Technical ReportPDF Available
The Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project: A Report of the 2016 Field Season, edited by Claire E.
Ebert, Chrissina C. Burke, Ja ime J. Awe , and Julie A. H oggarth, Volume 22, pp. 293-304. Ins titute of Archaeology,
Baylor Univers ity, Wa co, TX; Department of A nthropology, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ. © 2017
Douglas Tilden
Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project
Kelsey Sullivan
Northern Arizona Unive rsity
Jaime J. Awe
Northern Arizona Unive rsity
Structure A7 is located in the southwest corner of Plaza A1 in the Xunantunich
site core (Figure 1). The structure stands adjacent to the most prominent building at
Xunantunich, the Castillo. It is also located at the entry point of Sacbe II into Plaza A1, is
directly in front, or east of Ballcourt 1, just south of Structure A8, and directly west from
Structure A4. Structure A4 is part of the Eastern Triadic Group at Xunantunich and was
excavated by Jaime Awe in 2002 as part of the Tourism Development Project (Audet
2006; Awe 2009). The latter investigations noted that A4 has two phases of construction,
the earlier dating between AD 600-670 during the Samal ceramic phase (Jamison 2010).
One of the major purposes for excavating Structure A7 was to determine whether, like
Structure A4, it too was erected during two construction episodes. The second reason for
excavati ng the structure w as to asses s whether the building was pres erved w ell enough to
Structure A7 is 23m at the base and has a height of approximately 10.7m. Gann
(1925), who first excavated Structure A7 reported that the mound had an oval summit
measuring 13.8m by 9.1m. The structure also has a small limestone stela on its eastern
base, roughl y in ali gnment wi th the central axis of the mound.
Structure A7 was first excavated in 1924 by Thomas Gann. Despite the structure’s
prominent location, and its monumentality, there were no other significant excavations of
A7 between Gann’s 1920s work and the XAC Project’s preliminary investigation in
2016. The only other investigations near to A7 were those conducted by XAP on
Ballcourt 1, which explored its connection to the west side of Structure A7 (Jamison
1996), and that of the Tourism Development Project which horizontally excavated and
Figure 1: Xunantunic h Site Core.
conserved Ballcourt 1 (Awe 2009). During our Xunantunich Archaeology and
Conservation Project (XACP) excavations of A7 in 2016, we also identified a 1m by
50cm cut in the terminal plaza floor, directly in front of the A7 stela. We have no
information concerning who is responsible for the latter excavation.
Due to the highly destructi ve nature of Gann’s excavation, or possibl y for other
reasons, researchers working at Xunantunich over the l ast centur y essenti ally ignored
Structure A7. Gann’s excavation, concentrated on the summit of A7, was 3.64m by
3.64m, and descended some 7.62m into the structure. The excavation unit was not
backfilled, leaving an enormous circular hole at the top of the structure. Immediately
below the humus level, Gann encountered a large cache. Within this cache, fragmented
human remains were accompanied by a diverse range of prestigious items including chert
and obsidian eccentrics, marine shells, and potential remains of a game piece. Gann
(1925:53-54) provided a detailed inventory of cached items, which included:
xOver 200 cores of flint, varying in weight from three to thirty pounds, all roughly
tr i mmed .
xThirty-five beautifully chipped bifaces, with five, all eccentric shape, as crescents,
crosses, rings, stars, etc.
xTwo small polished blocks of jade, not perforated.
xTwo large Anadara grandis shells, the valves still hinged together, from which the
ancient Maya obtained the material to make their red beads and other ornaments.
xA white stone bead whose flattene d si des w ere marked by dots, suggesting that it has
been used either in some game, or for a tally.
xTwo large bivalve mollusk shells.
xA group of five shells, from which the Maya obtained mother-of-pearl for earrings,
inlays, etc.
xA rough block of obsi dian.
xHammer-stones of chert in various sizes.
xTwo small stone chisels.
Based on the elaborate and varied artifacts discovered, Gann concluded the
structure was the burial place of the royal jeweler. He builds on this assumption,
frequently comparing other caches to the workmanship of this cache. He also recounts
excavati ng 22ft verti call y through the structure, stating that the construction fill “was
solidly built of layers of large blocks of limestone alternating with layers of rubble, booth
held together by a somewhat friable mortar, but forming an extremely refractory material
to dig in, almost like solid masonry(Gann 1925:54).
At 22ft below the surface, Gann encountered a “well-built wall of squared stones”
(Gann 1925:54).The excavation followed the wall down another 5ft and then stopped,
concluding his excavation season. Based on our excavation at the base of A7, we believe
that at that point Gann was approximately 3.5m from bedrock. Gann’s intention was to
return in 1926 and resume the excavation; however, he never returned to Xunantunich.
Our decision to investigate Structure A7 was to find “Gann’s wall” to determine
whether like Structure A4, there was a penultimate construction phase of the building. In
addition, we planned to excavate at the base of the stela in front Structure A7 to explore if
any ritual offering was placed in association with the erection of the monument.
To address the research questions described above, the authors placed several
excavati on units in A7 ( Figure 2). Our investi gations i ncluded both horizontal
excavations across the eastern face of the structure, as well as axial excavation of the
central stairway. In addition, a small 2m by 2m excavation unit was placed directly in
front of the stela to explore beneath the monument and in front of the stairs for potential
Figure 2: Structure A7 base at commencement of excavation.
Structure A7 Stela Excavations
Excavations on Struc tur e A7 began with a uni t measur ing 2m by 2m, which
encircled the uncarved stela. The unit was placed to explore for any potential offerings
placed during the erection of the monument. These types of offerings have been
recovered beneath the base of near ly every stela in the cente r of Xunantunich, suggesting
a cache would likely be recovered from below the Structure A7 monument.
During the excavation of the stela unit, excavators discovered a one meter cut in
the terminal plaza floor, located directly in front of the stela. This is presumably the
results of a pre vious excavati on. It is unknow n whether Gann e xcavated i n thi s loc ation.
Jamison (2010) describes a cache of eccentrics recovered from the base. The reference,
however, does not lead the authors here to conclude the eccentrics were from beneath the
Structure A7 stela.
Excavation continued past the cut in the floor, revealing a thick layer of packed
marl. This type of feature has been located within structures at Xunantunich (Jason
Yaeger, personal communication 2016). The marl lens did not appear to be disturbed by
pr evi ous archaeol ogical exploration. The excavation descended another 77c m through
this artifactually sterile compact marl. Bedrock was encountered 140cm below the level
of the terminal plaza floor (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Photo after excavation in front of the Structure A7 stela, with the 77cm layer of
tamped marl at the base.
Structure A7 Base Excavations
Our 2016 XACP excavations on Structure A7 also focused on the base of the
structure. These excavations aimed to expose the terminal phase of architecture, to
investigate the construction sequence of the architecture, and to assess its condition for
conservation. Large excavation units were placed on either side of the structure to locate
the northeastern and southeastern corners of the structure’s base. After a series of
extensions, placed to follow architectural alignments on either side of the structure, the
northern unit measured nine meters by 5m and the southern unit measured 10.5m by 3m.
Within each unit, the level of the terminal plaza was first identified and used to guide
excavations towards the architecture. Both units (Figures 4, 5, and 6) revealed one to two
course alignments of crude cut stones, and degraded architectural features.
In the norther n unit, a one to two course alignment of cut-stones ran north/south
through the unit. The cut-stone alignment subsequentl y turned 90 degrees west tow ard
the structure then turned another 90 degrees to the north (see Figure 4). The architecture
was poorly preserved, and many of the cut-stones appeared to be missing. Despite the
poor preservation, the alignment of cut-stones is consistent with the pattern of stairways
and stair side outsets observed on the monumental architecture at Xunantunich. We
should also note that despite repeated expansion of the excavation to the north, the
northeastern corner of the structure was not located. Here again, it is evident that the cut-
stones were scavenged or removed from their original location on the building.
Figure 4: Excavation unit on north si de of Structure A7.
Figure 5: Southeastern corner of Structure A7, prior to excavation.
Figure 6: Southeastern section of Structure A7 after excavation.
Within the southern unit, once we identified the level of the terminal plaza floor,
we also exposed a one to two course alignment of cut stones. This architectural feature is
si milar in pos iti on and dimensions to the archi tecture in the northern unit, suggesting the
features ar e two parts of the s ame constr uction episode. Thr ough the expansi on of the
unit, it became evident that the facing stones were elevated nearly 10cm above the level
of the terminal plaza floor. This may be a result of the poor preservation of the floor or
rather the feature represents construction in front of Structure A7 following the decline of
Xunantunic h.
Throughout the course of e xposing the terminal ar chitecture, nei ther the
northeastern corner nor southeastern corner were identified. In addition, it appears that
most of the facing stones were stripped from the structure in antiquity. This is a common
practice identified across the center of Xunantunich in the Terminal Classic period.
Very few artifacts were recovered within these excavations as well. Artifacts
recovered include ceramic sherds, chert flakes and cores, freshwater shells, and the
remains of one faunal bone. In fact, many the artifacts are historic, including batteries, tin
cans, and glass bottles, potentially left from Gann’s excavations of the structure.
After stabilizing the bottom of the stairway (see above), we began trenching
operation along the central axis of the structure. Our 2m by 5m trench ascended from the
western base of the stela toward the summit of A7 and revealed that the facing stones of
the terminal stairway and adjacent stair side outsets were missing, likely scavenged in
prehistory. Indeed, most of the major structures in the site core display evidence for the
removal of facing stones.
As our excavation cleared the surface of the mound, it was quickly apparent that
we were dealing with a very different type of construction in Structure A7. The matrix of
the fill material was mostly mortar with the occasional cut or rough stones imbedded in
the mortar. As documented in the chapter on Structure A9 in this volume, the normal
construction technique for Xunantunich combines construction pens filled with dry-laid
fill. The latter has been noted in excavations of most monumental architecture, including
the Castillo (Miller 1996).
It w as very diffi cult to excavate thr ough the compact mortared fill in A7, a
situation noted by Gann (1925) in his comments on the excavation of the summit of the
structure. At 2.4m behind the stela, we encountered a void in the fill. Within the void, we
found 12 large Mount Maloney Black ceramic sherds. Further excavation revealed the
plaza floor, which was extended below the terminal phase architecture and beyond the
limits of the 2m excavation unit. Since the floor was located below the fill of the
terminal stairs, this strongly indicated that a penultimate structure was buried beneath the
terminal phase architecture of A7.
Figure 7: Photo of the penultimate architectural phase of Structure A7.
At 279cm west of the edge of the terminal stairs a well-made stair was
encountered. The preserved plaza floor lipped up to the stair, confirming the presence of
a penultimate structure underneath the terminal phase of A7. The dimensions of the stair
were larger compared to other structural stairways at Xunantunich. The rise was 44cm
with a tread of 62cm and face slop of 18cm.
At the base of the stair there was a large burnt area on the plaza floor. The exact
dimensions of the burn remain to be determined, as the burnt surface extended under the
unexcavated area to the north of the stairway. Further excavation uncovered a second and
third stair with similar dimensions (Figures 7 and 9). The matrix surrounding these stairs
continued to be heavily mortared and difficult to excavate. On the second step of the
penultimate structure, Eduardo Cunil, our chief excavator, discovered a shallow
depression cut into the step containing a dedicatory cache consisting of two lip to lip
ceramic vessels (Figures 8 and 9). Within the lower bowl, we found a mixture of dirt and
burnt carbon. The carbon has been sent for possible dating.
Because our season had come to an end, we partially exposed the third stair and
then closed the excavation until work resumes in 2017.
Figure 8: Photo of Lip to Lip ceramic vessel cache in the second stair of the penultimate
Figure 9: Portion of plastered plaza floor and three stairs, showing location of the cache.
As we previously indicated, our investigations in 2016 were driven in part by
Gann’s indication that in his excavation of Structure A7 a “well made” wall was located
within the summit of the structure. This feature, and the fact that Structure A4 on the east
side of Plaza A1 had a penultimate construction phase, were strong impetus to test
whether Structure A7 also contained two construction phases. We can now confirm that
this is indeed the situation, and that, like A4, A7 was also erected in at least two
construction episodes. The second significant discovery is that, in comparison with other
bui ldings at Xunantuni ch, very di fferent construction methods and mater i als w ere us ed to
construct Structur e A7.
In the 2017 field season of XACP, we plan to continue excavations on Structure
A7 to investigate the size, morphology and potential functions of the penultimate
structure, and to determine if the atypical construction materials continue further into the
structure. We will also be looking to see if we can locate “Gann’s wall” below the
summit of the structure, and whether this feature is associated with the penultimate
structure. Gann’s (1925) description of the wall is different from any architectural feature
we have e ncounter ed so far, unless, of course, his w all was a construction pen. To
confirm this, we may have to excavate the remnants of Gann’s large summit excavation.
We will also be following up on the dedicatory cache and burning at the base of the
penultimate stairs.
Research in 2017 will also search for any additional evidence of ritual behavior.
Ultimately, these data will help to determine the temporal sequence of the two
construction phases and their association with the development of the Late Classic civic-
ceremonial center of Xunantunich.
We would like to thank Dr. John Morris and the entire staff of the National
Institute of Culture and History and the Institute of Archaeology in Belize for permission
to conduct archaeological research and conservation at the site of Xunantunich. Thank
you to Dr. Julie Hoggarth, and all the staff and students of the Belize Valley
Archaeological Reconnaissance project. We also extend our gratitude to Jorge Can,
Eduardo Cunil and our entire excavation team from San Jose Succotz and Benque Viejo.
Thank you to Merle Alfaro for his incredible drawing and mapping skills, which are
critical to our research. We would also like to acknowledge the security guards from the
Belize Defense Force and maintenance and ferry employees of Xunantunich, all of who
make the site a pleasure to work at. In addition, the local tour guide community continues
to ins pire our work through thei r continued interest in the history of the Maya and their
commitment to sharing the most accurate and current information to all the tourists of
Audet, Carolyn M.
2006 Political Organization in the Belize Valley: excavations at Baking Port, Cahal
Pech and Xunantunich. Unpublished PhD Dissertation, Department of
Anthropology, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee.
Gann, Thomas
1924 Mystery Cities of the Maya. Duckworth, London.
Jamison, Thomas R.
1996 Xunantunich Archaeological Field Report. Vol. 65. On File with the Belize
Institute of Archaeology, Belmopan.
2010 Monumental Building Programs and Changing Political Strategies at
Xunantunic h. In Classic Maya Provincial Politics: Xunantunich and Its
Hinterland, edited by Lisa J. LeCount and Jason Yaeger, pp. 124-144. University
of Arizona Press, Tuscon.
Miller, J.C.
1996 The 1996 Tunneling Excavations in El Castillo. Vol. 31. Report on file with the
Belize Institute of Archaeology, Belmopan.
... Such excavations consisted of an exploratory horizontal unit (EU A7-1) extending from the plaza level stela along the central axis of the eastern facade of the structure. These investigations revealed a penultimate structure below the terminal phase of construction consisting of three well-preserved steps, showing evidence of a complete stair, as well as a cache (Tilden et al. 2017). The documentation of the penultimate structure led researchers to question the temporal development of A7 in relation to other monumental buildings at Xunantunich. ...
... Additional excavations conducted in 2016 included a 2x2 m unit place around the associated stela in front of the building, though excavations did not yield any cultural material. Further details of the 2016 research at Structure A7 can be found in the 2016 BVAR progress reports (Tilden et al. 2017). In 2017, excavations (EU A7-3) identified a section of a defaced stair ( Figure 3) ascending the eastern face of the structure and terminating at 2.8 meters below datum A7-001(see Figure 4 for datum location). ...
... A unit at the summit of Structure A7, EU A7-2, was opened during the 2017 field season to conduct preliminary investigations of the remnants of Gann's 1920's explorations of the building. EU A7-2 measured 3 meters N/S by 3 meters E/W, having been expanded from the original dimensions (See Tilden et al. 2017) to encompass the geometric center of the structure. Excavation unit A7-4 was implemented as a solidary tunnel used to locate the northeast corner of the penultimate structure, allowing for a clearer picture of the longitudinal extent of the earlier construction phases of Structure A7. ...
System requirements: PC, World Wide Web browser and PDF reader. Available electronically via the Internet. Title from title screen. Thesis (Ph. D. in Anthropology)--Vanderbilt University, Dec. 2006. Includes bibliographical references.
Mystery Cities of the Maya
  • Thomas Gann
Gann, Thomas 1924 Mystery Cities of the Maya. Duckworth, London.
On File with the Belize Institute of Archaeology, Belmopan. 2010 Monumental Building Programs and Changing Political Strategies at Xunantunich
1996 Xunantunich Archaeological Field Report. Vol. 65. On File with the Belize Institute of Archaeology, Belmopan. 2010 Monumental Building Programs and Changing Political Strategies at Xunantunich. In Classic Maya Provincial Politics: Xunantunich and Its Hinterland, edited by Lisa J. LeCount and Jason Yaeger, pp. 124-144. University of Arizona Press, Tuscon.
The 1996 Tunneling Excavations in El Castillo
  • J C Miller
Miller, J.C. 1996 The 1996 Tunneling Excavations in El Castillo. Vol. 31. Report on file with the Belize Institute of Archaeology, Belmopan.