Belize's Department of Archaeology first recorded the center of El Pilar in the 1970s. At that time, Joseph Palacio and the late Harriot Topsey did not know its full extent. An assessment of the site in 1983 with Jaime Awe, then Commissioner of Archaeology, revealed that El Pilar was indeed large, but the question remained -- how extensive were the monumental temples and plazas?
The Belize River Archaeological Settlement Survey, or BRASS project, under the direction of Anabel Ford, developed a preliminary map of the major architecture in 1984 and undertook the task of developing a preliminary chronology in 1986. The first full-scale investigation of El Pilar, initiated in 1993, was a result of support from Daniel Silva, who at that time was the Cayo are representative for Belize Government. Formal reserve boundaries were established in Belize in 1995 and in Guatemala in 1998. Today, the contiguous reserve area encloses El Pilar and its sustaining area of 2000 hectares (5000 acres).
Map of El Pilar
Mapping of the site continues today, but the full breath of the ancient city is still undocumented. The monuments of El Pilar are known on both sides of the international border of Belize and Guatemala. The public sectors cover at least 50 hectares (more than 120 acres). From our recent surveys, this estimate will increase.
Advocating efforts to appreciate the full range of Maya society -- both the monumental and the residential -- the BRASS/El Pilar Program was launched to examine the cultural ecology of the Maya forest at El Pilar. We are using environmental and geographic information as a context for the archaeological research. The program archaeologists collect data that identify where the ancient Maya lived and what they were doing across the landscape. The results provide vital information on the distribution of house sites and communities on one hand and their context and relationship to the natural environment on the other. The program is aimed at establishing what made the Maya so successful for so long. This pioneering research is a major step toward understanding the full range of Maya society, not just the architectural accomplishments of the elite. Visiting El Pilar incorporates a views of monuments and houses that made this a great center.