carved stelae or "tree stones" provide details about the political history of a site. A recently uncovered stela at Nim Li Punit commemorates the completion of Katun 18 under the rulership of Lord K'awil Hat K'inich. The stela describes an even of bloodletting or incense scattering in which Lord K'awil Hat K'inich went to Copan (Honduras) to conduct rituals in the company of the king of Copan.

Economy & Commerce

Archaeologists suggest that Nim Li Punit and Lubaantun may have been interdependent cities, with Lubaantun regulating trade and commerce, and Nim Li Punit maintaining political and religious undertakings. The large numbers of stelae, coupled with the presence of an E-Group assemblage and a ballcourt at Nim Li Punit indicate that the site had some prominence in the social and religious life of the ancient Maya of Southern Belize. The presence of jade and obsidian give evidence that the ruling family at Nim Li Punit engaged in long distance trading.

Excavation History

The site was uncovered in 1976 during bulldozing for mineral exploration, and was briefly surveyed and mapped by Jaime Awe and Norman Hammond. A comprehensive investigation of the site began in 1983, under the direction of Richard Leventhal and the Southern Belize Archaeological Project. In 1998, a joint project between the European Union and the Government of Belize sponsored the Maya Archaeological Sites Development Programme to carry out consolidation at the site, including the relocation of carved stelae to a protective building, and the construction of site trails and a Visitor Centre complex at Nim Li Punit.

For additional information on this site, please contact IA.