Cerros is an Eastern Lowland Maya archaeological site in northern
Belize that functioned from the Late Preclassic to the Postclassic
period. The site reached its apogee during the Mesoamerican Late
Preclassic and at its peak, it held a population of approximately
1,089 people. The site is strategically located on a peninsula at
the mouth of the New River where it empties into
Chetumal Bay on the
Caribbean coast. As such, the site had access to and served as an
intermediary link between the coastal trade route that circumnavigated
Peninsula and inland communities. The inhabitants of
Cerros constructed an extensive canal system and utilized raised-field
1 Site organization
3 Archaeology structure of cerros
4.1 Monumental architecture
4.1.1 Structure 5C-2nd
4.1.2 Structure 6
4.1.3 Structure 4
4.1.4 Structure 29C
4.1.5 Structure 3A
4.2.1 Structure 61
4.2.2 Structure 50
4.3 Residential structures
5 Subsistence at Cerros
5.1 Agriculture and wild plant utilization
5.2 Faunal remains
7 Burials and caches
8 Present-day conditions
The core of the site immediately abuts the bay and consists of several
relatively large structures and stepped pyramids, an acropolis
complex, and two ballcourts. Bounding the southern side of the site is
a crescent-shaped canal network that encloses the central portion of
the site and encloses several raised-fields. Residential structures
continue outside of the canal, generally radiating southwest and
southeast; raised-fields are also present outside of the canal
Classic Maya collapse
Spanish conquest of the Maya
From the time of its inception in the Late Preclassic Era, around
400BC, the site of
Cerros was a small village of farmers, fishermen
and traders. They made use of its fertile soils and easy access to
the sea, while producing and trading product amongst the other Maya in
the area. Around 50 BC, as their economy grew and they began to
experiment with the idea of kingship, the inhabitants of Cerros
initiated a great urban renewal program, burying their homes to make
way for a group of temples and plazas.
The first of the new constructions was the Structure 5C-2nd, which has
become the most famous piece of architecture at the site. Aligned with
its back at the edge of Chetumal Bay, it marked the northernmost
point of the sacred north-south axis of the site, which was
complemented by a ballcourt (Str. 50) which lies at the southernmost
point. As kings died, others came along and new temples were
constructed in their honor. The last of the substantial constructions
at the site (Str. 3A-1st) occurred around AD 100, and many of the
other structures appear to have been abandoned before then. During the
Cerros ceased to function as a locus of elitist activity
but continued as a location for mundane domestic activity. From
then on, any new construction was probably limited to the outer
residential area, as the population began to decline severely.
Apart from a small occupation at the end of the Late Classic period as
a village community,
Cerros has been abandoned since AD 400. This once
glorious site was left for ruin and remained virtually unnoticed until
Thomas Gann made reference to "lookout" mounds along the coast in
1900, drawing interest to the site.
Archaeology structure of cerros
Archaeological work began at
Cerros around 1973 when the site was
purchased by the Metroplex Corporation of Dallas, who intended to
build a tourist resort around the ceremonial center. Fortunately,
these plans failed and the site was given to the government of Belize.
In 1974, archaeologist David Freidel and his team uncovered evidence
that suggested that the site was of the Late Preclassic period. In
1975, when a dedicatory offering cache was uncovered at Structure 6,
further evidence was provided that
Cerros was indeed a Late Preclassic
Throughout the 1970s, research was allowed to continue when the
National Science Foundation funded further excavations. The original
team completed their excavations in 1981.
In the 1990s, Debra Walker and a team of archaeologists began a series
of new excavations to investigate the site's demise at the end of the
Late Preclassic Era. In addition to the research done at the site,
Walker's team also had radiocarbon dates run on newly found artifacts.
They also recalibrated several dates from the original research in
order to establish a tighter chronological sequence.
The northernmost structural complex, located at the edge of Chetumal
Bay, is referred to as Structure 5C-2nd, which contains a modest size
temple. Estimated to have been built around 50BC, the two-tiered south
facing platform pyramid had wall stubs atop it for what would have
been a perishable superstructure. Having the entire settlement facing
the south allowed the whole community the ability to witness rituals
on its staircase. In Maya cosmology, north is associated with the
direction of the sky, where the celestial gods hold domain, while the
south is the direction of the underworld. This placement associated
the primary temple both physically and symbolically with the celestial
Of importance are four huge painted plaster mask reliefs placed
against the platform’s stepped walls which flank either side of the
stairway depicting the forces of the cosmos.
Linda Schele and David
Freidel have identified the two lower masks as representations of The
Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh.
The four masks have been interpreted as follows:
The main mask on the lower right panel is a depiction of the rising
sun and of Xbalanque, who is identified by a "k'in"(sun) glyph on his
cheeks. He is flanked by his objects including his helmet, chin-strip
and earflares. He is also identified by a glyph within the decoration
surrounding his left ear flare as "yax"(first). In addition:
The lower mask on the left is Xbalanque as well, but in the position
of the setting sun, balancing the depiction of the rising sun
The upper mask on the right is a depiction of Hunahpu, aka Venus or
The upper mask on the left is Hunahpu as well, but in the position of
Their positions are meant to represent the path that the Sun and Venus
follow throughout the sky. In 2005, in his piece The Creation
Mountains: Structure 5C-2nd and Late Preclassic Kingship, David
Freidel offers yet another interpretation of the masks. He now feels
that the lower panels represent the bundled bones and funerary masks
of the Maize God and his twin brother. Also in this new
interpretation, the upper masks are meant to represent the gods
Itzamnaaj, the God of Creation and Chaak, the God of Human Sacrifice.
Together, they killed and destroyed the Maize God. It was these gods
that the king impersonated when he would perform atop the
The structure also contains four large postholes, which once were used
for the placing of sacred trees, which were called world trees. The
king utilized the rear area of the temple to perform private
ceremonies such as fasting, bloodletting and genital perforation.
The second temple known as Structure 6 is larger and located in front
of Structure 5C-2nd on the west side of the north-south axis. Like
Structure 5C-2nd, Structure 6 faces south however while the first
temple stood alone, the second temple forms part of a triadic pattern
followed by its successors at Cerros. This triadic pattern was
elevated on a large platform and consisted of a main temple, flanked
by two smaller buildings. Construction of this structure began
somewhere around 50BC and all additional modifications were completed
somewhere between 50 and 60 years later. At 16 meters above the
level of the surrounding surface, its height allowed the king more
privacy to hold ceremonies, which could only be viewed by a select
few. Schele and Freidel postulate that the existence of such a
pyramid, with its differentiated viewing spaces, indicates a high
degree of social stratification among the people of Cerros. This
triadic plan was a hallmark at major Preclassic centers and it appears
that by emulating this architectural plan, the rulers of
embraced a further means of reinforcing a basic cosmological principle
underlying their power.
This temple was probably constructed upon the accession of a new king.
This theory is supported by the excavation of a burial cache beneath
the structure 6B, which held objects believed to have belonged to the
former ruler, including his Jester God diadem.
Taking its present form somewhere around AD 1, Structure 4 was built
by the same ruler as Structure 6 and was located opposite the second
temple on the east side of the newly established east-west axis at
Cerros. This temple was to become the largest at Cerros. The change of
orientation with this new temple, facing east, signaled an additional
association between temple and ruler, the reborn rising sun. This
structure was also meant to be the king's funerary shrine, however it
was never used for reasons unknown as the chamber was empty upon
This great temple marks another change as it faces westward and was
built to the south of the original north precinct. It is a triadic
structure with three separate temple platforms on top of a greater
pyramid and considered one of the clearest expressions of the
Preclassic triadic plan at Cerros. The small, central platform,
which faces west, is adorned with carvings of jaguar heads. The sides
of the two remaining temples display long-snouted masks. According to
Schele and Freidel, Structure 29C was probably meant to be a war
monument and was clearly associated with the north (Str. 61) and south
(Str. 50) ballcourts.
Erected around AD 100, this structure is considered to be the final
temple at the site of Cerros, and is probably the last of the
substantial constructions. This structure was built directly south of
Structure 4, returning to the original sacred north-south axis and
earlier south-facing orientation. This temple was carelessly
constructed and did not contain a burial cache signaling a decline in
power of the rulers at Cerros. Structure 3A was most likely
commissioned by the last of the rulers at
Cerros during the Late
Structure 61 is considered to be an open ended ballcourt with a raised
alley flanked by two parallel buildings (Structure 61B, which faces
the west and Structure 61C, which faces east). Both buildings have
broad, low, inclined benches which overlook the raised playing field
and rest upon a low substructure (Str. 61A). Unlike most ballcourts,
there is no upper playing wall on either building, so it is likely
that the bench area was considered to be within fair play. The sloped
vertical faces of the benches functioned to encourage the ball to
bounce upwards off of them.
The Structure 50 ballcourt is considered to be identical to Structure
61 with a few exceptions:
The playing area of Structure 50 is in a sunken court of rectangular
form, which has defined playing areas, as opposed to the open ended
design of Structure 61
Both side buildings, Structures 50C and 50E, have upper summit
platforms that were probably included in the field of play
Structures 50A and 50B are two large end-zone buildings that are most
likely well outside the field of play and probably served as stands
for viewing the game
By 1991, various areas and mounds throughout the site had been
excavated; however, there were still many more that had not. The
number of excavated residential areas inside the core was 18 and the
number of mounds, 20. The number of excavations outside of the core
area were fewer, with only 6 areas and 12 mounds. There were a total
of 157 presumed areas and mounds inside and outside the core that were
Subsistence at Cerros
Agriculture and wild plant utilization
Cerros has evidence of investments in water management which included
the encircling canal where the Maya made use of several raised and
channeled fields around the site. It is thought that these canals were
used to store water and irrigate nearby field systems during the dry
season. One such field lies west of the Structure 50 ballcourt and
was located just inside the boundary of the main canal, which
surrounded the community. Inhabitants made use of the main canal,
which was constructed during the C'oh Phase (200-50 BC) for crop
irrigation year round. During the dry season, the canal and its
branches were most likely ponded and used for pot irrigation. During
the wet season, they were used along with drainage ditches to irrigate
the crops. It is unclear whether the motivation behind
construction and use of the canals was due to communal enterprise, by
elite-directed labor, or both. The "typical triad" of crops
(maize, beans and squash) was grown at the site. According to Crane,
maize cupules and/or kernels were present in approximately 75% of the
samples that were taken at the site. A small number of remains of
beans and squash pollen were also found.
Arboriculture was another important part of the Maya diet. Nance tree
(Byrsonima crassifolia) seeds were found in about 40% of the samples
taken. Cocoyol palm (Acrocomia mexicana) fruit seeds, Ziricote (Cordia
dodecandra) and Huano (
Sabal spp.) seeds were common as well.
A substantial amount of faunal remains have been recovered throughout
the site, including various types of marine life, amphibians,
reptiles, birds and mammals (both wild and domesticated). The location
of the bones of these animals points to the social stratification that
was present among the inhabitants of the site. In the areas attributed
as residential places for commoners, faunal remains were few, and were
almost uniformly of smaller animals. Conversely, the quantity and size
of animal remains, in areas attributed to the elite, varied widely.
Meats were more accessible to the elites of Cerros.
Various forms of animal procurement took place in and around the site.
Marine faunal procurement was most likely the primary focus and took
place in a variety of habitats. Dogs were bred for meat and were
probably eaten during the winter "nortes," and during the months in
which a great amount of agricultural work was done. Deer and other
animals, such as peccary, pumas, jaguars and smaller mammals were
hunted as well.
During the Late Preclassic long distance trade contacts with volcanic
areas were in existence as evidenced by the recovery of numerous
pieces of jade and crystalline hematite and also visible in the
monumental art of Cerros. For raw materials readily available in
Cerros may have functioned as a redistribution
conjuncture as well as a transshipment point for products to be
shipped inland by way of the New River. With the cease of
Cerros and no new structures of any consequence dating
to the Classic Period there, the population began to decline
dramatically and no jade or crystalline hematite artifacts have been
recovered from any of the Classic Period deposits uncovered at
Burials and caches
A 1979 excavation of burial groups throughout the site uncovered 26
individuals in 20 interments. The archaeologists found that both sexes
were represented and that the age of the individuals ranged from
infancy to mature adulthood. Also included in these burials were
pottery vessels, metate fragments and chert tools.
A variety of artifacts were found within caches throughout the site.
Structure 6B contained a dedicatory cache with a large number of
offerings, including 28 jade artifacts, a few ceramic vessels,
spondylus shells, mirror fragments made from specular hematite and a
variety of white shell disks. Assorted smashed termination offerings
were also found at Structures 2A and 5C-2nd.
Much of the site remains unexcavated. It is now possible to travel to
Cerros over a gravel road from Corozal Town. There is an
archaeological information officer on site. Access to the collection
excavated in the 1970s is available through a digital catalogue
compiled by the Florida Museum of Natural History with funding from
the National Endowment for the Humanities.
^ Scarborough 1991:176
^ Sharer 1994:118-122.
^ Schele & Freidel 1990:98
^ a b Sharer & Traxler 2005:265
^ a b c Garber 1985:14
^ a b c d e f g Sharer & Traxler 2005:267
^ a b Freidel 1986:xv
^ Sharer & Traxler 2005:266-67
^ Freidel & Schele 1988:550
^ a b Freidel & Schele 1988:552
^ Fields, Virginia M., Dorie Reents-Budet et al. 2005:52
^ Schele & Freidel 1990:110
^ a b c Walker 2005.
^ Schele & Freidel 1990:118
^ Sharer & Traxler 2005: 267
^ Schele & Freidel 1990:121
^ Schele & Freidel 1990:125
^ a b Scarborough, Mitchum et al.:27
^ Scarborough 1991:148
^ Sharer & Traxler 2005:278-79
^ Scarborough 1983:725
^ Sharer & Traxler 2005:279
^ a b Crane 1986:148
^ a b Carr 1985:129
^ Garber 1985:13
^ Freidel 1979:41
^ Garber 1983: 802
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Actun Tunichil Muknal
Barton Creek Cave
Nim Li Punit
Santa Rita Corozal
Altar de Sacrificios
Arroyo de Piedra
Motul de San José
Punta de Chimino
Plan de Ayutla (Maya Site)
Joya de Cerén