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Roger Weller, geology instructor
by Jacquelyn A. Pekar
Mayan Temples of Belize and Their Preservation
When we think of Mayan Temples, we imagine all sorts of human sacrifice, primitive rituals and bloodthirsty rulers. However, while some of these perceptions are real, the Mayan people were quite sophisticated and their culture quite advanced! Let’s look at some history first: The Mayan Culture existed from 1800 B.C. to A.D. 250 (Preclassic Period), A.D. 250 to A.D. 800 (Classic Period) and A.D. 900 to A.D. 1500 (Postclassic Period). The Classic Period is the Golden Age and the period when the temples were built and the great Mayan Cities grew and flourished. These maps show the location of the temples:
The fertile climate and very rich marine life along the coast of Belize attracted the first Mayan settlers to this area. There was a primary trade route along the Belize River that made trade with Tikal and other Mayan cities possible. The largest of these temple cities in Belize is Caracol, in the Mayan Mountains. This city, while not quite as famous as Tikal in Guatemala, actually conquered Tikal and those wars began the final push towards the end of these great Mayan cities. Caracol is now being excavated and due to the latest laser technology, we find Caracol is also much larger than originally thought! This picture shows the hidden areas of Caracol:
Below is a picture taken by laser of the actual temples and other buildings. Some have been excavated but most have not been as of this writing.
GEOLOGY OF BELIZE
On the west coast of Belize, near the border of Guatemala, are the Maya Mountains, which are made up of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks. The flat plains surrounding these mountains, however, are mostly limestones. This tells us that Belize was once covered by a warm, shallow sea. Because of the rich marine life in these seas that created the rich limestone in such abundance, it is no wonder that the Mayan temples here are made with this material.
CONSTRUCTION OF THE TEMPLES
Limestone is sedimentary rock made of calcite, which comes from two sources; calcite that precipitates from groundwater and the remains of marine organisms with calcite shells. The following picture is a prime example of limestone rock with marine life:
(Picture by Roger Weller)
According to several sources, the temples were built from limestone, which came from quarries nearby. Ceilings were made of huge slabs of limestone and/or flint and floors were made of beaten beds of limestone. Mortar was created by crushed, burnt and mixed limestone so that it mimicked cement. This was used for stucco finishing as well as mortar between limestone blocks.
Following are several pictures that I took that show structure and composition.
Still covered by jungle Close up of rocks used
Showing the hieroglyphs around the temple
PRESERVATION OF THE RUINS
The Mayan temples and ruins fall under the jurisdiction of the Institute of Archeology. The motto of the Institute is “Preserving the Past for the Future.” One of the ways they work towards preservation is to control the numbers of people using the sites. Permits and fees are required for anyone wishing to use the sites for weddings, filming, research projects, export permits, educational visits and registration of antiques.
Another clever technique for preserving the temples is the building OVER the original areas to preserve them. Also, steps built on the sides of steep temples keep people off the original steps. Following are some pictures of Tikal in Guatemala to illustrate these methods of preservation. My husband, Mark took these pictures.
Climbing the steps!
The original hieroglyphs behind the protective barrier
Despite these methods, there is still a great deal of deterioration of the ruins due to rainfall in Belize. As we know, limestone wears down when slightly acid rain falls. The people of Belize are extremely proud of their heritage and remain committed to preserving these ruins as much as possible. I think they are well worth the effort!