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Lamanai, Belize - Spanish Colonial Period (circa AD 1540 – 1700)

Upon arrival to Mexico and Central America in the sixteenth century the Spanish initially were surprised to even find people residing there.  But then to encounter the Maya living in cities as large or larger then some European ones, utilizing sophisticated writing, metallurgy, architecture, and sculpture, they began to realize they were not the only civilized humans on earth.  Robert Sharer suggests a good comparison would be for us to come upon life on another planet, how would we communicate?  Would it be peaceful or would we destroy what we encountered?  Destruction of these cultures encountered in the sixteenth century was intentional, pagan practices were not understood or tolerated, and human and self-sacrifice was horrifying to the explorers and those they shared their findings with.  In fact, these early explorers were so surprised that despite the savage practices a culturally advanced society had developed.  They truly believed, that due to the sophistication of the culture that this area of the world had to have been settled by some forgotten Old World colonists.

An attempt, often seen as successful in the eyes of the conquistadors, at religious conversion and forced resettlement, was the beginning of the destruction of a rich, culturally diverse area of the world.  Although most of their actions were purposeful many were not, including the introduction of disease, such as smallpox, that individuals in Central and South America were unable to resist, this caused millions of people to die and changed the fabric of this region forever. 

Lamanai was no different; it was around AD 1544 that the first official mention of the Maya city was recorded in historical documents.  The first Spanish church, Structure N12-13, dates to approximately AD 1570; it was constructed some time after Lamanai became part of the Spanish encomienda system (royal grant to a Spaniard for the right to labor and tribute a native population, who is also responsible for christianizing the natives). This first church was built over an existing Tulum-style Postclassic building that contained painted murals; in this case it appears the Spanish were attempting to convert the Maya to Catholicism by substituting one religious practice for another. Conversion was difficult and the archaeological evidence for this exists in the form of a burned and destroyed first church and the caching of various figurines around and near the churches in traditional Maya fashion. Although a second Spanish church was constructed, Structure N12-11, ultimately the Spanish were never able to establish a strong hold in this area. It was in AD 1638 that there was a widespread revolt by the Maya that ended in the retreat of the Spanish at least for the time being.

YDL II, Structure N12-13, Second Spanish Church

Original excavation by D. Pendergast – substantial European style architecture, built circa 1600 – 1610 and burned in an attempt to destroy the area in 1638 when a wide spread revolt occurred by the Maya, it was around this time that the uncarved stela seen in both images was erected, most likely the Maya again asserting their own power and beliefs

Large limestone quoins serve as cornerstones, although the smaller cobble-like stones do appear to be Maya construction, the quoins are most certainly of European design  





Jaguar figurine, cached in YDL I, Lamanai's first Spanish church
Original on left; Below, replica; these and copper bell illustration below by L. Belanger (

Caching practices although much more limited continue despite the influence of Catholicism at Lamanai, this figurine was recovered in the first Spanish church at Lamanai (Structure N12-11), although it is thought that it was secretly placed on what was now a different kind of sacred ground for the Maya, they still felt it was important to continue with their practices


Lamanai, Belize - Structure N12-12 – "Rectory"

  At least four phases of construction have been identified on this platform, located directly north of the second Spanish church, in fact it appears to have been partially destroyed to make room for the north end of the church (immediate left image) – it is still to this day difficult to discern if this structure was utilized during historic times but we certainly can say it was during the Late and Terminal Postclassic - due to its close proximity to the second church and the fact the north side of Structure N12-12 (far left) has traits we attribute to late and even historic times, we do feel this building may have served Lamanai during this Spanish colonial period



Material Culture of the Terminal Postclassic & Spanish Colonial Periods

Copper bells were a status item during the later periods at Lamanai (current research by S. Simmons, lamanai.htm) – although at this point it is not certain we do feel the ancient Maya of Lamanai were doing copper metallurgy just prior to the arrival of the Spanish


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