Classic Period (300 A.D. - 900 A.D.)
The Classic Period is the intellectual and artistic highpoint of the Maya Civilization in Belize and the region. Population increased and new cities sprouted in all regions of Northern Belize. As the population grew, people tended to cluster into cities, and specialization of administration, commerce and public works occurred. Trade networks expanded and ideas spread.
Structure N-9-56 at Lamanai
With the expansion of these cities grew a need for intensive farming to produce food for the masses. Northern Belize provides clues to how the Maya accomplished this. Near Pulltrouser Swamp, San Antonio and along the New River and Rio Hondo, archaeologists have discovered an expansive system of raised fields. This type of agriculture is very intensive and is able to produce far higher yields of food than either the traditional milpa system or terrace agriculture found further south in the Maya Mountains.
Structure 7 at Santa Rita
The sites of Santa Rita and Lamanai flourished during the Classic period, due mainly to their location along established trade routes. Cerros, once an important trading center during the Preclassic period, experienced an early decline during the Classic, probably due to shifting trade routes and the growth of Santa Rita and Lamanai.
The growth of population, while fueling the flowering of the Maya Civilization, also produced conflict over shrinking resources. Warfare became a way of life. Motifs and figurines on murals, carvings and stelae all attest to the dominance of warfare and conflict in guiding everyday life. Captured warriors became slaves for the construction of temples and other public works, while others were sacrificed to the gods to commemorate important dates.
The end of the Classic Period - known as the Terminal Classic (800 - 900 A.D.) - has been traditionally known as the beginning of the end of the Maya Civilization. Few large construction projects occurred and there was a rapid decline in population. Soon, most of the large cities such as Lamanai and La Milpa (seen above right) were abandoned or transformed into simple housing. Others, such as Santa Rita, continued to function as centers of trade and politics.