logo NICH

Archaeology Of Lamanai


altSite Description

Eight major plazas or groups of large structures make up Lamanai’s central core. At the north end of the site center, there is a huge platform (90m x 110m) supporting several large buildings that stand 28m high. Adjacent to this complex there is an ancient harbor.

The Mask Temple/N9-56

A tour through the ancient central core of Lamanai will take you to a mask-decorated temple. The exposed mask, and its concealed counterpart at the left side of the stair, is unique in the Maya area because they are cut from blocks of limestone rather than sculpted from plaster over a stone core. The facial features of the masks are clearly related to characteristics of Olmec iconography as seen in the Gulf Coast of Mexico; particularly in the upturned lip and broad nose. The masks are each adorned with a headdress representing a crocodile. This symbol validated the ancient site name recorded by the Spaniards as Lamanay ("place of the crocodile").

Construction began on the Mask Temple by 200 BC. This building was modified several times between 200 BC and AD 1300. Beneath the building is a Preclassic temple bearing a plaster mask similar to those found at Cerros (ca. 100BC)

Even after the building had been abandoned, the Maya, then living in the southern part of the site, returned to this temple and constructed several small low platforms to support a new stela. During this time, a huge offering of pottery figurine incense burners was made. The temple also contained a tomb holding the remains of a man adorned with jade and shell objects, once accompanied by a great range of textiles, mats, and other perishable objects. Nearby lay a second tomb, of almost the same date, occupied by a woman. The two burials surely represent a succession of Lamanai's leaders, perhaps husband and wife, or brother and sister.


In the southern portion of the site, near the center of the ceremonial zone, the tallest temple (33m) on the site can be found. This massive building, now badly damaged, was begun in 100BC, and its first phase of construction was as tall as the present building. No major additions were made after about AD 700. Like others in the site center, the temple fell into disrepair around AD 900. Sometime after its abandonment, perhaps in the 1200's, an offering was made here.

The construction of this massive temple marked a major transformation of Lamanai's central core. This was a residential area before the temple was built. Just below the temple's floor are remnants of tiny house platforms, with domestic refuse and fire pits dating to 300 BC.

A shift from residential to ceremonial use is not an unusual event, but that such a shift could be so dramatic, from platforms less than a meter high to a building almost 30 meters tall, suggests some major change in the community that prompted this extraordinary statement of new power and wealth.


The ballcourt at Lamanai boasts the largest known ballcourt marker, though it has one of the smallest playing areas. Beneath the marker stone was an offering containing a lidded vessel holding miniature pots and other items resting in a pool of liquid mercury; the first discovered in the Maya lowlands.

Stela 9

East of the ballcourt plaza, Stela 9 was found lying face down over the bottom steps of a small temple, N10-27. Erected in the Late Classic Period (AD 600-700), this is the only monument found in its original location. The figure on the monument is known as Lord Smoking Shell. The dates on the stela celebrate the conclusion of the tun (year) 7Ahau 3 Pop, and the anniversary of the reign of Lord Smoking Shell. The festivities took place at or March 7, 625 AD.

A burial/offering found under the stela's base contained the remains of five children, ranging in age from newborn to eighth years old. There are no signs of violent death, and since children's remains are not normally found associated with the dedication of monuments, this burial must have had a special significance.

N10-9 Complex

South of the stela area you will come into a complex of residential and administrative buildings. From this complex, you can look out at the southernmost major temple in the site center (N10-9). This temple was built in the sixth century (Early Classic Period). Major modifications were made in the eight century, and also in the thirteenth century (Postclassic Period). The most recent additions to the temple, tiny shrines at the foot of the stair, were made in the 1400's, or later.

Temple N10-9 embodies much of Lamanai's history, and shows how many aspects of the city's early life were retained even after the first Europeans arrived. Here, there is clear evidence of continuing vitality at a time when other cities were falling into decline.

Other structures in this plaza (N10-1, N10-2, N10-4, N10-7) date to the Postclassic Period and combined domestic with ceremonial functions.

Royal/Elite Residences

South of the N10-9 ceremonial complex, you come to the main residential zone, occupied by the Maya when Spaniards arrived in the sixteenth century. This neighborhood was once home to a large part of Lamanai's upper social stratum. Houses of thatch, and sometimes partly of stone, were spread over the slightly rolling land much as a modern village would be.

Colonial Churches

From 1544 to 1640, Christianity appeared to dominate at Lamanai through the visita system, in which a priest traveled a circuit covering vast distances, serving several churches.

South of the site there is a stone building that is very different from other Maya structures. The massive walls, with large cornerstones represent sixteenth century European construction. They are what remain of the Christian "Indian Church" which is the modern name of the nearby village.

Excavations within the church yielded evidence of a cemetery and also revealed that in 1544, the Spaniards had built a church on top of a Maya temple. The church was later destroyed by the people of Lamanai. A second church was also desecrated by the Maya who, in 1640, abandoned newly adopted Christianity in favor of a return to traditional forms of worship. As a result of the rebellion, the church was re-sanctified as a traditional sacred space with the dedication of a stela on the front stair. The associated offering contained frog and crocodile figurines, utilitarian vessels, shards and animal bone.


From the archaeological investigation has emerged a picture of growth, vitality and endurance which extends beyond that known at other Maya centers, and tells us much about the indomitable nature of the Maya spirit; a spirit that remains alive today in the towns and villages of Belize and throughout the Maya world.