A construction company has essentially destroyed one of Belize's largest Mayan pyramids with backhoes and bulldozers to extract crushed rock for a road-building project, authorities announced on Monday.

The head of the Belize Institute of Archaeology, Jaime Awe, said the destruction at the Nohmul complex in northern Belize was detected late last week. The ceremonial centre dates back at least 2,300 years and is the most important site in northern Belize, near the border with Mexico.

"It's a feeling of incredible disbelief because of the ignorance and the insensitivity ... they were using this for road fill,'' Awe said. "It's like being punched in the stomach, it's just so horrendous.''

Nohmul sat in the middle of a privately owned sugar cane field, and lacked the even stone sides frequently seen in reconstructed or better-preserved pyramids. But Awe said the builders could not possibly have mistaken the pyramid mound, which is about 100 feet tall, for a natural hill because the ruins were well-known and the landscape there is naturally flat.

"These guys knew that this was an ancient structure. It's just bloody laziness'', Awe said.

Photos from the scene showed backhoes clawing away at the pyramid's sloping sides, leaving an isolated core of limestone cobbles at the centre, with what appears to be a narrow Mayan chamber dangling above one clawed-out section.

"Just to realize that the ancient Maya acquired all this building material to erect these buildings, using nothing more than stone tools and quarried the stone, and carried this material on their heads, using tump lines,'' said Awe. "To think that today we have modern equipment, that you can go and excavate in a quarry anywhere, but that this company would completely disregard that and completely destroyed this building. Why can't these people just go and quarry somewhere that has no cultural significance? It's mind-boggling.''

Belizean police said they are conducting an investigation and criminal charges are possible. The Nohmul complex sits on private land, but Belizean law says that any pre-Hispanic ruins are under government protection.

The Belize community-action group Citizens Organized for Liberty Through Action called the destruction of the archaeological site "an obscene example of disrespect for the environment and history.''

It is not the first time it's happened in Belize, a country of about 350,000 people that is largely covered in jungle and dotted with hundreds of Mayan ruin sites, though few as large as Nohmul.

Norman Hammond, an emeritus professor of archaeology at Boston University who worked in Belizean research projects in the 1980s, wrote in an email that "bulldozing Maya mounds for road fill is an endemic problem in Belize (the whole of the San Estevan centre has gone, both of the major pyramids at Louisville, other structures at Nohmul, many smaller sites), but this sounds like the biggest yet.''

Arlen Chase, chairman of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Central Florida, said, ``Archaeologists are disturbed when such things occur, but there is only a very limited infrastructure in Belize that can be applied to cultural heritage management.''

"Unfortunately, they (destruction of sites) are all too common, but not usually in the centre of a large Maya site,'' Chase wrote.

He said there had probably still been much to learn from the site. "A great deal of archaeology was undertaken at Nohmul in the '70s and '80s, but this only sampled a small part of this large centre.''

Belize isn't the only place where the handiwork of the far-flung and enormously prolific Maya builders is being destroyed. The ancient Mayas spread across southeastern Mexico and through Guatemala, Honduras and Belize.

"I don't think I am exaggerating if I say that every day a Maya mound is being destroyed for construction in one of the countries where the Maya lived,'' wrote Francisco Estrada-Belli, a professor at Tulane University's Anthropology Department.

"Unfortunately, this destruction of our heritage is irreversible but many don't take it seriously,'' he added. "The only way to stop it is by showing that it is a major crime and people can and will go to jail for it.''

Robert Rosenswig, an archaeologist at the State University of New York at Albany, described the difficult and heartbreaking work of trying to salvage information at the nearby site of San Estevan following similar destruction around 2005.

"Bulldozing damage at San Estevan is extensive and the site is littered with Classic period potsherds,'' he wrote in an academic paper describing the scene. ``We spent a number of days at the beginning of the 2005 season trying to figure out the extent of the damage .... after scratching our heads for many days, a bulldozer showed up and we realized that what appear to be mounds, when overgrown with chest-high vegetation, are actually recently bulldozed garbage piles.''

However small the compensation, bulldozing pyramids is one very brutal way of revealing the inner cores of the structures, which were often built up in periodic stages of construction.

"The one advantage of this massive destruction, to the core site, is that the remains of early domestic activity are now visible on the surface,'' Rosenswig wrote.

Also on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • Times Square, Manhattan, New York

    Located smack dab in the center of New York City's midtown, Times Square is what many automatically think of when they think "Manhattan." But the overcrowded tourist destination, in reality, can be congested and overpriced -- and it just doesn't capture the true energy and culture of New York City. Take a walk through Times Square at night to check out the lights and see a Broadway show, and beyond that, steer clear -- you'll get a more authentic Big Apple experience wandering through Chelsea Market and the High Line, cafe-hopping the West Village, or discovering the many beautiful hidden corners of Central Park.

  • Disneyland, Anaheim, California

    "Hurry up and wait" might be the best way to describe a visit to Disneyland in Southern California. Even if you get up early and rush to the park right when it opens, you're likely to spend the better part of your day waiting in line after line for foods, rides, shows and even souvenirs. Instead, try getting your amusement park fix by hitting Knott's Berry Farm, Magic Mountain or Disney's California Adventure. If you or your kids are dead-set on Disney, consider planning your trip in October, early December, or late April, when the park is less crowded.

  • Central Tokyo, Japan

    Tokyo may be one of the world's largest and most distinctive cities, but it can be a nightmare for tourists -- particularly those with no familiarity with the Japanese language. The city can be crowded, expensive and difficult to navigate, so plan to do plenty of research in advance to minimize headaches. Travelers to Japan would be well-advised to spend a day or two hitting the destinations they'd like to hit in Tokyo, and using their rest of their time exploring Kyoto or Osaka, and touring the beautiful Japanese countryside.

  • Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy

    Perhaps one of the most overrated destinations in all of Europe, the Leaning Tower of Pisa offers tourists an opportunity to wait in long lines to walk up a slanted tower and take photos that make it look as if they are holding up the tower with their hands. TripAdvisor reviewers <a href="http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g187899-d195452-r126501176-Leaning_Tower_of_Pisa_La_Torre_di_Pisa-Pisa_Province_of_Pisa_Tuscany.html" target="_blank">call the tower</a> "Beautiful but crowded": If you want to make the trip, be prepared to spend at least 15 Euros getting up the tower and fight for good photo spots with other tourists. Visitors to Pisa can head to the beautiful Piazza dei Miracoli (the "Square of Miracles") for an equally memorable -- and less crowded -- experience.

  • Taj Mahal, Agra, India

    The Taj Mahal is certainly an impressive sight -- it is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, after all -- but visiting the architectural feat may not necessarily be a pleasant travel experience. The Indian landmark is known to get extremely crowded and hot during the day. To avoid excessive crowds and experience the monument with its most beautiful coloring (it changes throughout the day with the light), get up early and try to make it there for sunrise.

  • Cancun, Mexico

    The Mexican resort destination of Cancun draws in hundreds of thousands of tourists and spring breakers each year, who crowd its poolside bars and white-sand beaches. If you're looking to avoid crowds of college students and enjoy the stunning natural beauty of the Gulf Coast in peace, head to nearby Riviera Maya instead. Yahoo! Travel contributor Marcia Frost recommends heading to smaller cities like Playa del Carmen for great beaches and rich Mayan culture. "With many of the large hotels spread apart, you're bound to find more sand to stretch out on in Riviera Maya than Cancun," <a href="http://voices.yahoo.com/five-reasons-stay-riviera-maya-instead-cancun-10632659.html" target="_blank">she writes</a>.

  • Alcatraz, San Francisco, California

    Amid the beauty of the San Francisco bay lies the foreboding island of Alcatraz, a "must-see" Bay Area attraction and arguably the most famous prison in the world. "The Rock" attracts legions of tourists daily for crowded tours , and has been called "grossly overrated" by some <a href="http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g60713-d102523-r113214427-Alcatraz-San_Francisco_California.html" target="_blank">TripAdvisor reviewers</a>. Lines to get on the boat are long, and tours don't come cheap. Skip Alcatraz (or if you're a history buff, just opt for a night tour) and instead take the ferry out to neighboring Angel Island for biking, hiking and gorgeous views of the Bay.

  • Tower of London, London, UK

    A world-famous attraction and nursey-rhyme subject, The Tower of London is one of the UK's biggest tourist traps, and of course, the most crowded. It's hard to experience the landmark's deep history and cultural significance when you're packed in with other tourists and have to commit the better part of a day to making your way around the place. Not only are there lines to get in, but you'll have to wait in line again to see the Crown Jewels and to actually go up the Tower. Bear in mind that the attraction is frequently so crowded that you can't get up close to the exhibits. For a more low-key visit, walk across the Tower Bridge for beautiful views of the city -- and skip the rest.

  • The Louvre Museum, Paris, France

    Home to some of the world's most famous works of art, The Louvre museum can be an overwhelming experience for travelers to Paris (travelers frequently complain of long lines and crowds). Although it's worth making a stop at the historical landmark when you're in Paris, be strategic in how you go about it -- and don't expect to catch more than a distant glimpse of the "Mona Lisa." Create an itinerary before you go so that you can make sure to hit all the major works and galleries you'd like to see, and try to come right when it opens or towards closing time. After a quick visit, your time may be better spent at some of Paris's other art museums -- the Musee D'Orsay, Picasso Museum, and the Petit Palais-- for a quieter experience.

  • Colosseum, Rome, Italy

    Rome's Colosseum, the iconic and well-preserved piece of the ancient Roman empire, is one of the most highly-trafficked tourist destinations in all of Europe. If the former sight of the great gladiatorial games is on your to-do list, at least buy tickets in advance to avoid long lines -- your best bet is to purchase a package at the Roman Forum or Palatine Hill, which gets you into all three attractions.