BRASS / El Pilar
Archaeological Project

Amigos de El Pilar
Bullet Tree Falls, Cayo

Road to Bullet Tree
Camino a Bullet Tree

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The Belize River Archaeological Settlement Survey (BRASS) was initiated in 1983 by Dr. Anabel Ford in the upper Belize River area surrounding San Ignacio, Belize. Pioneering work in settlement survey has shown that this region was occupied very early and continuously. Dr. Ford had previously finished a large-scale settlement survey in Guatemala between the sites of Tikal and Yaxha and was eager to recover more data regarding the development of Maya settlement. The BRASS project was designed to closely examine the relations between house sites and the natural environment and their spatial patterning In 1983-92 the project surveyed three large transects, one ten km and two five km long. The ten km transect ended at the ancient Maya city of El Pilar

El Pilar was recorded by Belize's Department of Archaeology in the 1970's, but its full extent was then unknown. A preliminary map of the site was made by BRASS in 1984 and the first full-scale investigation of El Pilar was finally begun in 1993. The BRASS/El Pilar Program is now (1998) in its sixth year of excavation at El Pilar. In May 1997 a statutory instrument was signed designating the nine square kilometer reserve as Belize=s newest national park. In December 1997 the Consejo Nacional de Areas Protegidas (CONAP) of Guatemala declared a 1000 hectare reserve around the Guatemalan portion of the city.

A preliminary chronology, based on ceramic comparisons, has revealed that monumental constructions at El Pilar began in the Middle Preclassic (500 B.C.) and continued with the last major remodeling completed in the Terminal Classic (1000 A.D.). This long sequence spans more than 15 centuries and testifies to a continuous and methodical development in the area.

El Pilar has more than twenty-five identified plazas in an area of approximately 100 acres (38 hectares), ranking it equal with major centers of the lowland Maya region. It is the largest center in the Belize River area, more than three times the size of other well-known centers such as Baking Pot or Xunantunich. There are more than a dozen large pyramids and many range buildings. The site is divided into three primary sectors: Xaman (North) Pilar, Nohol (South) Pilar, and Pilar Poniente (West). The eastern and western sections are connected by an offset causeway system extending between two large public plazas. Survey and excavations have been concentrated in the eastern side of El Pilar within Belize. The western section, Pilar Poniente, is across the border in the Republic of Guatemala.

The area has long carried the name of El Pilar and while the origin of this name is obscure, the numerous natural sources of water speak to the old Spanish word for watering basin or pila, whose collective would be designated in Spanish as El Pilar. Two local streams have their origins at El Pilar, one to the east, which we call El Pilar Creek, and one on the west referred to generally as El Manantial (the Spring). About 1.2 miles (or 2.3 KM) east is Chorro, a lovely delicate waterfall. Not far from this waterfall is a minor center named Chorro, after the falls. The abundance of water in the vicinity of El Pilar is rare in the Maya area; the venerable ancient city of Tikal (just 50 KM west) had no natural water sources at all. 

- Visit the BRASS / El Pilar Program Website -

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