A Jaunt Through the Constructed Wilderness: The Nohoch Tunich Ritual Bedrock Outcrop and Late Classic Period Urbanism at Pacbitun, Cayo District, Belize

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Research Reports in Belizean Archaeology


Jon Spenard


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Ethnographic and ethnohistoric accounts from throughout Mesoamerica demonstrate indigenous perceptions of urbanism emphasized geographic landmarks—caves, rockshelters, mountains—as features of prime importance for community organization. Through regular ritual performances, such landmarks became socially and symbolically significant locations of the urban landscape, acting as boundary markers, community origin places, and the homes of various gods and ancestors. Yet, archaeological discussions of Maya urbanism regularly focus on the profane—built environments of site cores, agricultural and economic relationships between settlements, and land management. In this paper, I suggest discussions of Maya urbanism must include ritually-charged landmarks located within and around settlements, and pre-Hispanic strategies for their incorporation into urban designs. As an example, I discuss the Nohoch Tunich Bedrock Outcrop Complex (NTC), a hilltop bedrock outcrop located near Pacbitun. The NTC is replete with a variety of karst features—rockshelters, small caves, boulders, etc.—all heavily, yet subtly modified during the Late Classic period with crude architectural constructions, likely designed to enhance the “naturalness” of the outcrop. Drawing on analogies from the Late Postclassic period Aztec urban designs in central Mexico, I propose the NTC, a purposefully constructed “wilderness” place, was designed as a pleasure garden for the Pacbitun Maya.

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