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Lamanai, Belize – Ancient Maya Classic Period (circa AD 250 to 900)


This time period can also be divided. In the Early Classic (AD 250 to 600) state-level political organizations developed and expanded in the Maya region, especially in the central lowlands, and included Tikal, Altun Ha, and Xunantunich. The Late Classic (AD 600 to 800) saw a rise in the new kinship-based rulership combined with a peak in population and cultural development especially in the central and southern lowlands. And finally, the Terminal Classic (AD 800 to 900), which marks a sharp decline, indicating severe stress in the central and southern lowland sites and ends with the last recorded date in the Long Count calendar. 


The opening of the Terminal Classic period marked the beginning of a dramatic decline. Thriving cities of hundreds of thousands were left largely deserted. There have been numerous theories proposed to explain the decline including drought, exhausted soils, depleted subsistence sources, poor nutrition, disease, and social disintegration. Once failure began to set in it was most likely a combination of the above but many questions still remain.


Adding to these questions about the decline during the Terminal Classic are those specifically about Lamanai.  What factors led to Lamanai surviving and thriving during and after this period?  Certainly the New River Lagoon, referred to as Dzuluinicob (foreign men) in prehistoric times, was a factor in this, but was it the primary one?  Did the fact that Lamanai was well established and organized enough to construct monumental architecture as is evident by Structure N10-43 during the Preclassic allow the Maya residing there to survive this Terminal Classic decline?  Or was there some other factor that is not yet evident that led to the city thriving for this extended period of time?



Structure N10-27 – Stela 9, Classic Period - Lamanai, Belize

Classic period carved stone monument, March 2003 recent decipherment by epigrapher Simon Martin did not change the original two dates recorded on the monument determined by Michael Closs of AD 608 & 625 – but does change the individuals we think may be being discussed from Lord Smoking Shell to Yopaat and Sun Shark – it is not clear if the main figure is the dead lord Yopaat or the current ruler (actually more like King, a rare title of East Kaloomte') dressed in royal regalia that actually is very old-fashioned, see below for more information - with this in mind we'd lean toward the figure representing Yopaat after his death


Lamanai Stela 9, Rubbing

By L. Belanger ( -

Iconographic representations      identified by D. Reents-Budet indicates a blend of Early and Late Classic traits – early being headdress with projecting chin strap, wristlets in the central area that resemble earplugs, ruler holding emblematic head in one hand and a ceremonial bar in the other – late traits being some empty space throughout (a reduction of imagery trend), outward turned feet (not seen here), and earplugs depicted as independent from the headdress  

Quad N10, Classic Period –

Lamanai Archaeological Reserve, Belize

Downtown Lamanai where the ancient Maya elite carried on everyday activities, certainly there is evidence for Preclassic and Postclassic activity but predominantly more Classic Period architecture presides

Classic Period, Unifacial blade points, Lamanai

Recovered in the elite residential area, Ottawa – it may be the case that there is a trend during the Middle to Terminal Classic period at Lamanai (and possibly beyond) in which these were placed in dedicatory architectural offerings (illustration by M. England)

AD 500 – Classic Period façade sculpture on Structure N9-56 (Mask Temple)


Archaeological illustration of Structure N9-56 by L. Belanger (, during the Classic period there was a rise in kinship and rulership 'worship', less representations of deities and gods (although still present) – during the Early Classic period at Lamanai we see this large façade mask that certainly represents a human figure, whether this is a depiction of one of Lamanai's ruler or an even higher power is uncertain, although one of the only two tombs recovered at Lamanai was recovered within this structure and dates to this time period  


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