Lamanai: Structure N9-56

Lamanai, Str. N9-56

Dec. 30, 1997

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"Tunnelling in the core of the structure revealed the first of two tombs thus far encountered at Lamanai, set at the structure base near the front of the stair. The tomb contained only two vessels, but the form and decoration of one of these fixes the date of construction at about 500 A.C. [a date contemporaneous with that of the staircase masks].

The Lamanai tomb form is a divergence...and seems an even more eccentric approach to elite burial than that adopted at Altun Ha. The N9-56 tomb was constructed atop the floor associated with an earlier structure, almost certainly just prior to commencement of the new building. On the floor a mass of wooden objects, probably artifacts, was laid out and burnt, after which the body of the deceased was placed atop the pile of ash and charcoal, the upper body supported by soil and stones in an area where no burnt material lay, and the hips resting in a large redware basal-ridge dish. Around the body and the underlying material a wall of stones and clay was raised to a height of 26-28 cm. to serve as a base for the tomb enclosure. The corpse was coated with red pigment and then a layer of clay, perhaps to retard decomposition in the tropical heat and humidity, while the surrounding area was filled with a variety of artifacts. Then atop the encircling wall a frame work of wooden members was erected, with cross-bracing probably tied or mortised into the rather irregular hoopwork. Over the framework went a coating of plaster bandages consisting of coarse textiles soaked in lime plaster, creating a cocoon-like chamber. Fine textiles, either dyed red or soaked in red pigment, were laid over the coarse material, with both layers of cloth generally not stretched tight enough to prevent sagging between the sticks of the frame. With the coating in place, the tomb builders began to lay-up mortar and stones around the cocoon, eventually placing a row of capstones above the cloth-bound chamber, and, above these, masses of chert chips and obsidian flake blades and cores.

As the tomb construction is unusual, so are some of the contents. The cocoon appears to have contributed to better preservation than normal, though some wooden-backed mosaic objects, notably large ear ornaments incorporating human faces, had decayed. There was, however, a considerable portion of a rotted wooden figurine with jade ear ornaments and, near the feet, a mass of clay which on microsocoopic examination proved to be the remains of plaited mats, textiles of several weaves, and cordage masses that may represent nets. But the most striking preservation is that of a complete section through a tree, 68 cm. x 47 cm. and 27 cm. thick, weighing ca. 24.1 kg.; no signs of modification now exist on the piece, but its presence, set on edge at the head of the burial, suggests that it may once have had low-relief carving on at least one face. Radiocarbon dates almost ad infinitum are obviously possible with such wood samples, but have not yet been run."

Pendergast, Journal of Field Archaeology 8:1 39