The Maya Archaeometallurgy Project
Lamanai, Belize

Structure N10-9 ("Jaguar Temple") Lamanai, Belize.  View south.

The Maya Archaeometallurgy Project was begun in 1999 by Dr. Scott E. Simmons at the large Maya site of Lamanai, located in northern Belize on the New River Lagoon.  Dr. Simmons teaches anthropology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and is Co-Principal Investigator of the Lamanai Archaeological Project.  Lamanai is the Spanish historic name for Lama’ an/ayin, which means “submerged crocodile.”  Dr. David M. Pendergast, Curator Emeritus of the Royal Ontario Museum, directed a long-term archaeological research project at Lamanai between 1974 and 1986.  During that period over 940 structures were mapped and approximately 85 have either been sampled or intensively excavated.  Dr. Elizabeth A. Graham, Co-Principal Investigator for the Lamanai Archaeological Project, has directed research at Lamanai since 1997.  Dr. Graham teaches at University College London, and she has overseen the work of a number of researchers from North America and England at Lamanai.  Her most recent work has focused in the elite, Terminal Classic residential group called Ottawa.

        The Maya Archaeometallurgy Project at Lamanai, Belize 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.

    Metallurgy appeared relatively late in precolumbian Mesoamerica (Hosler 1981, 1986, 1994, 1995; Lechtman 1985), and copper objects did not begin arriving at Maya Lowland sites until very late in precolumbian times (Bray 1977; Hosler 1986, 1994; Pendergast 1962; Sharer 1994; West 1994).  The Maya site of Lamanai, Belize has yielded more copper and copper alloyed artifacts (185 total - see summary table below) from controlled archaeological excavations than any other Southern Lowland Maya site (Pendergast 1990:173).  Most of these (n=114; 69.5%) can be categorized as status display objects, including bells, tweezers, rings, buttons and other ornaments.

       Copper and bronze (copper-tin and copper-arsenic) began to arrive at Lamanai during the 13th century AD (Simmons et al. n.d).  Provenience studies conducted by Dr. Dorothy Hosler at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed that the copper used to produce many of these items was obtained from West Mexican ore fields. At some point, probably during the Late or Terminal Postclassic Period, some of Lamanai’s residents began experimenting with the production of copper status and utilitarian items.

        Evidence for local production of copper objects comes from several sources.  Four copper ingots or pigs have been recovered from excavations in the Late Postclassic-Colonial Period occupation zone at the site, and chemical compositional analyses conducted by Dr. Hosler at MIT’s Center for Materials Research in Archaeology and Ethnology (CMRAE) indicates that these ingots, along with other copper objects, were made of stock metal derived from melting down copper artifacts.  In addition, a number of pieces of scrap sheet metal, along with a number of mis-cast copper bells, have been recovered during excavations at Lamanai.  Most recently, a number of very small, round pellets of copper were recovered along with two probably casting reservoirs, which likely are remnants of the lost-wax casting process.  The small round pellets appear to be prills, which are also by-products of metal casting activities.  Chemical and microstructural analyses under the direction of Dr. Aaron N. Shugar are on-going at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum Conservation Institute (formerly the Center for Materials Research and Education).

    The recovery of these prills and casting reservoirs in the Spanish church zone, is quite encouraging, and suggests that we may be very close to identifying a locus of copper production activities at the site.  At present, researchers know almost nothing about the nature of Maya metallurgy overall, including the organization of this technology and the role metallurgy played in Maya society in Late Postclassic and early Spanish Colonial times.  Therefore, it's hoped that the Maya Archaeometallurgy Project will contribute much to our understanding of this relatively unknown Maya technology and the role it played in maintaining the level of socioeconomic complexity we see at a hand full of sites in northern Belize and Yucatán at the time of Spanish contact.

Previous Research at Lamanai
        Investigations conducted at Lamanai have shown that the site is important in contributing to our understanding of Maya life both before and after the Spanish Colonial Period.  It is the only Maya Lowland center that is known to have been continuously occupied for over three millennia.  A radiocarbon date associated with abnormally high concentrations of corn pollen in The Harbour indicate that the Maya had established an agriculturally based settlement at the site at least by 1500 B.C.  Archaeological data and Spanish ethnohistoric accounts relate that the site was continuously occupied at least until the mid to late 17th Century A.D.  Lamanai not only survived the period in which numerous other Southern Lowland Maya centers fell into decay and were abandoned, but archaeological data indicate that life continued on in many ways as it had before 900 A.D.  The site’s Postclassic Period inhabitants continued construction of public and domestic buildings, engaged in long-distance trade, invented new and different ceramic styles, developed copper metallurgy, and generally retained some degree of political, economic and social complexity.

         The arrival of the Spaniards around A.D. 1540 found Lamanai's ancient ceremonial center long abandoned and the Maya settlement concentrated in the southern third of the site, with a small satellite community near the northern boundary.  Erection of the first Spanish church at Lamanai followed the practice widely in use elsewhere in the Americas of superimposing the Christian building on an indigenous ceremonial structure. The process of Christianization, which met with varying success, continued for the better part of a century, during which time a second, larger mission church was erected. Whatever Spanish hopes for Lamanai may have been, they began to disintegrate in the 17th century, and by A.D. 1638 had come entirely to pieces as the community joined a widespread Maya revolt.  In A.D. 1641 Franciscan Fathers Fuensalida and Orbita found the church and other buildings burnt and abandoned. This uprising signaled the end of Spanish influence at Lamanai as it did throughout most of Belize.  In the nineteenth century, Lamanai was occupied by British families involved in sugarcane production.

         Excavations at Lamanai from 1974 to1986 were sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Royal Ontario Museum. Current and past work has been supported by Lamanai Field Research Centre, Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies (FAMSI), Heinz Family Foundation, York University, Canadian Funds for Local Initiatives (CFLI), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the National Geographic Society and the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW).

Research Objectives
     The overall objective of the Maya Archaeometallurgy Project is to examine current theoretical models focusing on the relationships between craft specialization and socioeconomic complexity.  We are interested in answering a variety of questions related to copper metallurgy at Lamanai. On a more general level, we want to know what the study of copper metallurgy at Lamanai can tell us about life at Lamanai in the centuries immediately before and during Spanish colonial times.  But we also have a variety of more specific questions. Why did Lamanai metalsmiths begin producing copper objects in the Terminal Postclassic and/or Spanish Colonial Periods when they could have continued to import finished copper objects from West Mexico and elsewhere?  What role did the production and use of copper objects have in the maintenance of socioeconomic complexity at Lamanai during Postclassic times?  How were production activities organized through time?  What impacts did Spanish colonialism have on the production and use of copper status and utilitarian items at Lamanai?

          As of August 2006, a total of 187 copper and copper-tin/copper-arsenic bronze objects, most of which are status display objects, have been excavated from Postclassic and Spanish Colonial Period contexts at Lamanai.  Data derived during the course of the Maya Archaeometallurgy Project at Lamanai is being used to examine four specific organizational parameters of craft specialization, described as 1) the intensity of production, 2) the constitution of the production unit, 3) the concentration of production, and 4) the context of production (Costin 1991; Costin and Hagstrum 1995).  During the 2007 field season, research will focus on examining evidence related to the last parameter of specialization, which refers to the nature of control over production and distribution (Costin 1991:8).

         Following the political model of craft specialization, attached specialization arises when elites exert considerable control over the production of certain craft items.  Attached specialists produce high-value wealth objects, often from rare or exotic materials, for the exclusive use and benefit of their elite patrons or sponsors.  Control of productive activities has been cited as a means by which elites could legitimate their power, authority and connections to supernatural dieties (Brumfiel 1987; Costin 1991; Earle 1987).  Close spatial proximity of specialist household structures and/or production areas to elite residential or administrative areas is seen as an archaeological indicator of attached specialization (Brumfiel and Earle 1987:5; Costin 1991:25; Earle 1987:72, 2004).  Additionally, the distributions of high-value wealth goods throughout site areas should be limited, as research at other Maya centers, such as Palenque (Rands and Bishop 1980:43), Copán (Webster et al. 1993:353) and Tikal (Moholy-Nagy 1997:308), has shown.

          Archaeological field investigations proposed for the summer of 2007 will take place in the immediate vicinity of Lamanai’s two Spanish mission churches, where Late Postclassic and Spanish Colonial period occupation was concentrated (Pendergast 1981, 1984, 1986, 1991).  Roughly two-thirds of all the copper artifacts recovered from Lamanai thus far originate from this particular area of the site.  More than two-thirds of these are objects described by Hosler (1985, 1994, 1995) as status display objects.

         This particular area of the site also has produced compelling evidence of Postclassic and Spanish Colonial Period elite occupation, both in the form of architectural remains and burials, a number of which have yielded copper status artifacts including bells, tweezers, buttons and rings (Simmons 2005).  In terms of copper production activities, all of the mis-cast pieces, production failures and pieces of scrap sheet copper, as well as three ingots, have been found in this particular area of the site.  The associations between copper production materials, elite residential remains, and elite status objects of copper and alloyed copper will be examined closely during field investigations in 2007.


Smashed copper bell recovered during 2001 excavations at Structure N11-18, Lamanai, Belize

Precolumbian and Spanish Colonial Period Copper
and Alloyed Copper Artifacts from Lamanai, Belize*

Object Type Number Percentage of Assemblage
Bells (whole) 21 11.2
Bells (incomplete/mis-cast) 27 14.4
Bells (flattened, distorted) 31 16.5
Axe/celt/chisel 12 6.4
Axe fragments 11 5.8
Axe Blanks 1 0.53
Rings 14 7.5
Ornaments 13 7.0
Sheet fragments 12 6.4
Needles 10 5.3
Ingot/pigs 4 2.1
Casting reservoirs 2 1.1
Prills 10 5.3
Fish hooks 5 2.7
Pins 2 1.1
Tweezers 4 2.1
Bell-headed pins 2 1.1
Pin tip 2 1.1
Pin head 2 1.1
Tinkler 1 0.53
Necklace 1 0.53
TOTAL 187 100



Mis-cast copper bell recovered from north side midden, Structure N11-18, Lamanai.  This appears to be a bell wall fragment, probably part of the resonating chamber of what would have been a pyriform bell.


Mis-cast copper pyriform bell recovered from north side midden, Structure N11-18, Lamanai.  Note the incomplete resonating chamber as well as the partial suspension loop.

Small piece of flat sheet copper recovered from the north side midden of Structure N11-8, Lamanai.

Probable copper prill (LA 2909/6) recovered from the Spanish Church Zone.


LA 2790 probable copper casting reservoirs that are remnants of the lost wax casting process.  These artifacts were recovered in direct association with five copper axe fragments in midden deposits located east of the Spanish Churches by Darcy Wiewall and her crew in 2004.


SAA Presentation 2008