Real Life Adventures: Dieter Visits the Mayan Ruins

Real Life Adventures: Lamanai, Belize

by Dieter Zimmerman

Most of the fantasy novels we are familiar with draw heavily from European mythology, history, and literature, but there is a vast amount of inspiration to be found in other cultures as well. M. A. R. Barker well knew this when he created the Empire of the Petal Throne RPG and the later novels set in Tékumel, a fantasy world that draws heavily from Central America, the Middle East, and India. I recently had the good fortune to visit the Lamanai Archaeological Reserve in Belize and experience firsthand how different a non-European fantasy could be.

Lamanai is a Mayan site in northern Belize that is known for the exceptional length of time it was occupied. The site’s name is derived from a Mayan phrase meaning “submerged crocodile”. People first settled the Lamanai area around 1000 BC, and it was still inhabited well after the rest of Mayan civilization collapsed – even into the colonial period and beyond. At its height, Lamanai covered a ten-mile long and two mile wide stretch of the Rio Nuevo shore. There were 60,000 inhabitants supported mostly by farming around the nearby lagoon.

The Mayans at Lamanai were very effective farmers. On the far side of the lagoon, they dug a grid of irrigation canals to keep their crops hydrated. Each hole they made in the soil would have three seeds dropped into it: corn, beans, and squash. The corn would grow straight up, the beans would grown around the corn, and the squash would sit on the ground. Thus each field was basically three fields in one.

There are four major structures in the archaeological reserve: The Jaguar Temple, the High Temple, the Mask Temple, and the ball court. Most of the prominent buildings would have been a reddish-gold color in the time the city was occupied. Cinnabar and pyrite are fairly common in the area, and that’s likely where Spanish tales of “cities of gold” came from. (Cinnabar is also a source of liquid mercury. Mayans did not use liquid mercury for much that we know of, but it is often found at Mayan sites as a byproduct of processing the cinnabar for its color.)

The Jaguar Temple is named for the jaguar masks on its front face (you might have to use your imagination a bit.) Supposedly there’s a legend that inside the Jaguar Temple can be found an ancient spear called the “heart of the jaguar”, though our tour guide did not mention that and I just now learned about it on the Internet. Much of the Jaguar Temple is currently underground; fully excavated it would be the tallest the structure at the site. Near the Jaguar Temple is a collapsed stelae.

At this point in our tour we had our first encounter with howler monkeys. Despite only being two to three feet tall, they are completely terrifying creatures. They have pointed teeth, prehensile tails, and lungs capable of producing a frightening roar that can be heard miles away. It was very easy to believe the jungle was teeming with demons! If I heard those sounds at night not knowing what made them, I would absolutely soil myself.

Watch this YouTube video to hear the howler monkeys and see our tour guide’s cool tattoos:

The High Temple is currently the tallest building in Lamanai, and it was the main center of worship. Sadly, they only allowed us to climb the first few steps, but I’m told the view from the top is amazing. Two-dimensional pictures do not even remotely capture how tall and how steep these buildings are! Each step is at least a foot high, some possibly even two, and they are not particularly deep. You may notice some red coloration on some of the stones. This is merely a reddish moss and not remnants of the building’s original color (I asked).

Before one arrives at the High Temple, however, one must pass through the ball court. Many people are at least somewhat familiar with the idea that ball games were popular in Mesoamerican cultures, but they may not be aware that the games were deeply religious affairs. Some people say that the losers of the ball game would be sacrificed to the gods, but that is untrue. If anyone was sacrificed, it was the winners.

In Mayan culture, there were nine levels of the underworld (known as Xibulba) that you had to pass through before getting to the Thirteen Heavens. To get out of the underworld and into heaven, a soul had to defeat the lords of the underworld on the ball court. The winners of the worldly game would have a much better chance of pwning the gods, so they were the ones sent there.

The ball court at Lamanai was probably never actually used for games, though. It’s purely decorative, symbolizing the underworld one must pass through before reaching the heavens, represented by the High Temple. Under the court’s center marker, archaeologists found a lidded bowl containing an offering of hematite, cinnabar, jade, pearl, and shells all on top of a pool of liquid mercury. What are the significances of these materials? You’ll have to use your imagination because no one really knows.

Almost as inspiring as the buildings of Lamanai are the plants of the area. The trees are ridiculously large, and the smaller plants are wholly exotic-looking to someone who has lived their whole life in the Midwest of the USA. The vines are more tree-like than what I imagine when someone uses the word vines: they are a good six inches in diameter, covered with bark of their own, and not terribly flexible. There was one type of dark-colored vine that our tour guide identified as a “water vine”. Apparently you can cut these open and get drinkable water from them! Though the jungle around Lamanai contains many of the same plants as a rain forest, we were informed that this area does not get enough rainfall to technically be considered such.

Finally, we arrived at the Mask Temple. It’s the smallest of the three temples, but in some ways the most impressive because of the mask carvings that give it its name. The faces are wearing crocodile headdresses and were added to the temple about 600 years after its original construction. Inside the temple is tomb that contains the remains of a man who had jewelry of jade and shell. Nearby is the smaller tomb of woman that dates to around the same time period, and it is believed that these are the remains of two former rulers of Lamanai.

The masks that are visible to the public are replicas placed in front of the originals to protect them from further weathering, so that was a bit disappointing (though understandable). On the bright side, we actually got to climb to the top of this building, and the view was pretty impressive!

Be sure to experience our other adventures in reality in our Real Life Adventures series!

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