There were no associations connected with the place; none of those stirring recollections which hallow Rome, Athens... but architecture, sculpture, and painting, all the arts that embellish life, had flourished in this overgrown forest; orators, warriors, and statesmen, beauty, ambition, and glory, had lived and passed away, and none knew that such things had been, or could tell of their past existence.

John L. Stephens, 1841



We tend to forget, when wandering the beautiful Maya ruins found all over Belize, that these were once thriving cities filled with people like ourselves. Imagine if you could somehow get a glimpse back in time, you would hear people talking, mothers calling their children, babies crying, merchants haggling, and all the sounds you would hear in one of today's cities (although the traffic noise would be less!). It is a challenge but, if you close your eyes and concentrate, you can bring one of these sites back to life if even for a moment.

Until fairly recently, archaeologists and explorers did not make this exercise any easier. They concentrated on the largest monuments and wildest images and almost never used the word Maya without adding "mysterious." The Belize River Archaeological Settlement Survey (BRASS) was founded with the idea that we should concentrate on studying the people who made it all work, the average Maya farmer, to get a better picture of ancient Maya society. BRASS began work in 1983 in the Upper Belize River Valley north of San Ignacio and, in 1993, reached the ancient Maya city of El Pilar. This article will introduce you to this wonderful site, Belize's newest archaeological reserve.


The BRASS Survey

In 1983, Dr. Anabel Ford of the University of California Santa Barbara, fresh from a long survey project between Tikal and Yaxha in Guatemala, began a similar survey in Belize. The idea was to survey large areas and look at the how ancient people were living, where they were living and what kind of work they were doing there. With this in mind, three survey areas were planned which would cover a range of natural environmental zones. Two of these swaths were 5 kilometers (or about 3 miles) long by 250 meters (273 yards) wide, and the third was 10 kilometers (6 miles) long. The Department of Archaeology asked that the longest survey area end at a site reported on the Peten Escarpment north of Bullet Tree Falls, a site known as El Pilar.

A preliminary mapping survey was done of the site in 1984 and some test excavations were conducted in 1986 but large-scale work at the site waited until the project reached the end of the survey transect. In 1993 the BRASS project began to devote all of its resources to the study of El Pilar and it quickly became evident that it was an important and unusual site. The city turned out to be larger than expected. Still not fully explored, we now know that El Pilar has at least three large sections that straddle the Belize-Guatemala border and are interconnected by causeways, one of which is almost 100 feet wide with walls along both edges. So far the archaeologists have identified more than 25 plazas covering more than 100 acres and more than 70 major structures. It is the largest center in the Belize River area, more than three times the size of other well-known centers such as Cahal Pech or Xunantunich.

The area has long carried the name of El Pilar and while the origin of this name is obscure, the numerous natural sources of water hint at the old Spanish word for watering basin or pila, whose collective would be designated in Spanish as El Pilar. Two local streams have their origins at El Pilar, one to the east, which we call El Pilar Creek, and one on the west referred to generally as El Manantial ("the spring"). About 1.2 miles east is Chorro, a lovely delicate waterfall. Not far from this waterfall is a minor center named Chorro, after the falls. The abundance of water in the vicinity of El Pilar is rare in the Maya area; the venerable ancient city of Tikal, just 30 miles west, had no natural water sources at all. At present we do not have any clues as to what the ancient Maya named their city.


The El Pilar Project

Since 1993, the BRASS/El Pilar Project has been in the field every dry season with an international group of volunteers. This group has included archaeologists and conservators from the United States, Guatemala and Mexico; students from Belize, the United States, New Zealand, Australia and Chile; and volunteers from Belize, the United States, and Mexico. The project is different from many others and has been recognized as a model at international levels. BRASS/El Pilar seeks not only to look at the history of El Pilar and its present environment but also in how the site impacts its surroundings both in the past and present. This has come to mean that while the archaeologists, conservators, biologists, and others examine the ancient site itself, community development, planning experts and cultural anthropologists work with the nearby villagers to help them profit from the new national reserve. One result has been the construction of an arts and crafts store/museum in which a scale model of ancient El Pilar will be displayed.

The project has mapped three large sections of the monumental architecture, two in Belize and one in Guatemala. The first, Nohol Pilar, is a complex of large public structures around the great plastered Plaza Copal covering more than 1.5 acres. Around this plaza are arranged some of the largest structures found at El Pilar - four large pyramids and a ball court. This plaza is entered via a wide ramp from the south, a massive staircase from the north, or causeways to the East and West. On the extreme southern end of the plaza is a small restricted elite residential area.

   Excavation in progress at El Pilar
Xaman Pilar, just to the north of Nohol Pilar and connected to it, is a maze of palace structures, underground tunnels, stairways, and pyramids. It has a very restricted entrance way with only one way in and out of the large complex and that entrance only 6 feet wide! The six courtyards in Xaman Pilar range from the first, Plaza Faisan at about 1 acre in size, to the last, Plaza Jobo which is only 59 by 23 feet. Walking from Plaza Faisan to the pyramid next to Plaza Jobo you must climb a series of stairs that take you 60 feet higher than where you started. Here there is a wonderful view of the rainforest to the west of the site.

Just across the international border, in Guatemala, lies another large section of monumental buildings which the project has named Pilar Poniente. Pilar Poniente is connected to Nohol Pilar by a systems of plazas and causeways, the largest of which is over 100 feet wide. Here there are also large public plazas, a great pyramid and a ball court.

Excavations at El Pilar have taught us much about the ancient Maya and left some wonderful architecture exposed for the visitor to see. We have learned that the Maya began building large structures at El Pilar around 450 B.C. and continued to live and work in the city until around 1000 AD - some 15 centuries. They built huge structures from the local limestone and lime cement, they constructed terraces in the hilly areas and reservoirs in the lowest areas. Plazas were completely paved in lime plaster to siphon needed rainwater to the reservoirs. Surrounding the monumental "downtown" district was a large population living in residential compounds. The project has found that there are almost 540 structures per square mile in the neighborhood of El Pilar. The project has, with the help of internationally-recognized conservation experts and under the direction of the Belize Department of Archaeology, left exposed both representative and unique examples of the ancient architecture for visitors. Exposures so far include entrance ways, part of a Maya "palace," a stone-arched underground tunnel and a temple-pyramid.

On the eastern side of the site core a large elite residential compound has been excavated and consolidated. This group of houses has been named "Tzunu'un" (hummingbird in Mayan) and is the center of yet another part of the BRASS/El Pilar Project. The ancient Maya lived in small compounds scattered throughout the area with significant areas between them devoid of construction. It is our belief that the Maya practiced a special kind of polyculture, raising a number of intermingled crops around their homes. This has been called "forest garden" agriculture. The area around Tzunu'un has been carefully pruned and weeded to promote the type of tree, bush and root crops that the Maya would have been utilized and other plants have been brought in to complete the forest garden. Tzunu'un will become an educational exhibit showing how the Maya were able to farm here so successfully in the rainforest for more than 1500 years.


The El Pilar Reserve

The El Pilar Archaeological Reserve for Maya Flora and Fauna was officially announced in May 1997 and encompasses about 9 square kilometers (3 and 1/4 square miles) of rainforest. The reserve has a new headquarters building near its center where the government caretakers live. Currently there are five trail systems, three archaeological and two primarily nature trails. These range in length from 1/10 of a mile to a mile and a half long and are of different degrees of difficulty. The archaeological trails take you through the model Forest Garden and the monumental buildings in the site core. The two nature trails take you to some of the neighboring water sources (Chorro and El Pilar Creek) and give you a chance to see a lot of rainforest wildlife close up. El Pilar is already considered one of the finest bird-watching sites in Western Belize.

The site of El Pilar is a wonderful resource, not just for tourists, but for all the people of Belize as well. Education, nature, history and recreation are all wonderfully interwoven in an area teeming with plant and wildlife. The ancient city of El Pilar is once again ringing with the voices of children and families after 1000 years of silence.

D. Clark Wernecke has been the Field Director of the BRASS/El Pilar Project, under the direction of Dr. Anabel Ford, since 1993. He is a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.

If You Go to El Pilar

Other Maya Sites in Belize


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