The Mask Temple of Lamanai


Lamanai, in present-day Orange Walk District, Belize, has an extraordinarily long history, with the earliest signs of settlement coming from pollen, which indicates there was maize cultivation back as far as 1500BC. However, very little is known about the site’s history despite its long occupation. This is partly because so little has been excavated (approximately 5%) and partly because they left very few monuments that provide written accounts. Therefore, Lamanai’s history lies within and around its buildings, where the scattered remains of offerings and religious activity can be found. 1

Structure 9N-56 at Lamanai is known as the Mask Temple because it features two huge carved limestone masks which flank the main stairway. It is the smallest of three excavated pre-Columbian temples at Lamanai (the two other temples are the Jaguar Temple and High Temple). Construction most likely began c. 200 BC, and the temple was modified until c. 1300 AD. A mask carving is exposed on the right side wall. The mask is made from limestone. The mask has Olmec facial features, and is thirteen feet tall. The Olmec flourished between 1500BC and 400BC, which is much the same time-frame as Lamanai’s suspected prehistory.

The Olmec were prolific traders and had a network that is known to have reached as far as Guatemala because this is where the “Olmec blue” jade was mined. With signs of trade and Olmec artistic influence, it is likely that Lamanai was in contact with the Olmec directly and that the Mask Temple was erected at some point prior to 400BC. Another carving had been covered by a stone wall on the left side; it was uncovered in the spring of 2011, revealing an identical mask. This reflects the tradition of symmetry in Mayan architecture. The masks are adorned with the headdress of a crocodile, falling in line with Lamanai’s namesake which, translated, means “Submerged Crocodile.” Because the original masks are made from limestone, they are at risk of erosion from prolonged exposure to weathering. To protect the masks, fiberglass replicas were placed over them. 2

Buried beneath the temple you see today (fig. W0745) are several earlier construction phases and two burials. The earliest phase of construction appears to be from the late Formative Period, approximately from 200BC to 200AD, and this phase included building the large carved masks. The huge masks that adorn Structure N9-56 (fig. W0745) are quite unusual as they are carved limestone, rather than moulded stucco

The High Temple at Lamanai clearly takes its name from the impressive 33 metres it rises from the jungle floor to overlook the canopy and provide an imperious view along the river. The first phases of Structure N10-43’s construction date back to 100BC and already rising to this dominating height. At the time, it would have been the tallest building in Mesoamerica and would have certainly broadcast a statement to Lamanai’s neighbours, rivals and anyone travelling along the river trade route. The High Temple was built over an existing residential area with evidence of food waste and domestic pottery being found beneath the temple which date back to 300BC. The building style at Lamanai is quite different to the classic Maya construction 3

1 belize/lamanai/lamanai-a-brief-history/



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