Altun Ha

[1] Contents of Altun Ha Tomb B 4/7 with a replica of the colossal jade head. Displayed in the Museum of Belize, Belize City.

Altun Ha is most famous for the 4.42 kg jade ‘stone’ found in Tomb B-4/7 by archaeologist Dr David Pendergast (1982b:54-58, figs. 33a-c). The large size of the jade likely encouraged its carving into the image of the Maya god of life, growth, provision and sustenance, Ux Yop Huun. In line with associations of this Maya deity elsewhere — linked to the tallest or largest temples — the jade head was fittingly found in a tomb placed within the tallest Altun Ha temple, Structure B4.


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Details of a Classic period polychrome vase from Altun Ha. As the ceramic is turned the bird is animated to lift and lower its head. The bird is painted orange on the original vase.

Animation extracted and adapted from Pendergast 1982b:211, fig. 106j.


[1] View from the top of Caracol Structure A6 looking down onto Structure A2 and highlighting the solstice points that align with the three structures topping Structure A2 (indicated by white arrows). 

The Maya charted the movement of the sun across the year in relation to the horizon. They pinpointed the two extremes of the path taken by the sun and also a centre point. The three points were marked by temples, thereby linking three stone structures with the movement of the sun and the temporal rhythm of the year [1]. 

Triadically-structured solar observation points occur at many archaeological sites tying them to ‘time’. At Caracol, standing at a fixed point marked by a stone stela at the summit of Structure A6 (A-Group) aligns the viewer with the three markers placed atop western Structure A2. The Maya saw the yearly motion of the sun therefore as moving in relation to and in support of three-stone time. Caracol also reveals many stone ‘altars’ placed within its plazas. These stones display giant ‘day’ ahaw signs carved on their large surfaces, tying the material of stone to the ‘day’ and time.

[2] Classic period Caracol Stela 22, associated with Altar 17, marking the solar viewpoint atop Structure A6 [1].

[3] Late Classic Caracol Caana or ‘Sky Palace’ demonstrating a 13-to-9 relational balance to reflect Maya world structure. This ratio also applies to Late Classic Xunantunich Structure A-6 (‘El Castillo’; see Xunantunich [1]), Lamanai Str. N10-43 and Becan Temple 2.


[1] Postclassic Lamanai Structure N10-9, known as the Jaguar Temple, which revealed three eroded stone altars positioned in its plaza and a 13-to-9 relational balance placed on its structure reflecting Maya world view (see also Caracol [3] and Xunantunich [1]). 

Lamanai is distinguished from the rest of the Maya lowlands by its continuous occupation from Preclassic to colonial times, maintaining great vibrancy throughout the ‘collapse’ (Graham 2004:225; Pendergast 1982a:57, 1985, 1986). The site, therefore, bridges the cultural gap present in the field by adding depth and detail to the Postclassic story. 

From the Postclassic, ceramics survived as thousands of potsherds piled up in mounds around stairs, platforms, and interred in burials. They were once smashed as part of recurring rituals relating to cyclical time. The destructive process replicates Buddhist monks blowing away sand artworks, revealing that the Maya had a similar philosophy centred upon impermanence (see J John 2008). We now know that the ‘death’ of these ceramic vessels metaphorically mirrored the death of the interred and that time was an integral part of the artistic process.

However – unlike sand artworks – archaeologists have been able to reassemble some of the smashed Postclassic ceramics, and it was through studying these reconstructions that we detected the ancient Maya association between time, change and ‘three’; also, the ceramic reconstructions showed how Maya animations continued into the Postclassic period. 

Many of the appliqué-modelled feet supporting Lamanai tripod vessels depict three faces staring in different directions. We believe they form an artistic expression of how the unending cyclical ‘sight’ of past, present and future was bound to the three-part structure of time. 

[2] Early Postclassic burial tripod dish from Lamanai; three blue-painted anthropomorph-head feet stare in three different directions. Lamanai Archaeological Project, Belize.
[3] Classic period dish from Lamanai decorated with three stylised hummingbird chevrons on its interior rim to convey the flight of a bird around its rim and the rotary motion of the sun linked to spinning time. Displayed in the Museum of Belize, Belize City.

[4] Late Postclassic Lamanai pedestal-based jar with extensive burn marks to its left side, body and base, forming a world tree adhering to the Maya ratio placed between the sky and underworld waters (see also Lamanai [1], Caracol [3], Xunantunich [1]). Lamanai Archaeological Project, Belize.


Jaguar details animated in three to run around the rim of the sun represented by a ‘flaming’ and large, orange dish .

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Terminal Classic dish that displays symbolism and contextual placement within a Lamanai cache that emphasised the sun setting into the western sea (see Maya Gods of Time). Decorated with three spotted jaguar-deer composites ‘running’ around the dish rim with time, conceptualising the nocturnal Jaguar Sun chasing the daytime Deer Sun. Details after drawings by Louise Belanger, photo by Elizabeth Graham. Lamanai Archaeological Project, Belize.

Pedestal base incision details (repeated on jar shoulder) animate a pulsating water serpent when the viewer walks around the large vessel.

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Large effigy pedestal-based jar representing K’awiil (see Time Gods in Animated Themes) retrieved from an Early Postclassic Lamanai Burial.

Drawings above and animation (left) extracted and adapted from Georgina Hosek. Lamanai Archaeological Project, Belize.

Two-headed reptile symbolising pulsating water flowing around the rim of a bowl.
K’in’ ‘sun’ flower details animated to radiate by ‘throbbing’ on rotation of the bowl.

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Exterior rim incision details on an Early Postclassic burial bowl placed east of the deceased’s skull to symbolise his rebirth alongside the dawn sun from the eastern Caribbean Sea.

Animation details extracted and adapted from a drawing by Georgina Hosek. Lamanai Archaeological Project, Belize.

Pedestal details animating a pulsating water serpent swimming around the base of the large ceramic.
Details incised in three panels running around jar rim animated to mimic a pulsating, woven water band.

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Giant Early Postclassic ceramic burial ‘tree’, whose three shoulder panels animate the tightening weave of an intertwined ‘mat’ band. The funerary vessel is so large that the animation is only revealed when it is circumambulated by the viewer.

Animations extracted and adapted from a drawing by Georgina Hosek. Lamanai Archaeological Project, Belize. 

Details of a double-hooked band (symbolising an abstracted sea serpent) animated to pulsate when the bowl is rotated.
Details of a bifurcated-band (symbolising sea serpent tongues) animated to flicker when the bowl is rotated.

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Exterior rim of a bowl displaying floral sun (k’in’ flower) placed within a pulsating water band to symbolise the sun setting into the western sea.

Animations extracted and adapted from a drawing by Georgina Hosek. Lamanai Archaeological Project, Belize.

[5] Reconstructed Early Postclassic Lamanai funerary ceramic. Fires or copal burnt atop such ceramics, called chalices, recreated the metaphor of the three hearthstones and fire; this means that the philosophy surrounding the three-part structure of time continued into the Postclassic period. The pedestal symbolism is incised in three panels to animate, when rotated or walked around, the shifting, fluid movement of water, from which a water serpent emerges. 

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Details of two panels of a Lamanai chalice pedestal retrieved from a burial that animate a serpent’s movement when rotated in the viewer’s hands.

Animations extracted and adapted from a drawing by Georgina Hosek. Lamanai Archaeological Project, Belize.

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Pedestal details of an Early Postclassic Lamanai burial chalice that on circumambulation by the viewer animate two abstract beasts facing each other to slightly move (serpent eye visible to the right).

Animations extracted and adapted from a drawing by Georgina Hosek. Lamanai Archaeological Project, Belize.

Santa Rita

[1] Santa Rita has been swallowed up by the modern township of Corozal bordering the Caribbean Sea.

The ancient site of Santa Rita lies buried beneath the modern town of Corozal located in northern Belize. One Santa Rita structure once displayed a spectacular mural sequence painted on its exterior walls. While the mural has long since disappeared, we know from a written account by Dr Thomas Gann, the man in charge of excavations in the late 1800s, that the mural was five to six feet tall and 36 feet long. This great size meant that to see the painted imagery up close, viewers would have had to walk along its great length, thereby mimicking the motion of the figures painted on the walls. 

In the Santa Rita murals, it is the motion of walking that unlocks the animation hidden – in three – within the image sequence. As previously explained, recognising the unseen transformation connecting the individual mural figures provides the key to ‘reading’ and understanding the mural. The murals illustrate the story of the Sun God’s fate, destined to be sacrificed each night, to be born again anew the next morning as the Dawn Sun (for a detailed discussion and reproduction of the Santa Rita murals, see The Maya Gods of Time, Chapter 5).


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Sun Individual NE2 becomes Sun Individual NE4, East Half of North Wall Mural details, Santa Rita Mound 1 (see The Maya Gods of Time for an explanation of the reason for the Sun’s transformation).

Animations extracted and adapted from Gann 1900: plate XXIX.

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Venus Individual NE1 becomes Venus Individual NE5, East Half of North Wall Mural details, Santa Rita Mound 1 (see The Maya Gods of Time for an explanation of the reason for the planet’s transformation).

Animations extracted and adapted from Gann 1900: plate XXIX.


[1] Maya temples demonstrate a 13-to-9 relational balance to reflect Maya world view, such as Late Classic Xunantunich Structure A-6 (‘El Castillo’).

The design of Maya temples frequently related to how these ancient people perceived the order of their world, with the sky placed above the earth and its waters. Some temples exhibit a vertical, 13-to-9, ‘top-heavy’, architectural design centred on a level or platform, which is often marked by a horizontally-running Ik’ (‘wind’) band. The ‘wind’ band connects — and balances — the solid material of the stone temples with the unseen, the motion of wind. An identical symbolic construct also prescribed the shape of Postclassic Lamanai pedestal-based jars, which similarly formed ceramic world models (see Lamanai [4]).