La Milpa – uncovering rich layers of Maya history

Deep in the jungle of northwestern Belize lie the ruins of one of the largest cities of the ancient Maya. La Milpa, which covers over 30 square miles of area, was the third largest city in Belize, after Caracol to the south and nearby Lamanai. This site gained some recent attention following the discovery of a previously undisturbed tomb of a Maya king, believed to be named “Bird Jaguar,” or his successor, who lived around 450 AD. Although most of the effects buried with the king were relatively ordinary, the most exciting aspect of this discovery was the magnificent jade necklace which lay across the king’s chest.

La Milpa’s first modern discovery occurred in 1938, when a chiclero led Sir Eric Thompson to the site. Thompson deciphered the Mayan hieroglyphics on some of the stelae found there, and uncovered enough information to warrant further excavations. Under a permit from the Belize Department of Archaeology, the real work began in 1992, led by Dr. Norman Hammond of Boston University. This work is done in cooperation with the Programme for Belize (PfB), and funded, in part, by the National Geographic Society.

While the city was founded around 400 BC, it prospered only until 500 AD, when it declined, and then it flourished again, beginning a century later. La Milpa reached its peak between 750 and 850 AD, with an estimated maximum population of 50,000. Items found there indicate that the site was also inhabited during subsequent periods; not long after 900 AD, and again in the 16th–17th centuries. With each successive occupation, new structures were built on top of existing ones, creating many rich layers of history.

For the modern visitor, a trip to La Milpa provides a jungle adventure combined with Maya history. The site is situated within the 260,000 acre Rio Bravo Conservation Management Area, operated by the PfB. Foreign and Belizean tourists alike, may visit the “La Milpa Field Station” and take a tour of the archaeological site and enjoy the several nature trails. The site is a 15 minute drive, or about a one-hour walk from the station.
From the parking area, a short climb takes you to the Great Plaza, which, at 20,000 square meters, is one of the largest laid out in the Classic period. It is surrounded by four pyramids, rising up to 80 feet in height, and long “palaces” which likely housed elite residences and administrative offices. It has two of the familiar ballcourts found throughout the Maya world. There are two storage pits under the floor of the plaza, which were dug to store and protect emergency food supplies. The plaza, as with the entire site, remains covered by the ever encroaching jungle. Everywhere you look, you’ll see huge mounds of stone structures, overgrown with lush greenery and trees. In an effort to preserve the natural habitat, the bush has been cleared just enough to reveal the appearance of the site and facilitate excavation. One of the most perplexing aspects of La Milpa is the abundance of stony linear structures that were constructed throughout the area. Some appear to be agricultural in nature, as for terracing an incline to prevent erosion. Others are clearly seen as property boundaries, but many are placed in seemingly random patterns that have no apparent purpose, and will be further investigated this year.

The full tour takes you deeper into the jungle to the other plazas, and, although you cannot see all the structures and far-reaching “suburbs” of the city, you get a good feel for the size and vitality that La Milpa once possessed. You’ll likely be fortunate enough to view some wildlife, as well. A troupe of Black Howler Monkeys fed in the treetops above the main plaza while we were there, and we also saw a flock of beautiful, bright red- and green-colored, Slaty-tailed Trogons.

For those fortunate enough to visit during seasonal archaeological work, it may be possible to sit in on lectures or presentations given by Dr. Hammond and others.

Prior permission to visit La Milpa must be obtained by contacting the Department of Archaeology in Belmopan, or the Programme for Belize office in Belize City.