Stone face
Belize,  Ruins

Lamanai: submerged crocodile

The early morning clouds hung so low over the forest that we couldn’t see the tops of the trees. And we certainly couldn’t see any howler monkeys! Just like us it seemed, they like a lie-in on a miserable morning. On many other mornings during our time in Central America we had been woken by their eerie calls long before dawn; today, when we had got up early to see them, they were still in bed long after us!

Brick arches and iron pulleys
Ruined sugar mill near Lamanai

Raul took us past the old sugar mill and further into the reserve. Suddenly we emerged into a clearing and there before us in the mist was the Jaguar Temple – we had walked all the way to the Maya ruins. And at last, as we gazed up at the temple, we heard the now-familiar howls; the monkeys were up at last!

Maya pyramid on a foggy day
The Jaguar Temple at Lamanai at dawn

We walked back among the trees, towards the noise. Suddenly Raul halted – he could smell the monkeys nearby. Though still invisible to us, he had caught a whiff of damp fur, similar to that of wool. I tried and failed to smell it myself, and as I did so he pointed upwards; a troop of monkeys had emerged from the surrounding forest and were now in the branches immediately above our heads.

Binoculars allowed us to observe them more closely. There was a dominant male, a younger male, three females and an infant. We were both given sheets of paper on which to log our observations in our new role as ‘assistant researchers’: what were the monkeys doing (feeding); how much were they moving around (just a little); which one did we find the most interesting (for me the large male, who was clearly throwing his weight about so that the younger one knew who was the boss!)

Owl in a tree
The monkeys were too high up to photograph but I did manage to get this owl!

After a while the monkeys moved off into the trees and it was time for us to go back to the lodge for our breakfast. Raul radioed for a boat to pick us up at the ruins’ jetty, and soon we found ourselves tucking into a hearty Belizean breakfast and telling some of our fellow guests that yes, we had, in the end, found some monkeys.

Wooden jetty, cormorants, fog
Lamanai ruins – the jetty in the fog

Lamanai’s Maya ruins

The Maya ruins at Lamanai (the visible ones at least) may be less extensive than those elsewhere in Central America, but they are also much quieter. Even if visiting in the middle of the day rather than the crack of dawn, you won’t find many more people here than we had seen monkeys!

Lamanai means ‘submerged crocodile’ in the Maya language, and that seems appropriate, as today much of the site remains submerged indeed, beneath centuries of soil and forest growth. The site is notable for several reasons. It was occupied long after many other Maya sites had fallen into disuse and neglect (up until at least 1650 AD) and unlike other sites, many of its temples were built in layers, each on top of a previous structure, rather than temples being torn down and built anew.

Hundreds of ruins are said to be still hidden in the undergrowth, and here and there you get glimpses perhaps of a man-made hollow that was once a water reservoir, or a ‘hill’ that almost certainly conceals the remains of a temple. But although on a much smaller scale than other sites, there are still four notable temples which have been restored.

The Mask Temple

The Mask Temple is at the northern end of the complex. It is an excellent example of the Lamanai custom of building in layers, each on top of an earlier structure. In the case of the Mask Temple, five construction phases have been identified, lasting from 100 BC to 900 AD. Raul showed us illustrations of each phase (illustrations I have since found on this website, I confess though that I am at a loss to know how archaeologists can be so sure of the appearance of the earliest phases, when they have been so subsumed by later ones.

The most striking feature of the temple is the mask that gives it its name. This is carved from limestone and has been dated to 500 AD. This mask is on the front to the right of centre and was covered in later building phases. The matching one on the left has been left covered by rock to protect it.

The High Temple

As the name suggests, this is the tallest structure at Lamanai. It was built over two phases: an initial pre-classic one around 100 BC and a major reshaping of the front in the late classic period, around 600 AD. In its earlier form it would have had masks on the front, traces of which have been uncovered and can just be made out (look where the person is standing in the lower left corner of my second photo below).

The Ball Court

Between the High Temple and the next, the Stela Temple, lies a ball court. It is much smaller than most and is also one of the latest examples, being constructed around 841 AD when many other Maya cities were already in decline. In its centre is a smooth limestone marker, 1.5 metres in diameter. This would originally have been laid flush with the surface. When it was lifted by archaeologists, they discovered a cache containing 131 grams of liquid mercury, a deep-sea Spondylous shell, 19g of cinnabar, and 100 grams of hematite. It is thought that the presence of the mercury in particular indicates a religious significance to the cache. Some believe that because of this, and because of the court’s small size, it was not used for actual ball games but was largely symbolic.

The Stela Temple

This temple lies quite near the High Temple. It takes its name from the stela, Stela 9, which was discovered, face-down and buried in soil, on its front lower stairs (the only stela to have been found at Lamanai).

This stela now stands in the small museum at the site, with a replica placed here where it was found. The carvings on its surface are very well-preserved – the elaborate headdress, the hand holding a symbolic head (to show victory over his enemies), the bracelet, and so on. It dates from the early seventh century and is thought to depict a ruler.

Beneath the stela platform a number of offerings were found. These included shell beads, obsidian, and the skeletons of five children, ranging in age from new-born to eight years old. This is an unusual find and suggests that this was a highly significant site.

Nearby are the extensive ruins of an aristocratic or possibly royal residence, known at the Royal Complex. Excavations here have revealed traces of decorations using carved and painted stucco. Many of the rooms opened on to a courtyard and had stone beds. A stair would have led to an upper storey.

Mayan ruins in a jungle
The Royal Complex
The Jaguar Temple

The southernmost of the excavated temples is the Jaguar Temple. It takes its name from the sculptures on the facade which are said to represent jaguars, an animal of great significance to the Maya. This temple was built in three phases, from 500 to 1200 AD. A significant portion remains under grassy earth or is covered in dense jungle growth. If fully excavated, it would be significantly taller than the High Temple.

When you have visited these four great temples, seen the ball court and the royal complex, stop and look around. You have seen only 5% of this ancient ceremonial city. Under the forest that surrounds it lie many more structures, temples, residential buildings and who knows what else, waiting to be discovered …

I travelled to Lamanai in 2010


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