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Lamanai Archaeological Project, Belize – From 1974 to Present


Excavations at Lamanai are in and of themselves a part of this extraordinary Maya city's history.  Large-scale excavations began in 1974, and continued until 1986, upon which time the site lay dormant, at least archaeologically until 1998.  The site itself is located on the west bank of the New River Lagoon, in northern Belize.  It was in 1974 that David Pendergast began large scale controlled excavations as part of the Lamanai Archaeological Project (LAP), his work was primarily sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Royal Ontario Museum, and was made possible by the then government of Belize's Department of Archaeology.  This permitting body has since been renamed the Institute of Archaeology, and is one of the organizations within Belize's National Institute of Culture and History.  Work conducted by Pendergast was carried out in 12 field seasons from 1974 to 1986.  It was during this time that he was able to establish the extensive chronology of Lamanai.


The majority of the Pendergast archaeological field crew was from San Jose Succutz, a Mopan Maya village in the southern part of Belize that was established in 1954.  Many of these men had previous excavation experience and were invaluable in the recovery of the Lamanai data.  Other key individuals were Stan Loten, Claude Belanger, Louise Belanger, and Elizabeth Graham who eventually herself became Principal Investigator of the site. 


Excavations began near the projects 'camp' area, which later became the docking area where through the years thousands of visitors disembarked.  The work consisted of excavation of Structure N10-2, identified as "Buk" which dated to the Late Postclassic (circa. AD 1200 – 1500), this is a period in Maya history that in 1974/75 virtually nothing was known.  It was during these first few years of work that Pendergast discovered that Lamanai was an important center during the last few centuries before the Spanish arrival.  In fact, it was the substantial Spanish architecture in the form of two churches that brought him to Lamanai in the first place; he felt that the Spanish would not have built a church there if there were not a somewhat substantial population of Maya to convert.  And what would follow one would hope would be an occupational span that would run right up to contact period, something unheard of in 1975.  To this day in Belize Lamanai is one of only two locations, Negroman-Tipu being the other, that Spanish visita mission churches have been discovered.

The 1977 season consisted of work on both Structure N10-9, Lip and Structure N10-43, Lag, both structures of which have yet other names of Jaguar and High Temple, followed in 1978 by work on Structure N9-56, Fut, also known as Mask Temple.  Work on Structure N10-43 was difficult and initially produced more questions then it did answers, this was especially true on the upper portions of the structure.  The incredible masks on Structure N9-56, a national treasure for Belize were recovered in 1978.  Work in 1980 continued in the northern part of the site, which was found to have some of the earliest material, including an effigy vessel dating to ca. 300 BC with the earliest representation of a stylized crocodile headdress.  Work continued from 1980 to 1982 in the residential elite area on what was named "Ottawa" due to its similar administrative function.  It was in 1983 that work began on Structure N10-27, and in Pendergast's words "yielded one of the greatest surprises in all our years at Lamanai, a beautifully carved stela that lay face down just 30cm below ground surface at Harold's (N10-27) center". 

It was in 1984 to 1986 that excavations were finally able to be conducted in the area just north of the two Spanish churches.  This area is located in the southern portion of the site and predominately contains Postclassic to Historic structures and material.  Excavations ended in this area after 12 seasons and it seems fitting that during the last two years of work Pendergast added even more to the extraordinary Lamanai record with a total of 44 mostly high status copper objects indicating the possibility of on-site metalworking and production.  Simmons has since taken this on as one of his research focuses and interests .

Refer to the Reading List for informative Pendergast articles on Lamanai


It was in 1997 that Elizabeth Graham took the role as Principal Investigator, permission granted to her by Belize's Institute of Archaeology now directed by Jaime Awe.  Her motivations are many but one certainly is the fact we still had (and have) many unanswered questions about Lamanai.  Prior to Graham's re-involvement work was being carried out under the auspice of the Lamanai Field Research Center (LFRC) that no longer conducts archaeological work.  Herman Smith and Mark McField conducted the initial excavations at a site they named Lamanai South.  This site is located just two miles south of the main downtown area of Lamanai.  Work began in this urban sprawl area on a small plazuela group that consisted of a number of house mounds in 1994, and initial work, not surprisingly, indicated that the chronology of Mound I, excavated by Smith, mirrors that of Lamanai.  In 1996, Laura Howard further explored and mapped this area, Report of Excavations of Lamanai South:  Results of the 1997 Field Season by Howard and Graham is available for a small fee.  The work focused on Mound II which was found to date from Protoclassic to Early Classic Period, they used the term “Protoclassic” because they felt it served as a bridging term, and indeed the construction associated with Mound II bridges the Preclassic to Classic Period. Nothing later than the middle of the Early Classic -- say A.D. 300 to 350 -- had been identified, and it would seem that occupation at Mound II did not continue beyond this period of time.

It was in 1997 that the first archaeological field school was organized and held in the Lamanai area.  Our first field school, aside from focusing on the educational components, conducted the final fieldwork at Lamanai South.  The field schools second season in 1998 was carried out within the boundaries of the Lamanai Archaeological Reserve with a permit issued to Graham.  The majority of fieldwork at Lamanai from 1998 to 2001 was done through field schools.  It was in 1999 that Scott Simmons, started the Maya Metallurgy Project designed to examine current theoretical models focusing on the relationships between metalworking, specifically copper, craft specialization and socioeconomic complexity.

Other research carried out at Lamanai under the direction of Graham include that of Linda Howie, Terry Powis, Richard Meadows, Darcy Weiwall, Laura Howard, Norbert Stanchly, Jim Aimers and Christine White, a bioarchaeologist who conducts analysis of skeletal material from Lamanai. Aside from field school excavations fieldwork also consisted of archaeological assistance with the Tourism Development Project (TDP), whose countrywide director was Jaime Awe.  Lamanai's Tourism Development Project (LTDP) director was Claude Belanger who was assisted by Meredith Martinez.  In 2002 Howard conducted an archaeological assessment and impact study, Archaeological Survey of Lamanai's Proposed Tourist Center and Surrounding Facilities, report available for a small fee. The Phase I and II survey was conducted in the northeast section of the N11 quad and the southeast section of the N10 quad of the Lamanai Archaeological Reserve, which encompasses an area of about 175 by 130 meters.  Stanchly served as Lamanai's TDP archaeologist during this project.

Graham's most recent fieldwork has focused in the elite, Terminal Classic residential group called Ottawa.  This work was funded by Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRCC), National Geographic Society (NGS), British Academy, and Institute of Archaeology, UCL and primarily included work on Structure N10-12 and N10-77, structures located in the southeast area of the residential group.  Graham currently is focusing her efforts on acquiring funds to improve data storage, analysis, and access to the Lamanai archaeological record by many different publics, which includes researchers, local residents, and ecotourists.

Simmons work, on The Maya Archaeometallurgy Project that archaeological students assist with is a research program focused on studying the specialized production of copper and bronze objects in the Maya Lowland area during Postclassic and Spanish Colonial times.  Since its inception in 1999 a central goal of this project has been to understand the relationships that existed between copper production and socioeconomic differentiation and interdependence among the Maya.  A larger goal for the research project is to provide insights into the relationships that existed between craft production, socioeconomic integration, and cultural evolution in state-level societies.  Although copper artifacts have been recovered from several other Lowland Maya sites, including a great number in the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itzá, no substantive research has been undertaken on the nature of Maya metallurgy as a specialized craft activity.  As a result, the Maya Archaeometallurgy Project at Lamanai is the first and thus far only one of its kind.

The Lamanai Archaeological Project Conducts:

-- Intensive 4-week Archaeological Field School for degree seeking anthropology students:   

-- Educational opportunities, middle & high school students, & university students through Beyond Touring:

Maya Archaeology, Rainforest, and Marine Ecology Program:

-- Research on Maya Archaeometallurgy, Petrographic analysis of ceramics, bioarchaeology, & many others:

-- Continued support and seeking of funds for the Community Development Initiatives:


DMP recovery of Stela 9



MVC 014


Harold N10-27 during



N10-43 base&N10-9 david photos good pdf




Field School N10-27 with Liz and DMP

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