Altun Ha means “Water of the Rock, which is the Maya translation of the nearby village of Rockstone Pond. Altun Ha was strategically located as a trading center, about six miles from the coast. The site covers an area of about twenty-five square miles, most still uncovered. In the late 1950s, an archaeological team lead by Dr. David Pendergast of the Royal Ontario Museum began the excavations and restorations of the site. Additional restoration and consolidation work was completed in 2003 under the Tourism Development Project.
The drive to Altun Ha takes you about thirty one miles north of Belize City. Just past the village of Sand Hill on the Northern Highway, a right turn onto the Old Northern Highway at about Mile 20 leads you to Altun Ha. Altun Ha is also accessible by river from the coast. From the Northern River route, it is necessary to drive from Bomba through Maskall to Altun Ha.
Altun Ha was a Classic Period ceremonial center, first settled around 250BC. Archaeologists believe it was once populated by about 10,000 people. The typical Mayan corbel arch is seen at this site, but the absence of carved stelae should be noted. The downfall of this site was most likely brought about by peasant revolt, indicated by significant destruction to many areas of the structures and tombs.
There are two main plazas, Plaza A and Plaza B. The tallest temple in Plaza A is the Temple of the Green Tomb. Many valuables were uncovered here, primarily jade, but also stingray spines, skin flints and the remains of a Maya book. Some green obsidian blades found are traceable to Teotihuacan in Mexico.
The site’s most important and largest temple is the Temple of the Masonry Altars or Temple of the Sun God, and is the tallest structure, rising about sixty feet above the floor of Plaza B. If you have the courage to climb to the top of this temple, the view in all directions is breathtaking. The round altar at the top is unique to Altun Ha, and is believed to have been the focus of unusual sacrificial ceremonies, involving the offering of incense and carvings to a blazing fire. This structure, referred to as Structure B-4, is also the symbol used on our local Belikin Beer. Several tombs were discovered in this temple, but most were desecrated. One significant find was the solid jade head of the Sun God, Kinich Ahau. This six inch high head is the largest jade carving found in the Maya world, weighing almost ten pounds. The jade head, which is considered one of Belize’s national treasures, can be found on the corner of all Belizean banknotes.
Near Plaza B, the site’s reservoir, known as Rockstone Pond (same name as the village), was once used as a source of fresh water for the Maya. The construction of the reservoir, which was plastered with clay and limestone, can be considered a major accomplishment of the early settlers of this area. It involved the diversion of a freshwater stream, allowing for water access for the Maya city. The reservoir is now a nesting ground for reptiles and other wildlife, and the entire area is good for birdwatching.