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Noh Mul no more
In just two days this month, a construction company destroyed a Maya temple, part of the ancient city of Noh Mul, near the Mexican border in northern Belize. A Channel Seven TV crew from Belize City which went to investigate was chased off by an angry man with a cutlass.
The roads in nearby Douglas Village needed paving. The temple was the nearest and handiest source of aggregate.
Noh Mul is a sprawling complex of perhaps 80 ancient ruins, scattered over 30 square kilometres. The temple was more than two thousand years old, and close to 70 feet high – one of the tallest structures in northern Belize.
It took perhaps a thousand years to build. Blocks of limestone were cut by hand, using just stone tools. They were carried to the site as head loads. Real work. Knocking them down with bulldozer and excavator was an easier game.
The road contractor for Douglas Village was D-Mar Construction. It is owned by Denny Grijalva, a well-connected political hopeful, who plans to win the nearby parliamentary seat of Orange Walk Central for the governing United Democratic Party at the next election.
He says the village chairman rejected aggregate from another source. He says a local landowner gave permission to excavate. He says material has been taken from the temple mound for a decade or more. He talks of the loss of the temple as an “unfortunate incident.”
The deputy prime minister Gaspar Vega represents Orange Walk North, which includes Douglas Village and Noh Mul. He says – now – that he is “outraged by the wanton destruction.” He wants a full investigation, and prosecution of the contractor. As natural resources minister, he says his staff did not issue a mining permit.
The Noh Mul temple was covered by forest, but well-known as an archaeological site. There have been excavations nearby by Belizean and US archaeologists. Local people well know that their low, wooded hills conceal historic Mayan ruins.
There has been damage here before. In 1940, a structure with three burial chambers was mined to provide stone for the three-mile road from Douglas Village to San Pablo. Another site was all but destroyed in 1998.
Says Norman Hammond, Emeritus professor of Archaeology at Boston University “bulldozing Maya mounds is an endemic problem in Belize … but this sounds like the biggest yet.”
Dr Jaime Awe, director of Belize’s Institute of Archaeology , says the destruction “is deplorable, it is unforgiveable.” The hurt is personal: “the worst set of blows I have felt, philosophically and professionally.”
Says the Institute’s Dr Allan Moore “Thou shalt not touch the mounds that are on your property. It is for the people and government of Belize.”
Damaging ancient monuments is illegal in Belize; but the legislation is itself antiquated, based on an Ancient Monument and Antiquities Ordinance drafted in the 1950s. Courts can impose a fine of TT$32,000 – pocket change for even a small construction project. Beyond that, there’s prison for up to five years, but nobody gets locked up.
Dr Awe can recall only one successful prosecution; that was in 1978. Four other cases were settled out of court.
The outlook for the remaining core of the temple is dire. Says Awe: “The only thing left now is to watch the last bit of it crumble with the coming of the rainy season.” But he does not give up easily. He was on-site last week, to see what could be preserved and what could still be learnt.
The best-preserved and most accessible Mayan sites pull in tourists and cruise ship passengers. No Caribbean island has anything to match – though the faked-up ruins of Nassau’s Atlantis Resort pull more punters than any genuine historic site.
Mayan heritage is more than a money-spinner. Mayans make up more than ten per cent of Belize’s population. Mayan languages are widely spoken, their traditions are alive. Greg Ch’oc, a prominent Maya activist, said last week he was “shocked” by the destruction.
There are thousands of Mayan sites. Perhaps ten have been partially excavated and conserved. At Caracol, for example, the Institute has worked intensively on a dozen buildings, and mapped more than a thousand.
Belize does more to protect its archaeological heritage than most of its Caricom neighbours. The Institute of Archaeology has an enthusiastic and highly professional staff. There is assistance from international donors. At the Santa Rita Mayan temple in northern Belize, archaeologists last month opened a burial crypt hidden since perhaps 600 AD. Live TV footage added to the excitement.
Here in Trinidad, an ancient Amerindian mound of sea shells was destroyed at Banwarie Trace in the 1980s, also for road fill. Britain prides itself on historic conservation, but archaeologists may be given just a few weeks for ‘rescue digs’ on construction sites.