A report by Allison McNearney for The Daily Beast.
A construction crew gutted it to use its stone for roadwork. But before the temple at Nohmul met its fate in 2013, it was the largest existing Maya pyramid in Belize.
While authorities were aware that a small amount of looting had taken place, they did not realize the extent of the destruction until it was too late. The largest pyramid on the site of Nohmul (also known as Noh Mul), the most important Maya site in Belize, had been reduced to just a core of rubble.
Over three thousand years ago, the Maya inhabited a series of communities that encompassed much of the Yucatan Peninsula down into present-day Central America.
While the Maya people settled in villages and developed agricultural methods as early as 1500 B.C., their civilization flourished from approximately 300 to 660 A.D. During the height of their reign, they were one of the most advanced civilizations in the Western Hemisphere.
In addition to building complex architectural settlements like that of Nohmul, the Maya were also known for advanced astronomy (their discoveries were often fused with their architectural designs in incredible ways), a system of written language, and the creation of decorative arts. They invented the idea of the number zero and developed many of the foods that modern-day urbanistas couldn’t imagine living without (think chocolate, avocados, and coffee).
Nohmul was built early in the Maya period in the northern region of what is now Belize on a limestone ridge overlooking the Hondo River. By the time the Maya were in the thick of regional domination, Nohmul had become a local hub of agriculture and commerce.
The site originally encompassed around 12 square miles, but the center of community life was the Maya equivalent of a downtown—a central area where all the best temples and architectural features were housed (plus, a court where sports competitions were held).
Historians believe Nohmul was home to around 10,000 people during its peak and that, by that time, what was once largely an economically integrated community had become a divided one; the poorer inhabitants settled in the agricultural outskirts while the elite clustered near the main ceremonial center.
It was in this prestigious city center that the main pyramid of Nohmul was built early in the life of the village.
While there are plenty of other ceremonial mounds in the two areas that comprised this central hub (connected by an elevated walkway, of course), they were small compared to the 60-foot main temple.
Archeologists imagine that this building was the spiritual and ceremonial center of the community and that it probably contained multiple rooms, some used as tombs, others of which might have been occupied by important people in the village. Before the temple at Nohmul met its fate, it was the largest existing Maya pyramid in Belize.
James Awe, director of the Belize Institute of Archaeology, reflected on the significance of this achievement to CBS News, pointing out that it was incredible “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.”
But this heroic effort meant nothing to the construction company who set their sites on some free roadwork materials in May of 2013.
The main temple at Nohmul stood for nearly 2,300 years, surviving the relatively sudden—and still debated—decline of the Maya Empire in 1100 (a 2012 article points a finger at climate change), the invasion of European colonists, and the rapid development that has occured in modern times.
But what it couldn’t weather was one company’s need for a short-cut to acquiring some quick-and-easy limestone.
Despite national laws protecting archaeological sites such as this, Nohmul sat on privately owned land. While its historic contents were technically protected, the land itself was not. When a crew of bulldozers and backhoes moved in, they set about their nefarious deeds undetected for several days. By the time their actions attracted the attention of local archaeologists, it was too late. The damage was irreversible.
”This is one of the worst that I have seen in my entire 25 years of archaeology in Belize. We can’t salvage what has happened out here—it is an incredible display of ignorance,” archaeologist John Morris told 7NewsBelize.
Awe had a more visceral response, equating the discovery of the theft to “being punched in the stomach” and continuing on to tell CBS News that “these guys knew that this was an ancient structure. It’s just bloody laziness.”
The culprit turned out to be De Mars Stone Company, a local construction company headed by a husband and wife duo, the former of which had political ambitions.
Despite their flagrant flouting of the law even after archeologists caught on to their misdeeds and the continued denial of the owners that they were aware of what was going on, a Belize court brought charges against the responsible parties.
During the subsequent trial, Morris testified that their actions had caused an “incalculable” loss on the country, and the judge agreed, finding them guilty of two of the three charges. The judge was also willing to put a price tag on their crimes. On April 24, 2016, the owners and their company’s manager were fined a total of $24,000.
While they didn’t get away scot-free, it’s hard to imagine that this minimal sum is serving as a deterrent for other company scavengers thinking about doing the same thing.
Belize has a history of archeological theft, and limestone is a highly prized material when it comes to the construction of roads. After all, why take the time to quarry your own stone when you can just grab a dump truck and reap the benefits from the thousands-year-old work of the Maya?
As for Nohmul, the site is still an archeological ruin, albeit one that is now more “ruin” than “archeological” when it comes to the building that used to be its centerpiece. Rather than being a testament to the rich culture and advanced civilizations of the Maya, it holds a meaning of a different sort today.
“It’s a monument of ignorance and unfortunately that’s the way it is,” Dr. Allan Moore, an archeologist at the Institute of Archaeology, told the Latin America Bureau. “Now we will probably have to look at this and say that it is a good example of what not to do.”