Changing Perspectives on Caracol, Belize:
Long-Term Archaeological Research
and the Northeast Sector Settlement Program
Diane Z. Chase and Arlen F. Chase
University of Central Florida
Paper prepared for a volume deriving from:
1st International Symposium of Maya Archaeology
San Ignacio, Cayo, Belize
May 29 - June 2, 1995
. Many key discoveries in prehistory have derived from archaeological sites and regions - such as Olduvai, Jarmo, or Tikal - that have been the focus of investigation not for several seasons, but rather for decades. It should not be surprising that this is the case. These long- term field programs have generated both in-depth studies and broad coverage; significantly they have also weathered and accommodated changing methodological and theoretical perspectives. Some of these places have come from nearl y complete obscurity to prominence because of multi-year research efforts.
Caracol, Belize - while perhaps not yet as well known as certain of these sites - is an excellent example of this phenomenon. Originally discovered in 1937, Caracol has seen investigations off and on from 1950 to the present. The most recent Caracol Ar chaeological Project is about to begin its 12th season. Originally thought to be a relatively small and unimportant site, Caracol is now viewed as large, populous, and a key center for making interpretations about Maya prehistory. These advances have be en possible because of the longevity of research at Caracol, the large-scale nature of these investigations, and changing research foci over time. Particularly significant has been the conjunction of Caracol's hieroglyphic history with its archaeological record to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the site's development and impact in the Southern Maya lowlands.
Caracol: Early Investigations
Caracol was not officially known until 1937 when the site was reported to the Belize Department of Archaeology by Rosa Mai, a lumberman searching for mahogany trees. The ruins were named "Caracol," Spanish for "shell" or "snail," in reference to the old winding logging road that once provided access to the site. A.H. Anderson, the first Archaeological Commissioner of Belize, visited Caracol in 1938, and immediately "discovered" a large number of carved monuments. Based on the carved monuments, Anderso n was convinced that Caracol was a very important site and he spent much of the next two decades searching for funds and personnel to investigate the site.
In 1950 Linton Satterthwaite of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania conducted an initial 3 week feasibility study at Caracol; he returned for a longer season in 1951 and a small season in 1953. Satterthwaite had two primary reasons f or working at Caracol. First, as an epigrapher, he was intent on making a complete record of all known stelae and altars at the site. Second, as a museum curator, he was also interested in gaining a sample of these monuments for display in Philadelphia. As a result of his work, approximately a dozen of Caracol's monuments were relocated to Belize City, Philadelphia, or Denver. Satterthwaite's investigations also led to the discovery of several caches as well as two tombs which were excavated by Anders on in conjunction with the Pennsylvania expedition. In 1953 Satterthwaite's group produced a map consisting of 78 structures that provided the location for most of the site's monuments.
Anderson returned for further archaeological work in 1956 and 1958, seemingly intrigued by the possibility of finding a formal necropolis at Caracol. He did in fact excavate two more chambers, one in the South Acropolis and another directly beneath one excavated in 1953 in the A Group. Anderson's concern with the open Caracol tombs led him to note anomalies with regard to Caracol tomb patterns that would be put into context by the present project (A. Chase and D. Chase 1994a).
The research carried out at Caracol in the 1950s was reported in publications of the University Museum (Satterthwaite 1951, 1954; Willcox 1954) and in articles in the International Congress of Americanists (Anderson 1952, 1958, 1959). Caracol did not en ter the general literature on the Maya for almost 2 decades after these initial publications. When the site was placed within a broader frame of reference, Late Classic Caracol was viewed as a "tertiary center" subject to both Naranjo and Tikal (Marcus 1 976:69) or as a "Level II" site, presumably subject to Tikal (Adams and Jones 1981; Marcus 1983:465). At approximately the same time, Satterthwaite's earlier recording of the site's monuments resulted in the formal definition of a Caracol dynasty (Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981; Stone et al. 1985).
For almost two decades no work was undertaken at Caracol and, with the exception of Satterthwaite's work on the monuments, the previous work that had been done did not see further publication, largely because of the disastrous effects of 1961's Hurricane Hattie on Belize City where all of Anderson's notes had been stored. It was not until 1980 that Caracol saw more research. In this year Paul Healy of Trent University continued his investigation of Maya agricultural practices in an area assumed to be p eripheral to Caracol (Healy et al. 1983). Located some 2 kilometers distant from Caracol's epicenter, Healy mapped and tested an extensive terrace system. He argued that these terraces had been constructed no earlier than the Early Classic era. His map ping of a sample of a valley-wide terrace system also revealed a number of housemound groups that interdigitated with the terraces as well as the surrounding hilltops. As a result of this research, population densities were postulated for this area which were extremely high, ranging from 402 people per km2 at 25% occupancy to 1,610 people per km2 at 100% occupancy. Healy thus recognized the large amount of terracing that characterizes the Caracol area and also formally defined the high settlement densit y that typifies the site. What no one realized was that his research was carried out within the core area of Caracol itself.
The Caracol Archaeological Project: 1985 - 1995
The first formal season of the Caracol Archaeological Project was undertaken in 1985. Spurred on by the recently published interpretations concerning Caracol's place in the Maya political hierarchy, its dynastic record, and the high population densities reported for its "rural" area, we hoped that the new work at Caracol would be able to combine Maya history from hieroglyphic texts with archaeological survey and excavation to provide a comprehensive view of the site. This perspective was inspired by th e rapid developments in translating Maya hieroglyphs (Schele 1982) as well as by the previous research at the site of Santa Rita Corozal that had successfully compared and combined European descriptions of the Maya with late Maya "Postclassic" archaeology (D. Chase and A. Chase 1988). It was not known at the start of the project how well the investigations would succeed in conjoining Maya epigraphic history with archaeology or how large Caracol would turn out to be. The investigations were planned as a 5 to 10 year enterprise. The 12th season of the current project will take place in the Spring of 1996. And new investigations each year raise new questions that need to be answered.
Caracol Archaeological Project research has had a number of crucial discoveries that have led each season's research to build upon site work just completed. For example, in 1986 Altar 21 was found in the A group ballcourt (Houston 1991). It records the defeat of Tikal in AD 562 by Caracol, possibly in conjunction with its ally Calakmul (Grube 1994; Martin and Grube 1995). Discovery of this text was significant in itself for it suggested that the hiatus at Tikal during this time was less likely the res ult of a general Maya decline than the result of specific inter-Maya political activities (A. Chase 1991; A. Chase and D. Chase 1987). But Altar 21 was also key in ushering a new archaeological research design. Settlement pattern studies undertaken in 1 988 and 1989 were funded by the H. F. Guggenhiem Foundation and focused specifically on the impact of successful warfare on the outlying population at Caracol (A. Chase and D. Chase 1989). These investigations showed the city of Caracol to have been link ed by a system of radiating causeways (although it was not known at this time how extensive this causeway system would become; see Figure 1 and Figure 2). Excavations indicated that the majorit y of the causeways, termini, and the agricultural fields to the southeast of the epicenter were constructed following Caracol's initial period of successful warfare at the beginning of the Late Classic era (between A.D. 550 and 650). And major population growth and substantial prosperity were also correlated with this time.
As the physical size of Caracol, as a site, grew each year through research and as its archaeological notoriety began to demonstrate its economic potential as a tourist destination, funding was secured from the Government of Belize and the United States Agency for International Development that allowed for the excavation and stabilization of key buildings in the site epicenter (cf. D. Chase and A. Chase 1994). New hieroglyphic texts, found as a result of these endeavors, indicated evidence for increased warfare at both the start and at the end of the Classic Period (Chase et al. 1991; Grube 1994). On-floor refuse in the palaces indicated the existence of a substantial occupation at the time of Caracol's final epicentral abandonment (A. Chase and D. Cha se n.d.a). And the concern with correlating Caracol's epicentral and core (or agricultural area) collapse led to the most recent phase of settlement work, funded by the National Science Foundation. This most recent program of research was geared towards locating and dating causeways, agricultural terraces, and occupation in the northeastern sector of the site. This area was selected because it was felt to have greater time-depth than the previously intensively researched southeast sector. Thompson (19 31) had recorded extensive Preclassic, Protoclassic, and Early Classic artifactual remains in his early work in the Mountain Cow area; and one of the latest carved monuments known for the Caracol area also came from this region. This same Mountain Cow ar ea was directly linked to epicentral Caracol by causeway. Thus, it was hoped that settlement research within this sector of Caracol would meet three goals: (1) gaining data on Caracol settlement before the Late Classic era; (2) providing information rela ted to Caracol's two periods of presumed successful war - post A.D. 500 and post A.D. 800; and (3) helping to resolve the nature of the Maya collapse within the Caracol region.
Settlement Research at Caracol: 1994-1995
Because of the amount of epicentral work that had been carried out between 1989 and 1993, it was imperative that more settlement archaeology be done at Caracol to gain a better perspective of the site as a whole. Each passing year had yielded new inform ation on causeways that extended further out into the surrounding area. In 1986 the Conchita and Pajaro-Ramonal Causeways were found, indicating that the site extended some 3.5 km out from the epicenter. The subsequent discovery of the Cahal Pichik, Cei ba, and Retiro Causeways and Termini potentially extended the site's range to some 8 km. The 12 m wide Hatzcap Ceel Causeway found during the 1995 field season expanded this radius to some 10 km and a similar distance was also confirmed for a repositione d Ceiba Terminus by Landsat this same year. But was the outlying settlement continuous for this distance as well? In order to determine this, the northeast sector of Caracol was selected for detailed settlement work.
As originally defined, the area to be investigated during 1994 and 1995 was to cover approximately half the area between the Cahal Pichik Causeway and a causeway presumed to run from the Caracol epicenter to the Cohune Terminus (6 km distant, as the crow flies). The ruin concentration at Cohune had been located in 1992, as had a causeway running in a southwest direction, presumably to the Caracol epicenter. Reconnaissance in 1994 showed instead that this causeway ran more west than south, presumably li nking up to Caracol's northwest causeway to Caballo (as indicated by Landsat data). And, the initial north-south survey transect arbitrarily placed in the northeast sector almost immediately bisected a new terminus, now referred to as the "Puchituk Termi nus" (Figure 3). A causeway from this new terminus did, in fact, run back toward the Caracol epicenter, joining the Cahal Pichik causeway just west of the Plaza of the Two Stelae (1 km east of Caana). This new causeway, the n, became the western boundary for the northeast survey area and the initial north-south transect was extended to the north for some 5 kilometers, ending roughly 200 m west of the Cohune Terminus. North of the Puchituk Terminus, this transect formed the western boundary for the survey area. An east-west transect 2.3 kilometers in length joined the north- south transect at a distance of 2.3 km from its starting point. The entire area to the east and south of these two transects and north of the modern C aracol road was then mapped for structures; a large segment was also mapped for terraces. Structures were also mapped for a distance of 100 m north of the east-west transect and for a distance of 100 m to either side of the remaining north-south transect . In this way approximately 5.5 km2 of settlement were surveyed in the northeastern part of Caracol.
In order to check for settlement drop-off elsewhere, during 1995 an additional 200 m wide transect was run due south for 3.8 km from the elite group (called "Royal") at the end of the Pajaro-Ramonal Causeway in the southeast sector of Caracol. As with t he northern transect, this southern transect encountered no settlement drop-off. It did, however parallel a new causeway (bisecting the transect 2.5 km south of Royal) leading to a new Caracol terminus (3.3 km south of Royal) at Round Hole Bank (6.7 km, as the crow flies, from the Caracol epicenter).
The mapping undertaken during 1994 and 1995 conclusively demonstrates that Caracol's settlement is continuous and extends at least 7 km out from the epicenter. While settlement density varies with the severity of the terrain, these mapped data serve to confirm a predicted Caracol site population of minimally 115,000 people in the 7th century (cf. A. Chase and D. Chase 1994b). The importance of large-area block mapping must also be emphasized. By placing the residential settlement of Caracol within the context of its terrace system (Figure 3 and Figure 4), it is possible to gain a firmer understanding of how much effort must have been expended to construct these fields and of how productive th is agricultural system must have been. Block mapping also showcases the difficulties of relying solely on transect data, which would have consistently underestimated the population in the northeast sector (presumably because of the narrow 200 m width of the transect); in fact, had the north- south transect been shifted 200 m to the east, the structure count for the first 2.5 km of such a transect would have doubled the population estimates generated in the original sample. Two km2 mapped blocks are illu strated here from the northeast sector; Figure 3 exhibits a low count of 131 structures/km2 (distance: 2 to 3 km from epicenter in rough, karst terrain; northwest corner not mapped) while Figure 4 has a higher count of 243 structures/km2 (distance: 4 to 5 km from the epicenter in rough terrain). The density of Caracol's occupation is striking; even in steep and broken terrain, it exceeds that averaged within urban Tikal (cf. Puleston 1974, 1983) .
Excavation was carried out in conjunction with the 1994-1995 mapping program. This research clustered entirely in the Northeast Sector with the exception of the clean-up after looters in one group east of the Conchita Terminus and in six groups with the southwestern portion of the site. Additional clean-up of looters' trenches was also undertaken at the Cohune Terminus.
Formal excavation was undertaken primarily by means of 1.5 by 1.5 m test-pits located within the plaza areas of residential groups. Within the northeast sector some 22 groups were sampled with multiple testing investigations and 6 more groups saw more e xtensive horizontal and/or areal excavation. Three vacant terrain areas were tested with multiple excavations (one proving to have evidence of a buried structure). Both the Puchituk and Cahal Pichik Causeways were also investigated. Opportunistic excav ations were undertaken of 8 tombs and 4 chultuns in this part of the site; a ninth tomb was encountered during intensive group excavation. Overall the non-epicentral settlement program in the northeast site sector excavated 23 non-tomb burials and 53 cac hes. Two of the groups more intensively investigated (cf. Figure 5) produced primary artifactual materials dating back to the Preclassic era, thus demonstrating the longevity of occupation for this part of Caracol. Most exc avated material, however, dated to the Late Classic Period, although Terminal Classic remains also occurred within the settlement area (Figure 6). Additionally, a reset stela (Figure 7) was also encountered in an excavation in the elite group associated with the Puchituk Terminus.
Epicentral excavations associated with the northeast sector settlement program focused on Structures B26, B34, B62, and B64. Excavations in these loci resulted in the recovery of 7 caches, 9 non-tomb burials, and 2 tombs. This material ranges in date f rom the Late Preclassic through Terminal Classic Periods (Figure 6). Part of the stucco frieze which once adorned the cornice of Structure B64 was also recovered, yielding a partial birth date and parentage statement for a p reviously unknown Caracol person (Figure 8). The Structure B64 complex and its associated plaza ("C Group") would appear to be of Late Classic date and construction. The Structure B34 locus, however, evinces substantial Lat e Preclassic construction and mortuary activity, suggesting that this area had formed the eastern epicentral boundary prior to the Late Classic era. While supplanted by the C Group in the Late Classic, the Structure B34 locus was nevertheless the focus o f much Late and Terminal Classic mortuary and cache activity.
The most recent survey and excavation program in the northeast sector of Caracol has had a number of important findings. Survey has shown that there is no significant drop-off in Caracol's population density, even at a distance of 7 km from the epicente r of the site, and that substantial labor investment was placed in agricultural terrace construction. This research has also demonstrated the need for combining research methodologies. While survey transects can approximate settlement density at substan tial distances, block mapping provides a better measure of this density and more effectively shows the impact of environmental variables (such as terrain) on the choice of occupation locales. Intensive mapping of larger samples of survey areas is also a better means than transects for showing the relationship between agricultural terraces, causeways, and settlement.
Excavations in the northeast sector of the site show the great time-depth of occupation in this area, where settlement began in the Middle Preclassic (ca. 600 B.C.). Non-tomb burials and caches were common in the test excavations and demonstrate that th e northeast and southeast site sectors shared similar ritual patterns (A. Chase and D. Chase 1994a). Substantial population growth is seen in the Late Classic. As is the case elsewhere at Caracol, this growth is associated with substantial prosperity an d indications of a distinctive Caracol identity (as can be seen in the site's cache practices). Preliminary analysis also suggests that the outlying population in the northeast sector was fairly stable in the Terminal Classic era and survived the A.D. 89 0 epicentral collapse.
Caracol, as we now know it, was larger and more densely occupied than the Guatemalan site of Tikal. Caracol had a minimum of 115,000 people within a 177 km2 area (A. Chase and D. Chase 1994b:5) whereas Tikal had 62,000 people within 120 km2 and 92,000 w ithin 314 km2 (Culbert et al. 1990:116-117). Tikal was once seen as an isolated phenomenon in terms of its size and population. We now know that this was not the case. The Mexican Classic era sites of Coba and Calakmul have projected populations of ove r 50,000 people each and are clearly on a par with Tikal in terms of size (Folan 1992; Folan et al. 1983); and Caracol is bigger yet. Thus, large site populations are not anomalous for the Southern lowlands, as was once believed, and their fairly common existence suggests the need to rethink lowland Maya interactions and development relative to the rest of Mesoamerica, where such single site population sizes are rare.
The development of Caracol is best understood through both its hieroglyphs and its archaeology. Textual records stress Caracol's prowess in war, first against Tikal (A.D. 562), then against Naranjo (A.D. 626-636), and presumably later against sites such as Ucanal (A.D. 800). The archaeological record at Caracol suggests that the general population benefitted from these warfare events, that warfare can be seen as a catalyst for the site's development, and that the prosperity associated with successful w arfare was used to integrate and organize Caracol's society (A. Chase and D. Chase 1989).
The distribution and patterning of certain artifacts is suggestive of an expanded middle level of society at Caracol (cf. A. Chase 1992). This is particularly seen archaeologically in the large number of residential groups that have east buildings assoc iated with ancestor worship, as expressed through associated tombs, caches, and censers (A. Chase and D. Chase 1994a). It is also seen through the widespread distribution of polychrome ceramics in the core residential groups, particularly in non-tomb bur ial contexts. There may even have been the development of a distinct Caracol social persona associated with the ancestor cult and possibly also expressed through the widespread popularity of inlaid teeth (in over 22% of recovered Caracol burials; D. Chas e 1994:131), a trait rare at most Maya sites. The peculiarities emphasized in the archaeology of Caracol may have been purposefully exploited by the site's elite to both unify Caracol society as well as to create an "us" versus "them" mentality, which wo uld have been apropos for Caracol's warfare arena.
Use of Landsat photography has greatly expanded knowledge of the Caracol road system (Figure 2). Causeways link all parts of the city of Caracol to the epicenter (ca. a 10 km radius) as well as outlying parts of the Caracol polity to the city (to a distance of possibly 42 km). Growth of metropolitan Caracol is demonstrated in the purposeful construction of special function plazas such as the Puchituk Terminus (Figure 3). The causeway system a lso encompassed pre-existing centers into the Caracol urban domain, often with the purposeful construction of an associated administrative plaza. Whether similar special function plazas characterize the intersite causeways will require future seasons of work. The Caracol road system clearly mirrors a centralized administered economy (A. Chase and D. Chase n.d.b). And residential workshops and other exchanged artifacts recovered archaeologically indicate how the whole economic system was integrated.
The settlement archaeology undertaken at Caracol has also demonstrated how the site was a "garden city" (A. Chase and D. Chase 1987:53). Agriculture was not outside the urban domain; rather it was an integral part of it. Regularly spaced markets, likel y occurring at most causeway termini, would have been integral to the city and centrally controlled. The more-or-less regular spacing of residential groups and their lack of aggregation is further reflection of Caracol's strong bureaucracy. This bureauc ratic organization is also directly reflected in Caracol's causeway system. What is surprising, and what was not expected at the start of the project, is the large scale at which the various Caracol systems operated.
It is to a concern with longevity and scale that our final comments will be addressed. Without a multi-year project, virtually none of the conclusions concerning Caracol, its size, and its organizational systems could have been reached. Yet, there is a basic contradiction in the field of Maya studies, for long-term and large-scale research are usually not congruent with funding requirements and policies (particularly in fiscally stringent times) and/or with institutional scheduling and permits. Too ma ny Maya archaeological projects function with too few funds in too limited a time frame, while attempting to answer ever bigger and grander propositions about the Maya. Resulting data bases are all too often extremely limited and methodologically-constra ined.
Importantly, the overall scale of Caracol as a city and as a polity is only now beginning to be understood after 12 years of research; the variability that exists within Caracol the city and Caracol the polity are only now becoming discernable. The nece ssity for long-term and large-scale research, such as that undertaken at Caracol, cannot be overstated. After 12 years of undertaking large-scale research at Caracol, we are still answering basic questions about Maya social, political, religious, and eco nomic organization. Hopefully our results will form an archaeological building block for future Maya studies.
The Caracol Archaeological Project has been supported by grants from a series of agencies and individuals: Dart Foundation, Government of Belize, Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, Institute of Maya Studies, National Science Foundation (BNS-8619996 and S BR- 9311773), United States Agency for International Development, University of Central Florida, and private donations to the UCF Foundation, Inc. Numerous individuals have helped to make the project a success. We especially wish to thank: all Caracol P roject members and staff from 1985 to the present, the Belize Departments of Archaeology and Forestry, the Belize Defence Force, the British Forces in Belize, Belize Communications, and other members of the Government of Belize and the University of Centr al Florida. Particularly critical to the success of the 1994 and 1995 settlement work were: Maureen Carpenter, Yvonne Harralson, Carrie Hunter-Tate, Alfonso Morales, Timothy Murtha, Harriot Topsey, and Brian Woodye.
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Figure 1. The best approximation of the Caracol road system as of December 1994. Stippled area shows mapped portion of Caracol as of May 1995, including the northeast sector of settlement research and the Cohune and R ound Hole Bank settlement transects. Drawing by Joseph Ballay.
Figure 2. The best approximation of the Caracol road system as of December 1995. When compared with Figure 1, this serves as a visible example of the value of continued long-term research in a given area. Landsat inf ormation courtesy of Jim Rose.
Figure 3. A 1 km2 area of outlying settlement and terraces at Caracol, Belize in the northeast sector settlement area approximately 2 to 3 km distant from the epicenter. The Puchituk Terminus is at the northern limit of this km2. Some 131 structures are located in this area; however, neither structures nor terraces were recorded to the west of the Puchituk Causeway. Terraces were not recorded for most of the eastern section of this km2 (east of the north-south settl ement transect) nor in the southern part of this km2 on the upslope of the broad, deep east-west valley. Magnetic north is to the top of the page.
Figure 4. A 1 km2 area of outlying settlement and terraces at Caracol, Belize in the northeast sector settlement area approximately 5 to 6 km distant from the epicenter. Some 243 structures are located in this area. The terraces were not recorded in the southeastern section of this km2; the parallel lines here represent a modern road. Magnetic north is to the top of the page.
Figure 5. Plan and reconstruction drawing of intensely investigated residential group "Monterey" from within the block map shown in Figure 4. Drawings by Joseph Ballay.
Figure 6. Pottery vessels recovered in conjunction with the northeast settlement program at Caracol: (a) Terminal Classic incense burner (Puchituk Modeled) associated with an interment in the east building of the group shown in Figure 5; (b) early Late Classic cache vessel (Hebe Modeled) set within an earlier stair in Structure B64; (c) Terminal Classic bowl (unnamed special) from a crypt burial in Structure B64; (d) Late Preclassic bowl (Sacluc Black-on-Orange) from a cist burial beneath the front of Structure B64.
Figure 7. Caracol Stela 24, a carved monument reset in front of the eastern building of the elite group east of the Puchituk Terminus plaza. Two sets of small "finger- bowl" caches and broken jadeite artifacts were as sociated with its erection. The upper design has flaked away, presumably because of exposure to the elements; the preserved design was buried in plaza fills. The monument is 80 cm wide by 40 cm deep and has a preserved height of 72 cm; additional blocks broken from the monument lead to an estimated total height of 2.20 m. The carving itself is very shallow, almost incised. Drawing by Alfonso Morales and Arlen Chase.
Figure 8. Stucco text from front cornice of Caracol Structure B64. The 10 glyphs with lower band all fit together to form a reading sequence related to a previously unknown Caracol lord. The remaining 2 glyphs presum ably followed the sequenced text. Each glyph is approximately 18 cm in height. Drawing by Alfonso Morales.