A construction company has essentially destroyed one of Belize’s largest Mayan pyramids with backhoes and bulldozers to extract crushed rock for a road-building project, Belizean authorities announced on Monday.
Jaime Awe, the head of the Belize Institute of Archaeology, said the destruction of the Nohmul complex in northern Belize was detected late last week. The ceremonial center dates back at least 2,300 years and is the most important site in the area, which is near Belize’s border with Mexico.
“It’s a feeling of incredible disbelief because of the ignorance and the insensitivity ... they were using this for road fill,” Awe said. “It’s like being punched in the stomach, it’s just so horrendous.”
Nohmul sat in the middle of a privately owned sugar cane field and lacked the even stone sides frequently seen in reconstructed or better-preserved pyramids. However, Awe said the builders could not possibly have mistaken the pyramid mound, which is about 30.5m tall, for a natural hill because the ruins were well-known and the landscape there is naturally flat.
“These guys knew that this was an ancient structure. It’s just bloody laziness,” Awe said.
Photographs from the scene showed backhoes clawing away at the pyramid’s sloping sides, leaving an isolated core of limestone cobbles at the center with what appears to be a narrow Mayan chamber dangling above one clawed-out section.
“Just to realize that the ancient Maya acquired all this building material to erect these buildings using nothing more than stone tools and quarried the stone and carried this material on their heads, using tump lines,” Awe said. “To think that today we have modern equipment, that you can go and excavate in a quarry anywhere, but that this company would completely disregard that and completely destroyed this building. Why can’t these people just go and quarry somewhere that has no cultural significance? It’s mind-boggling.”
Belizean police said they are conducting an investigation and criminal charges are possible. The Nohmul complex sits on private land, but Belizean law says that any pre-Hispanic ruins are under government protection.
It is not the first time this has happened in Belize, a country of about 350,000 people that is largely covered in jungle and dotted with hundreds of Mayan ruin sites, though few as large as Nohmul.
Norman Hammond, an emeritus professor of archeology at Boston University, wrote in an e-mail that “bulldozing Maya mounds for road fill is an endemic problem in Belize [the whole of the San Estevan center has gone, both of the major pyramids at Louisville, other structures at Nohmul, many smaller site], but this sounds like the biggest yet.”
“I don’t think I am exaggerating if I say that every day a Maya mound is being destroyed for construction in one of the countries where the Maya lived,” wrote Francisco Estrada-Belli, a professor at Tulane University’s Anthropology Department in New Orleans.