What Do We Know about Lamanai?                                        by David Pendergast and Elizabeth Graham



A watercolour rendering by Stan Loten, from Carleton University, of the Central Precinct at Lamanai. Stan Loten was the architect for the Lamanai Project.


Str. N10-43 during the Preclassic Period, about 100 B.C. Watercolour by Stan Loten.

 Offering (Cache N10-43/6) in the lower stair of N10-43; the vessel, originally lidded, contained a Spondylus shell and two small human figures, depicted below.

Spondylus shell and pendants, one shell, and one jade, from the vessel shown above. Preclassic Period, about 100 B.C. The pendants are about 4.7 cm high.

Str. N9-56 during excavation. The thatch covers a well-preserved mask that decorated the lower terrace of the temple during the Middle Classic Period, about A.D. 500-550. David Pendergast is standing on later construction that covered the mask. Str. N9-56 is known as "Fut" to archaeologists, and to tourists as The Mask Temple.

 Interior of a royal tomb, Tomb N9-53/1. Note pottery vessels beside the skeleton and half-buried in the chamber wall at the left rear.

Str. N10-9, displaying various construction phases. This temple continued to be renewed through the end of the Classic Period and in the Postclassic Period, until at least A.D. 1200, and its use may have continued as late as the 15th century.

Str. N10-43, The High Temple, during the Late Classic Period, about A.D. 700. The long, low building atop the second terrace is a common construction form at Lamanai, and is known as the Lamanai Building Type. Single examples of the type are known at Altun Ha and Chau Hiix, about 40 km and 20 km east of Lamanai, respectively.

 Stan Loten making architectural notes in front of one of the structures in the "Ottawa" group, immediately north of Str. N10-9.

A fragment from a remarkable stucco facade that once adorned the upper zone of one of the buildings in the "Ottawa" complex. The Maya destroyed the facade when they tore down the upper part of the structure and covered the remains with a new platform. The original red facade was later covered by a polychrome one, of which this mask is a part.

 Embedded in core of the latest "Ottawa" platform are vessels from a huge offering, with masses of burnt material, that marked the beginning of the platform's construction.

 At the right elbow of a 14th-century burial in Str. N10-4 (nicknamed "Cib") lie cast bronze objects (LA 69/9), possibly clothing adornments, with cruciform attachments. With them are pyrite beads and a bone ring.

Bronze clothing fasteners or ornaments (LA 90/8) from an A.D. 1350-1400 burial in Str. N10-4, nicknamed "Cib." The burial dates to about A.D. 1350-1400. The object on the right has been cleaned of oxidation products. The design is duplicated in gold in Tomb 7 at Monte Alban, Oaxaca.

A figure, originally stuccoed and painted, which we think is an effigy of a god or supernatural of some kind. It decorates the side of a 50 cm-high pottery vessel from a burial in Str. N10-2 of about A.D. 1150. Sometimes these vessels were used as censers, to burn incense, but in this case the vessel, which contained two molcajetes (chile-grinding bowls), shows no signs of burning.

 Tripod dish from a burial in Str. N10-2, about A.D. 1200.

 Tripod bowl with incised decoration like that found at Tulum, but distinctive Lamanai feet. Both the style of the human-head feet and the deep red colour mark the Late Postclassic; circa A.D. 1450.

 One of a pair (LA 95/2) of dissimilar stuccoed censers, probably ca A.D. 1450, that presumably depict deities. Height 33.5 cm; from Burial N10-7/1.

 A complex multiple burial in Str. N10-4, circa A.D. 1450, in which a young adult male is accompanied by remains of several older individuals, as well as paired and single vessels of many forms.

 Pottery figure, 50 cm high, of a hunchback whose arms and legs are covered with tattooing. In the background you see the figure in situ at the top of a tomb constructed about A.D. 1500-1525.

 The two Spanish churches. In the foreground is the platform of the first church, built about A.D. 1545-1550 over the remains of a small Maya temple. Behind it stands the eastern masonry portion of the later, larger church, probably built about A.D. 1600.

 The principal residence, probably the cacique's (leader's) house, in the Historic community, bordered by houses of immigrant settlers who now live in Indian Church village alongside the Lamanai-San Felipe road.

 Gilt brass hinge leaves from two European books that once graced the cacique's house. The style of the pieces suggests a date not later than A.D. 1550.

 European lock plates, the lefthand one perhaps from a vargueno (drop-front chest on stand). The lefthand plate is from refuse spread east of the later church; the righthand one comes from debris at the edge of the first church's platform.

 Antlered crocodilian offering vessel with a deity head in its mouth, from Str. N11-4. Similarities to others from the Historic area suggest a mid-16th century date. The vessel contained a clay bead covered in gold sheet.

 Intrepid explorers Michael (left) and Conall Pendergast, at the crusher of the mid-19th century sugar mill. The New Orleans-made ironwork, dated 1869, is the last of a series of replacements.


As is always true of a large and long-lived community, the beginnings of Lamanai's 3200-year occupation history lie hidden beneath the accumulation of the centuries. Judging by a radiocarbon date associated with abnormally high concentrations of corn pollen in a feature called The Harbour, the Maya had established an agriculturally based settlement at Lamanai by or before 1500 B.C. The concentration of pollen suggests very strongly that the material represents waterborne ceremonial activity in what was, probably throughout the site's occupation, a small arm of the great lagoon on which Lamanai faces. This in turn suggests that the settlement may have been of moderate size by 1500 B.C. There is a very small ceramic sample that is only a few centuries later in date, but the earliest extensive evidence, including both residential and communal structures, falls around 500-700 B.C., and reveals Lamanai as a nucleated community with a somewhat diffuse Central Precinct. By this time or slightly later, residential settlement had embraced what was to become the heart of the Classic-period Central Precinct, the area of Structure N10-43.

Near the end of the Preclassic, probably around 100 B.C., a major transformation of the site took place. Whereas the community's centre lay originally in the northernmost part of the site as we see it now, probably to be near the small area of raised fields north of the site's margin, its late Preclassic heart shifted southward. The shift embodied one of a series of truly major changes in Lamanai's appearance as well as its activity patterns. In a real "urban renewal" project, a group of small southern residential structures was supplanted by the massive initial stage of Structure N10-43, which served as the focal point for the first major plaza group to appear at the site.

The pattern of a single dominant temple flanked and faced by markedly smaller buildings came to be characteristic of Lamanai's Classic development, and may in some senses have persisted throughout the remainder of the site's occupation. As was also the case with earlier Preclassic structures, N10-43 saw some measure of the dedicatory cache deposition that was characteristic of most Maya construction. However, as remained true for the full course of the site's history, the number and splendour of the caches was limited in comparison with sites such as Altun Ha, some 40 km to the east. At about the same time as the building of N10-43's first stage, a complex three-structure group atop a platform, probably set in turn on a larger platform, came into being as the start of what ultimately grew into the N9-56 group.

N10-43 continued as a principal element during the Early Classic, and during this time the multi-structure N9-56 group began to take the shape that it was to retain throughout the Classic. In contrast with the relative poverty of dedicatory material in both settings, N9-56 and its supporting platform became the sites of two comparatively rich tombs of a construction type unknown elsewhere in the Maya world. Beneath complex hoopwork domes, which were covered in coarse textiles that were in turn swathed in fine textiles soaked in red pigment, the occupants of the two tombs lay surrounded by wooden objects, pottery vessels, and a variety of jade and shell mosaic ear ornaments and apparent pendants, among other artifacts. Luckily the vessels fix the dates of the two tombs near the beginning of the sixth century A.D., but unluckily neither ceramic nor other evidence tells us which tomb preceded which. The issue is particularly important because the occupant of Tomb N9-56/1 is male and the individual in Tomb N9-53/1, seen at the left, is female.

The closeness of the two interments in time as well as space indicates very strongly that one individual succeeded the other as Lamanai's ruler. The old, male chauvinistic view would have been that the male was the true ruler, and on his death his wife succeeded him. Today we can recognize three other possibilities: the female was the true ruler, and upon her death her consort succeeded her; the two were brother and sister; or one was the parent of the other. The last is the least likely, because the two interments are close in date and both individuals are unquestionably adults.

The most interesting aspect of the two tombs, besides the fact that N9-53/1 documents female rulership at Lamanai, is the difference in their location. Tomb N9-56/1 lay in the heart of the temple, on its midline, a highly honorific position. Tomb N9-53/1, in contrast, lay in a pit dug into bedrock and covered by an element of the front of the large platform on which N9-56 sits. Both its association with a subsidiary platform rather than the principal temple and its position far from the platform's midline make the tomb appear less important, but form and contents convey the opposite message.

At about the same time as the construction of the two tombs, or perhaps slightly earlier, came the beginning of the southernmost plaza group in the Central Precinct, dominated by Structure N10-9. This plaza and the assemblage of buildings raised on a high platform at its northern border, a group known today as "Ottawa," appear to have become the main focus of Lamanai public life during the Late Classic. In its original form the group consisted of two plazas at different levels, bordered by residences and buildings that probably saw combined residential and administrative use.

By this time a distinctive form of construction known as the Lamanai Temple Type had come into being. The type is characterized by the absence of a chambered building at the platform top and the presence of a long, narrow chambered unit set athwart the central stair, usually about one-third of the distance from the platform's base to its top. The Lamanai Temple Type is exemplified by the middle construction stages of N10-9, as well as by Late Classic modifications to N10-43, to other buildings in the N10-43 plaza group, and in some measure by changes to N9-56. More than the ceramics or other artifacts from the site, the distinctive temple type serves to identify links with other centres in the area; a single example, Structure B-4/7, is known at Altun Ha, and one is reported also from Chau Hiix, which lies almost exactly halfway between Altun Ha and Lamanai.

Among the site's many significant features, perhaps the most important is Lamanai's history as the Classic came to an end. Whereas neighbouring sites proceeded through a period of decay to final collapse of sociopolitical structures in the ninth and tenth centuries, Lamanai survived this time of upheaval, and lived on into the Postclassic. There is, in fact, very good evidence that the people of Lamanai exerted one of their greater efforts in construction in the eleventh century, with a huge transformation of the "Ottawa" group that occupied several centuries and may have involved the amassing of more than 20,000 metric tonnes of building material. By this time modification and maintenance, and probably the use, of most or all of the buildings in the northern part of the Central Precinct had ceased, and some buildings may already have begun to disintegrate.

By the end of the Terminal Classic the focus of life at Lamanai had shifted very strongly southward, and by or before A.D. 1100 a revamped area east of N10-9 had been combined with the drastically modified "Ottawa" group to make up a new, reduced Central Precinct. Whether population had declined by the twelfth century is not clear, but it is abundantly clear from the archaeological evidence that the restructured community continued to thrive, and began to enjoy interchange with sites in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula.

By A.D. 1200 if not earlier, copper-tin bronze objects, primarily bells and clothing ornaments, had begun to flow into Lamanai from sources in west Mexico, the Oaxaca Valley, and probably middle Central America. Out from Lamanai to northern Yucatecan centres went a distinctive style of ceramics, and probably other goods and ideas as well. The ceramics, defined at Lamanai as the Buk Phase, are marked by extensive incised decoration, usually highlighted in black against the red to red-orange body colour. In addition to a great variety of tripod and some tetrapod forms, Buk vessels include complex censers and vessels of unknown, provbably ceremonial, use, to which we have given the name "chalices."

In the chaos that surrounded Lamanai from about A.D. 875 onward, the centuries of the Early Postclassic are quite likely to have been a time in which the community saw immigration of people from the fringes of nearby centres that were undergoing gradual abandonment. Unfortunately but quite expectably, the archaeological evidence does not show how the inhabitants of Lamanai dealt with a surrounding Southern Lowlands world on which the aftermath of the Classic collapse continued to tighten its grip.

The picture of Lamanai in the Terminal Classic and Early Postclassic seemed at first to be of an island of relative calm in a sea of chaos. Beginning in 1986, however, our work at the site of Marco Gonzalez on Ambergris Caye, about 75 km northeast of Lamanai, has shown that in these same centuries at least one other settlement continued to burgeon. The island community's prosperity during the Postclassic appears to have stemmed at least in part from close links with Lamanai, which are documented by the presence of masses of Buk-Phase pottery, much of it with distinctive proportions and decoration that indicate manufacture elsewhere than at Lamanai, probably on the island itself. Marco Gonzalez may, in fact, have reached its zenith between about A.D. 1150 and 1300, a period that also saw a high level of prosperity and vibrance at Lamanai.

Later in the Postclassic Lamanai appears to have shrunk even further into its southern focal area, but material-culture innovations continued, especially in ceramics, as presumably did trade with centres farther to the north. Throughout the centuries of the Postclassic Lamanai's inhabitants not only continued modification and maintenance of the front of the southernmost Classic temple, Structure N10-9, but also retained an attitude of reverence towards decaying structures farther north. By about A.D. 1300 or a bit earlier the residents of Lamanai had begun to make offerings in the ruins of northern Central Precinct buildings, usually by burying vessels in collapse debris, on or near the primary axis. Between A.D. 1400 and 1450 they undertook one of the larger ritual offerings in the community's history in just such a decaying temple setting, surely a sign that the ancient scenes of religious activity were still seen as places of great power. Atop Structure N9-56 Lamanai's people smashed and scattered a huge quantity of figural censers, probably both locally made and imported. The number of vessels, perhaps as many as 100, and the symbolic content of the objects combine to bespeak the truly major importance of the event. Near the time of the great offering, but whether before or after it we cannot say, the Maya removed a carved stela from some other location and re-erected it in front of N9-56. Together with this effort came the construction of a group of very small platforms at the foot of N9-56, and the tiny buildings also served as sites for offerings that included miniature human or deity-figure vessels. In this same period construction was proceeding in the Postclassic Central Precinct, and probably in scattered locations elsewhere around the site as well.

As the Postclassic neared its end the citizens of Lamanai imported ceramics from the Tulum region in what is now Quintana Roo, and appear to have been receiving objects from central or southern Mexico as well. The community was quite clearly still a vibrant one throughout the prehistoric period, for around the turn of the sixteenth century its people developed a new style of ceramics, which we term the Yglesias Phase. At about the same time Lamanai's inhabitants took a significant technological step forward by beginning to work metal. Previously unknown in the Maya area, the casting of bronze objects became part of Lamanai's cultural array with the production of bells, rings, needles, axes, and other forms. Analysis of the objects shows that the metal used in their manufacture was produced by the melting down of artifacts, almost certainly part of the inventory imported in earlier centuries. The community's strength is reflected by the early sixteenth century burial of an individual who may have been the last prehistoric community leader; the interment was attended with the same level of richness that had marked the interments of his mid-Classic predecessors.

The Spaniards first set foot on Lamanai's shore about 1544. In the succeeding century a zone well south of N10-9, which had been transformed into the community's heart by or before 1500, felt the winds of change once more as the European presence inserted Christian churches and related structures into the indigenous settlement pattern. As in many other places, the Spaniards supplanted what was probably the principal ceremonial building of immediate pre-Contact times with a Christian church that closely resembled the one known at Tipu. In the course of the demolition and new construction, one of the Mayas apparently sought to copper his bets with the ancient gods by placing a small animal-effigy vessel offering in the remains of the soon-to-be-concealed Maya temple. Such conjoining of the two religions presumably characterized Lamanai from this point onward. Later, perhaps near 1600, the first church was supplanted by a much larger and more permanent structure, erected immediately to the north. The larger church suggests ambitious Spanish plans for Lamanai, which appear never to have been realized.

For nearly a century the Spaniards held sway over Lamanai despite the fact that their presence there was only intermittent. Christian worship was led by a visita (circuit-riding) Spanish priest whenever he could be present, but otherwise was probably presided over by a native sacristan. A cacique, (native leader), whose home we believe we discovered during excavation, was probably the lone voice of Spanish secular control whenever no Spaniard was at the site. In his home the cacique held numerous European utilitarian objects, ranging from a steel axe and two knives to a variety of other pieces of metalwork, which were symbols of his status as much as they were useful tools. In addition, he possessed or served as custodian of two books, of which the only evidence we recovered consists of two portions of gilt bronze hinges.

In the 1630s rebellion broke out among the southern lowlands Maya, and when Fathers Bartolome de Fuensalida and Juan de Orbita arrived at Lamanai on their way to Tipu in 1641 they found the second church and its outbuildings burnt, and the people supposedly decamped to join the rebels centred at Tipu. Though the Spanish perception was that Lamanai lay abandoned, in fact the Maya returned to occupy the Contact-period centre, including the area of the churches, for what may have been more than a century. As at Tipu, they continued to show reverence for the second church as sacred space, and erected both a stela and a small platform in what had been the church's nave. Here and elsewhere in the Historic-period community the people deposited offerings, as had been their custom from time immemorial. One of the offerings in the church nave consisted of a group of miniature human-head vessels, probably incense-burners, and another was a large bicephalic crocodilian effigy. Together with other crocodile images with highly unusual anatomical features, the church offerings document a resurgence of Maya iconography, which in fact had probably never been fully suppressed in the time of Spanish contact.

At a later time, probably when ceremonial activity in the church zone had come to an end, a Maya family moved into the sanctuary of the second church, and for a considerable time deposited garbage around the building's perimeter. At some point thereafter, perhaps early in the eighteenth century, identifiable Maya presence at Lamanai came to an end, though of course we cannot be sure that no families remained scattered within what had been so great a centre for so long a time.

After a break of a century or more came the final chapter in the site's history prior to commencement of the Royal Ontario Museum's excavations, a British attempt at sugar production from about the 1850s to the early 1880s. The start of our work in 1974 marked the emergence of Lamanai as a site for which we can now trace the outlines of a Maya history thatt stretches from 1500 B.C. or earlier to perhaps A.D. 1700 or later, the longest known unbroken span of occupation in the Maya world.



History of Excavations                                                                                                                                                                             Altun Ha

Archaeology in Belize


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