In the rainforest of Northern Belize where the New River forms wide lagoon before resuming its slow and sinuous journey to the sea, The ruins of watch another tropical evening as they have for thousands of years. At this latitude, the sun falls fast, bathing the palmettos and swamp trees on the far shore on ruddy gold. A skunky whiff rises from the jungle; there is no one here but a handful of archaelogists and a few quatters farther down the lake.
As the shadows, bulky of massive buildings stand out from their mantle of trees, and one realizes that this was once a city of 20,000 to 50,000 people. One civilization of the ancient Maya. Here, in that society’s heyday, 15 centuries before our own, flourished agriculture, architecture and fine arts. Movements were carved, murrals were painted, and priestly astronomers and mathematicians observed the heavens and wrote calculations in hieroglyphic books.
Then something went wrong about 1,000 years ago. The Maya civilization declined, apparently from within. The poloulation fell. The great cities where Palenque, Tikan, Copan almost all were reclaimed by the jungle. Lamanai, however, struggled on. When the Spainards reached the corners of Belize in the mid 16th century, they found Mayas still here, even though the cities tallest buildings were by then covered in trees. How had Lamanai managed to survive? And what had the survivors lived through?
These questions may never be satisfactorily answered, but if they are, it will in no small part because of Lamanai Ruins and the work of David Pedergast, curator of the New Archaeologist Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). From 1974-1985, Pedergast has headed a team of Canadian specialist and the Maya workmen progeny of the lost civiliaztion that is now cutting back the jungle and unearthing the ancient structures “I knew from the old Spanish documents that there was a mission church there in the 16th and 17th centuries” recall Pedergast, “obviously, there must have been a population, no religious order, no matter how fanatics builds its church, where there are no parishioners. The presence of pre Spanish ruins was noted early in this century, and a British adventurer made one crude, luckily brief attempt of digging the place in 1917. Otherwise, it was untouched by archaeologists. I hoped to find evidence that the city was occupied continuously after the Maya collapse and that we might therefore, learn more about the nature of the collapse itself.
With from 20 to 40 people working each season from January through May, the team has mapped out a two – square mile site, identified over 800 buildings and excavated several of them – yieling results that far exceeded Pedergast’s original expectations. With shovels, brushes, dental tools and perseverance, they had given Lamanai a key role in the study of the Mayan past.
The low banks of the New River, with pools of flooded vegetation glinting in the evening sun, were picturesque but uninnviting – a green and watery hell to man but a paradise to the morlet crocodiles that abound there and may have given the ancient city both its name and its religious cult. The Old Spanish records gave the cities name Lamanai, or Lamayna, which at the time was thought to mean “drowned insect” but has since been translated as “Submerged Crocodile”.
Lamanai camp, a wilderness where the project began in 1974 could pass for a gentle hunting lodge. A grassy slope leads down to the water, huge trees give deep and welcomed shade, and the tangled undergrowth has been replaced with hibiscus and other flowering shrubs. Pedergast’s workmen have put up about a dozen thatched buildings with airy porches and meshed screens. Eah evening a distant generator give power and light; running water is pumped from the lake and some cabins even have private showers. Propane refrigerators cool both the fool and a welcome supply of beer. The label of Belikin, Belize’s only brew, features the Maya Pyramid of Altun Ha, another Maya Ruin dug and consolidated by Pendergast between 1964 and 1972. That city was smaller and less enduring than Lamanai, but its ruins, only half an hour drive from Maruba, has become one of the country’s major tourist attraction.
Pendergast decided at the age of 12 or 13 that he wanted to become an archaeologist and promptly undertook to do so- first in his native California (PHD. from UCLA), then in Guatemala and Belize.
“I’ve dug every season but one for the last 33 years, usually for 6 or 7 months. I must have spent half of my adult life in the field. The fact that I come don here every winter is the cause of some envy with my colleagues”, he grinned”but its absolutely legitimate – you have to dig in the dry season, and the dry season happens to coincide with the Cannadian winter.”
In 1964, Pendergast was hired by ROM to direct the Altun Ha dig; In the same year he became acting archaeological commissioner for the Government of British Honduras (as Belize was then). In 1967, he accepted a full time position with ROM.
Pendergast’s work in Belize has made him a local folk hero and done much to raise the profile of archaeology in the country. Altun Ha for instance, he made one of the most spectacular discoveries in Mayan archaeology. Mayan pyramids, unlike Egyptians, were primarily temple platforms not tombs. Nevertheless, behind the staircase ascending the main structure there, Pendergast uncovered a burial. chamber of a Maya priest of the sun. next to the skeleton, amid fine pottery and the decayed remains of wooden artifacts and cloth, laid the head of Kinuch Ahus, the sun god, carved from a single piece of jade. The 10 pond stone beautifully worked and polished by a master sculpture is the size of a human head, but to modern eyes, its features are grotesque; iconography dictated that the sun god be crossed – eye with a fanged mouth, no fat nose and large caulifloured ears. Carved in the 6th century A.D. and insured in the 20th century for several millions dollars, Kinich Ahay=u has become Belize’s equivalent to the Crown Jewels.
No modern archaeologist, however, is concerned solely with finding wonderful objects. The goals are more prosaic, perhaps, but much ore laudable. ”Our aim” said Pendergast, “is to learn what we can about past societies, and in so doing, to learn something about ourselves. The everyday life of the humblest Maya is as important for what it tells us of their civilization as the tombs of the rich and powerful. At Lamanai, we’ve examined some pyramids, but we’re also looking at the residential areas where the ordinary people lived. We have no intention of digging up everything even if it were possible. In all of our work, we’ve exposed only a tiny fraction of the city, and when we are finish, I’ll be happy to leave the rest for archaeologists in the future, who will probably have techniques far more advanced as we have today. We need to take the long view. The work of the ancient man are finite, and excavation, by its nature is destruction.
Traveling in a place where the past outshines the present is always a humble and philosophical experience. Belizeans, somewhat perversely, are fond of pointing out that the tallest building in the country is Xunantunich, near the Guatemalan border. At more than 130 feet, it is by far the tallest, unless one counts the 112 foot pyramid at Lamanai.
Similarly, the Belizeans population of the past was greater than that of today. No one can say exactly how many people lived in Belize at the height of the classic period in the sixth and seventh centuries. but the figure may as well have been 5 times the present number of 280.
Archaeologist of Central America call the region now occupied by Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and the western part of El Salvador and Honduras “Mesoamerica” – a term that reflects the cultural integrity of the area in which the Olmec, Maya, Teotihurcan, Toltec, and Aztec civilizations arose.In Mesoamerica, the various ancient peoples interacted with and influenced one another much as did the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans of the Mediterranean Basin. Between about 1500 to 300 B.C., the early Mesoamericans domesticated turkeys and dogs and invented agriculture. With farming came settled villages, population growth, organized religions and social hierarchies – culminating eventually in societies of great complexity and sophistication.
About 1500 B.C., the Olmecs of the Mexican Golf Coast began to establish Mesoamerican’s first full blown civilization, and it seems they influenced the rapidly developing Maya to the East. By 500 B.C. though, the Olmecs were on the wayne, just as the Mayas were coming into their own. The following seven centuries to 250 A.D. – those roughly temporary with the rise and start of the fall of Rome – are known by archeologist as the late pre classic period. It was the age when the Maya developed their mathematics, writing, astronomy and architecture, arts that flowered in the succeeding classic period from 250 to 900. While Europe entered the long eclipse of the Dark Ages, Maya astronomers – priest brought arithmetic and astronomy to new levels of refinement. By careful observation they made astonishingly accurate measurements of the length of the year, the lunar month and the apparent revolutions of the visible planets. These data were used for calculating planet conjunctions (important in their astrology) and for predicting eclipse of the sun and the moon. All this was done using simple methods. The classic Maya, technologically in the stone age, had no metal tools, let alone telescope and sextants. What they did have was an eloborate system of mathematics with place notation and the concept of zero – both unknown in Europe until introduced by Arabs in the high middles ages. The Maya calendar, far better than anything produced by the Greeks or Romans, were no based on years but simply on total days from an arbitrarystarting point, similar to the Julian Dry Count of modern astronomers. By watching heavenly bodies, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years the errorsinherent in the naked eyes sighting through apertures in temples and observation towers became extremely small.
People were living at Lamanai as early as 120 years and the place was obviously inhabited during the classic period; but when did the Maya first moved to the area? To answer the question Pendegast took core samples from the lagoon sediment. Test on their pollen content showed that corn – a sure sign of farming – appeared in quantity from 1500 B.c. Also, the earliestbuildings were found to date from 800 B.C. It thus became clear Lamanai was inhabited for some 3300 years, with large buidings from about 2300 – one of the longest unbroken sequence in the Maya lowlands.
Most of the ruins are still covered by mature high jungle. High tree trunks rise from buttress roots that grips the piles of rubber like giant octopi. The wood is surprisingly open, carpeted in leaves, dotted with philodendrons. The jungle canopy, a thick blanket of foliage only by narrow shafts of sunlight, begins about 50 feet above the ground. The forest is gloomy; restful.
The mask decorated temple rest under an enormous straw hat of sloping thatch that was built to protect features exposed by excavation. The roof is divided into two halves by the main staircase to the summit. As my adjusted to the harsh light of the clearing, I notice a colossal face, the weight of a man, to the right of the stairs, gaing at us from beneath the roof.
We approach the figure in its cavern of shade. It is a serene, aristocratic, rather oriental human countenance. Its eyes are heavy lidded, half asleep, and the broad nose arches towards the forehead in that haughty profile so esteemed by the Maya. They artificially flattened the front of their children skull to achieve it. The mouth hangs slightly open, revealing two prominent front teeth and the upper lip curls in a jaguar snarl. an elaborate headress seem to show the bug eyes, snout and scaly neck of a crocodile – the leitmotif of Lamanai.
Testing was shown an identical mask exist to the left of the staircase, as symmetry would require, but pendergast refused to leave it buried. Quite apart from difficulty of preserving the delicate stucco once it is exposed, there is a more serious problem. Maya sights are commonly looted by gangs of international art thieves and poverty peasants seeking artifacts to sell to unscrupulous collectors. The risks are so high that Pendergast believes he will have to rebury some of his major finds.
Structure N10-43, better known as the main temple, is the tallest structure of Lamanai. A trail opens in a tiny clearing, and there it is – a great staircase ascending out of the jungle at about a 45 degree angle to a height of 112 feet. The steps are in good condition in the bottom, but they are karge even for gringo legs, and certainly for the stocky Maya. ”I don’t think the priest climbed up in a hurry,” explained Pendergast as we set out for our tour of Lamanai. ”THese stairs were really an elevated stage for long, slow ceremonies as the officiant made their dignified way to the top.
What rites were performed here? And who or what was worshipped? Maya religion was as complex and baroque as hinduism or lLatin Catholicism. It is an oversimplification to speak of the sun god, a moon goddess, a corn god and so forth, but the terms are useful shorthand. Many classic Maya deities seem to have been similar to these found by the Spaniards throughout Mesoamerica. Quetzalcoalt, the feathered serpent (know as Kukulkan) was worshipped and so apparently a variant of Tezcatlipoca, the sky god. Theses deities and many more were intricately related to one another. Some of them presided over days, months and years f the calendar, rather like thesaints of today. Human sacrifice were probably less common amoung the Mayathan the Aztecs, but Pendergast has found the evidence of it at Lamanai underneath the finest carved stone monument yet discovered – a stellar or upright slab, with a hieroglypic inscription and a relief of the city’s ruler in full regalia – where the bones of half a dozen children.
The main temple had reach its present height about 100 B.C. It was probably the largest Maya buliding anywhere at the time, which suggests that Lamanai, outclassed during the classic by great cities such as Tikal and Palenque, may have been one of the foremost Maya centers in its early years. Unlike the Aztecs and Incas, the Maya were not empire builders. They were the Greeks of the new world, living in small cities – states that enjoyedintellectual contacts but had considerable difference in art, architecture, and way of life. One imagines there were rivalry, even war, between them as one city strove for prominence.
Maya cities were not crowded thin wall warrens of ground level buildings characteristic of Europe and Euro America. Many families live in the sort of house their descendants still make. Modest ones of two room dwellings with thatched roofs, walls of wood, wattle or stone and floors of swept earth or plaster. The houses sstood on mounds that keep them above the puddles of the wet season and were usually surrounded by a yard for turkeysand a kitchen garden. The centers of hte ancient cities, however, were thinly populated, reserved for the elite and for ceremonial percents.
The great cities of the Maya developed from simple villages. A settlement of the middle pre – classic (1300 – 450 B>C>) would have had a central square with the houses of the leading citizens around it. There were probably one or two finer buildings belonging to gods, but in those early days, they were relatively few differences between the dwellings of the rich and the poor man. As societies became more stratified and elaborate in the ate pre classic, the mounds of the gods houses were built higher and higher, until the plazas had to be enlarged to give them room. Eventually the core of the cities became a series of large plazas surrounded by enormous stepped pyramids or ziggurats, with temples perched on their summits.
Although the concept of the Maya architecture were simple, if grandiose, the Maya habit of repeatedly enlarging their buildings, said Pendergast “can drive you craz”. Old edifices were often completely enclosed in newer ones. Many of the great pyramids were built up over centuries, as layer after layer of masonry was added to the original temple mound. Although this present the archaeologist with numerous riddles, it is also a boon because a badly eroded pile of rubble may prove to have several well preserved earlier buildings within it.
Unlike the religious buildings of Europe, Maya temples were not intented to hold many worshippers. Public ceremonies were performed on the stairs ascending them, while the people gathered in the plazas below to watch and probably to dance. The city center was thus a creation of outdoor, rather then indoor space; a vast open aired theatre. The pyramids and platforms usually consisted of a rubble and mortar core faced with cut stone and stucco. At Lamanai, were good stone was scarse, the architects made effective use of lime, cement and concrete. Even the building faced with finely cut blocks were probably covered with a layer of plaster and and then frescoed in garnish green and dark reds.
We descended again into the jungle and after a hundred years or so came to the middle of the plaza over which the Maya temple presided. Its occupants today are hugh mature trees draped in vines and aerial parasites, the sounds of birds and the whine of insects dancing in the merger sunbeams. Here in a court between two terraced platforms, ancient athletes played pok-a-tok, the ritual game of mesoamerica. Two teams cotested a heavy solid rubber ball; and to make the sport more interesting the players could not touch the balls with their hands or feet. We can only guess at the meaning of the game from depictions of it in sculpture, pottery and hieroglyphic books. It seems to have represented the struggle between night and day, and it may also have been a peaceful way to vent political disputes.
Under a great stone disc that marked the center of the court, Pendergast found a pottery offering. The style of the pttery dated the structure to the beginning of the 10TH century A>D> A significant dates because it meant that the people of Lamanai were still building ball courts while most other Maya cities were abandoned. The offering alone were an important find but it did not surprise Pendergast as much as its contents: ”As I brushed away the dirt, I saw a glint of silver.The Maya did not use silver, but the gleam was obviously more than the product of sweat in jy eyes. I cleared the other sides of the pots, and there was the silver again, apparently a disc. I touched the disc, and its surface moved. It was mercury, a material never before encountered in a Mayan site.”
Pendergast mention the discovery not so much for anything it may reveal about the Maya as to demonstrate that the work he is involved in is an unending series of surprises. Contrasted with some archaeologist, he is a cautious man, and he frequently talks about the limitations of his science.
“I’ll give you an example of a little mystery,” said Pendergast. “In the southern part of the site, we found a burial. There is a man and a woman and a tiny baby, possibly a fetus or a stillborn. They were sitting in a pit side by side, and the woman had her arms around the man’s shoulders. You can almost see something of these people, but you can’t answer any of the basic questions about them. Were they married? Is the child theirs? Why are they there? What killed them? The rage of answers are almost beyond calculations. You are on the other side of a huge barrier. Sometimes you get to the point where you feel you can’t say anything at all. If you just stick a shovel to the ground and then go off and write the definitive prehistory you might as well shred the report and spread it on your roses because it’ll make the blooms a lot bigger.”
Ottawa, as its nickname suggests, were a residential complex were the elites of Lamanai once lived. Its inhabitants evidently had a mania for modification, refurbishment and senseless reconstruction – phenomena only too familiar. The palaces are so ruined now that it is too difficult to tell whether they were roofed with wooden beams or stone cobbled vaults, but it can be seen from the foundations and lower walls that the buildings were elegant and luxurious, facng into small, private courtyards and flights of steps.
“I’ve examined the garbage dumps from the upper class neighborhoods here and at Altun ha,” said Pendergast “and there is no doubt these people lived off the fat of the land. They ate a lot of venison and turtle.”
Archaeologists are still puzzling over the reason for the Maya collapse. Theories of plaque, soil exhaustion, social upheaval and the climate change have been advanced, but it would probably be naive to opt forany one of them. The fall of civilization is likely to be a complex affair. The Maya have generously created problems for themselves that became increasingly difficult to solve. Examination of Maya skeleton of the upper and lower class, nobles, priests and bureaucrats were robust, often fat, while the workers and peasants became increasingly stunted with passing generations, suggesting that the Maya elite came to share the increasingly fashionable view that the rich only works if they are allowed to get richer, but the poor need incentive of hunger to keep them from idleness. If sic an attitude led to revolution, that can only reflect how little things have really changed in most of Central America. But whatever the reasons, the collapse was not suede. It was a gradual process taking a century or more as, one by one the great cities were abandoned.
Recent satellite photographs show that the swampy part of the Maya lowlands were crisscrossed with canals rannks of raised fields, a discovery that helped to answer questions of how the Maya supported itself in the rainforest – an environment notoriously fragile and hard to exploit. But it also raised the possibility that the Maya, like modern people in Asia and Brazil may have disrupted the jungle to a point where the stability of the whole ecosystem was upset.
“This is where the ancient Maya suddenly become important to us,” remarked Pendergast. ”Further study of their farming methods could give tropical countries a way to increase food production, and investigation of the Maya collapse may help modern societies avoid repeating the same mistakes.”
Pendergast has wanted to do more work on in the raised field system to the west of the site but has been thwarted, ironically, by a population of farmers making a new use of the old fields. z the past 15 years, Lamanai has been invaded by squatters, most of them refugees from war-thornEl Salvador and Guatemala. Many of them specialize in a cash crop that does best in remote locations.
By the time of the Spanish arrival, the population of Lamanai seemed to have slipped to about a quarter of its classic level, the giant temples of the past had been abandoned to the jungle, and the religious life of the city had focused on small shrines in the southern district where most of the peole then lived. SOmehow, though, the people of Lamanai had survived the great collapse. I asked Pendergast what he thought were the reasons.
“Possibly the lagoon provided a secure food supply when there was famine elsewhere, or if the main problems were political then the fact that Lamanai was a minor center to the end of the classic period may have been an advantage. At any rate we know that throughout the early post – classic about 900 to 1200 A.D. the inhabitants continued to repair the fronts of the old pyramids even though they had begun dumping garbage at the back and sides.”
The Spanish built their mission at Lamanai sometime before 1582. Lamanai is mentioned in the old records whentwo friars visited the faithful there in 1618; but when one of them returned in 1641, he found the church burned and the Maya up in arms. The sequence of events from 1450 to 1650 are clear. There had been a late post classic town with at least one of its important shrines standing when the Spanish arrived. The Spanish priests as they did in many places, pulled down the temple and built their church on the very site of worship they hole to eradicate. They prospered for a while, even building a larger church next door. But the then Maya rebelled, burned the churches and apparently rededicated its ruins to the old gods of Lamanai. At the back wall of the sanctuary, right behind where the altar once stood, Pendergast found a ceramic crocodile with gaping jaws at either ends. The wheel had come full circle.
The British established control over the county about 1800. They brought Blacks to cut mahogany , Chinese and Coolies to work some ill-fated sugar plantations – one at Lamanai. The British called the place Indian church because of the old Spanish mission. By that time, the Maya had been decimated by European distresses such as small pox, but it is possible that remnant population still lived at Lamanai. As in North AMerica the British wanted only its land not its people, and throughout the 19TH century they drove the Belize Maya toward Guatemala interior. One old man who recently returned to Lamanai remembers when a logging company’s bulldozers destroyed his squatters and Pendergast’s crew, that old man’s people may have been the last ciphers on a population graph that seemed to have fallen steadily from the height of the Maya classic period to the present.
The sugar mill lasted a decade. The mission half a century. The Maya city 3,000 years. If the Eurp=opeans had not invaded America, the Maya might have eventually built their civilization. About five million people, mostly in Guatemala and Yucatan still speak Maya languages. Today, depending on where they lived, they face repression, forced assimilation and rapid development. The future of Lamanai itself is equally uncertain, threatened by the problems that pervaded central America and reach far beyond.
Article by Arnold Wright for “Equinox” a Royal Ontario Museum Magazine