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The Ancient Maya House and Forest Garden at Tzunu’un
The work on El Pilar’s residential component began at an elite compound. The site is identified in our archaeological records as 272-025, but we have called it Tzunu'un (pronounced “tszoon-new-OON”), meaning ‘Hummingbird,’ the protector of the flowers and gardens. Tzunu'un was one of the residential units tested in the original survey phase of the BRASS (Belize River Archaeological Settlement Survey) project. The selection was based on the overall composition of the site as a representative example of the large residential sites at El Pilar.
Tzunu'un is located just east of the southern monumental site core of El Pilar. In between the site core and the Tzunu'un plaza compound, there lies a large, ancient aguada and the modern Pilar, Yalochroad, which provides access to the site from San Ignacio Town and Bullet Tree Falls Village. The residential group includes five major structures surrounding an open courtyard plaza area. Two of the structures are large stone buildings defining the southern and eastern sides of the courtyard. The other three main structures are low mounds, each less than a meter in height when originally mapped in 1983. Two of these smaller structures are positioned on the northern edge of the courtyard and one on the western edge. Today, the house and forest garden of Tzunu'un is an exemplary site for visitors to see the beauty and effectiveness of Maya forest gardening.
From the outset of our investigations at Tzunu'un in 1995, we invited traditional Maya forest gardeners to guide us in the interpretation of the home-garden site. It was clear that these heroes of the Maya forest were the experts, and it was a wonderful experience for us to work with them and learn about their time-honored practices. We began by establishing a regenerating immature low forest with thick growth. With the help of the professional Maya forest gardeners, we selected useful plants to keep and encourage growing while eliminating those that were less desirable. The early years of work in the Tzunu'un forest garden focused on bringing this area to life and initiated our long-term experiment at Tzunu'un. A visitor to the Tzunu'un house and forest garden today will see that we have shaped the garden to create a window into the biodiversity riches of the Maya forest, where everything has its own use, purpose, and beauty.
The garden showcases essential plants that the Maya may have used when the site was occupied many years ago. The ongoing experiment relies very much on traditional farmers who work to recreate the spirit of the forest as a garden.