February 2007, Dr. Richard Leventhal, "Xunantunich’s Royal Residence: Shifting Power and the Collapse."
On Saturday, February 10th, Dr. Richard Leventhal spoke to the Society about the form and movement of royal residences at the Maya site of Xunantunich. Dr. Leventhal asked the group to first consider whether power is inherent in the appearance of a royal residence, or if it is only conferred upon the building by the royal personage in residence. At many Maya sites, one can often differentiate between ritual and elite residences by the degree of public access they provide.  At Tikal, the narrowed entries of the Central Acropolis appear to imply limited access to elite residences in comparison with the open areas providing access to the ritual space of the North Acropolis and its plaza. Xunantunich, a Classic period site in the Belize River valley, demonstrates this development of differentiated elite residential space apart from more open ritual space. Additionally, it exemplifies a later abandonment of this differentiated residential space, and the consequent compression of apparent elite residential and ritual activity at the site.          Xunatunich is renowned for its towering Castillo, elegantly crowned with a glyphic frieze which most likely represents a genealogy of its royal family.   Beginning at around 400-500 AD, the major elite and ritual buildings of the site were imposed directly over a pre-existing smaller town.  This construction mode has facilitated analysis of structural changes, as the buildings lack the multiple intermediary layers that characterize most Mesoamerican sites.
            The royal residence was apparently initially located close to the south side of the main pyramid.  Between 600 and 700 AD, a new residential courtyard was constructed north of the main pyramid, on the far side of an intermediary plaza which held several small stepped pyramids. Interestingly, a trench cut through one of the buildings on the east side of this plaza revealed an unusual construction technique. Its interior consisted of a series of adjoining, vertical bins, each filled with a different color or type of loosely packed rock. Dr. Leventhal hypothesizes that each bin may have been filled by a different family or other related group, symbolizing both individual and communal activity in the construction. Originally, public movement was possible through this plaza. One could travel between the two series of buildings which lined the east and west sides of the plaza, passing on either side of its central stepped pyramid. Eventually, a small wall was erected between this central pyramid and the eastern line of buildings, leaving a large open area between the smaller pyramid and the much larger Castillo, but only one narrow passage way, on the west side, to the residential complex beyond. This four-sided terraced residence surrounded a courtyard, and had a cooking area stretching out from its eastern side. The largest and most northerly building, located at the back of the complex, was two-storied and faced the courtyard. It was fronted with a broad, central staircase which rose to the terrace on which the three-roomed, first story of the building rested. The second, smaller story could only be reached by a narrow staircase at the back of the terrace. Dr. Leventhal believes that the lower three rooms would have been ceremonial areas in which the public could approach the royal elite, while the upper floor, with its constricted access, would have been limited to only elite members of society.  The east and west sides of the complex held smaller buildings. The south side, which was originally open, was later topped with a windowed audiencia wall, which blocked and channeled access to the elite residence through a narrowed entry atop the access stairs.
            Later, following the establishment of this separate, protected, seat of power, the dynamics of rule or  residence in Xunantunich appear to have changed. The residential complex north of the Castillo was abandoned; entrances to lower buildings were bricked up. Evidence of a premature abandonment of this portion of the site can be found in the appearance of only earlier types of ceramics on the grounds and in caches which were sunk into the partially destroyed and in-filled walls of the complex.  The royal residence then appears to have returned to the area adjoining the south face of the Castillo. A large terrace was constructed over preexisting floors and buildings. Also, the top of the pyramid was extended above the frieze of glyphs which had heretofore been its top, and the central staircase, which had continued up the face of the pyramid, was covered. By 850 to 900 AD, when construction appears to have been completed, a ceremonial building, fronted by two cylindrical columns, had been placed on the eastern side of this terrace.  A back staircase, concealed by a screen wall, now continued up behind this building, reminiscent of the staircase at the back of the older, courtyard residence.  Dr. Leventhal theorizes that a magical trip of transformation was symbolized in a climb up the broad, central stairway to the top of the terrace, followed by a trip across the terrace and then a turn to climb up through the hidden stairway to the heights of the sacred pyramid.  The fact that access to the top of the pyramid was now more circuitous and limited implies the probable exclusion of a certain portion of the population from this area.  One can conclude that construction at Xunantunich seems to demonstrate a trend towards increased limited  access to certain elite or sacred spaces.
            The site of Xunantunich was gradually abandoned, with no sign of depopulation of outlying settlements until around 850 through 925 AD.  Scattered villages continued in the area, and there has been no evidence found of military incursions tied to its abandonment. We thank Dr. Leventhal for his very informative talk, which provided a clear model of elite activity and construction at the site of Xunantunich.
              Dr. Leventhal is Curator in the American Section of the University Museum and Professor in the University of Pennsylvania Department of Anthropology. From July 2004 through October 2006, he was the Williams Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Prior to this, he was the President and CEO at the School of American Research in Santa Fe; Director of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, and Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, UCLA; Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, and Director of the Institute for Mesoamerican Studies at University of New York at Albany.  He is a Trustee of the Archaeological Institute of America, and has served as Chief Archaeologist for the Jason Project, JASON Foundation. In addition, Dr. Leventhal served on the Advisory Board of the Association for Belizean Archaeology and has advised the Government of Belize on the development of a National Museum; as well as advising several Maya indigenous groups in Belize.

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