Archaeology of Caracol

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altHistory Official Investigations at Caracol started in the in 1950, after the first official visit, Linton Satterthwaite (University of Pennsylvania). During this time, he excavated and recovered 32 stone monuments, 2 causeways and 5 courts. In 1953-1994, Satterthwaite and Anderson mapped the central area of the site and continued excavation. In 1978-79, Paul Healy from Trent University investigated the agricultural terraces; however, it was not until 1985 that the Caracol Project initiated.

From 1989-95 intensive excavations were undertaken on the monumental and residential architecture on the site’s epicenter. These investigations uncovered massive architectural complexes and royal interment. All these field seasons and specialized studies contributed to the new view we now have of Caracol, a city with over 38 km of internal site causeways that connect the epicenter with a series of widely-spaced special-function nodes of monumental scale. The settlement is continuous and dense within a city radius of 4 km, with a continuation of 2 km outward.

The epicenter contains most of the largest constructions at Caracol, with all causeways leading in or out of the area. In addition to the two ballcourts, it contains other distinctive constructions: The large size and easy access of the low open areas of Groups A and B, which appear to have been the loci for public activities. The 11 causeways also typify the site of Caracol, and represent an internal road system. At Caracol the causeways served primarily as routes for intra-site transportation and communication.

Cutting across the hilly terrain, there were extensive agricultural fields, which must have provided substantial agricultural produce for the growing population. The fields were not organized around individual households; instead there were valley-wide systems created and maintained by units larger than the nuclear or extended family. Caracol’s causeways integrate settlement and agriculture fields in the site core with the site epicenter into a functioning whole.

While Caracol may have maintained a small population during the Late Preclassic and Early Classic periods, the site was well integrated into the general southern lowland with full access to exotic trade items such as jadeite and Spondylus shells. Subsequent to the sixth and seventh century wars with Tikal and Naranjo, Caracol expanded its urban domain spatially by means of it causeway system, and its population increased dramatically. Information in the identity of the people residing outside of the epicenter comes from burial data. There is a wide distribution of tombs throughout the settlement of Caracol.

Diane Chase has studied the burial sample of 171 interments and over 340 individuals recovered from looted and excavated contexts. Some 115 burials representing over 240 individuals date to the Late Classic. A high proportion of Caracol’s interments are of multiple individuals. The most common location for interments throughout the Classic Period was within the eastern building of residential compounds. By the end of the Late Classic, burial practices must have been changed, for few interments have been located though there was a substantial population at this time. Partial human remains have been located in debris on floors of palace compounds throughout the epicenter. An unburied child was found in an interior doorway of a palace room on the summit of Caana, suggesting that the final abandonment of Caracol’s epicenter may have been hurried.

The survey and excavation data collected from Caracol, indicate that the majority the plazuela groups functioned as residences. The distribution of the burial data, combined with structure size and group complexity indicate a wide distribution of wealth. The data examined indicated that the social organization of Caracol included not only the elite-specialist living in the urban core and peasant-farmers in the peripheral areas, but also a ‘middle class,’ which constituted a sizeable portion of the community. The integration of the residential groups with the terrace system indicates that the occupants were involved in some aspect of farming. There is also evidence for craft specialization. The distribution of the identified shell and chert workshops in the context of the overall settlement tempt to see Caracol’s causeways termini serving as the market places for exchange of raw materials and finished products produced by individual households and for the acquisition of other items imported, all under the bureaucratic control and taxation of the Caracol state.

Dynastic History of Caracol

The beginning of Caracol's dynastic history if not yet well known, but Marker 3 (found at the Northwest of the B Group ballcourt) refers retrospectively to a very early event in Caracol that took place on Jan. 14th, 331 A.D. It could represent a founding event either of Caracol as a city or for the current Caracol dynasty.

The earliest contemporaneous monument is Stela 20 (487 A.D.). Stelae 20 and 4 were probably erected by the father of the Stela 13 king. The Stela 13 king precede Lord K'an I, who acceded to the throne of Caracol in 521 A.D. He erected Stela 16 at the same locus as Stela 13 to honor his father. Stela 6, Stela 14 and Altar 21 mention the accession of his son Yahaw Te K'inich on 553 A.D. under the aegis of Tikal as other kings before him. At some time during his reign he completely changed his political association and took part (556 A.D.) in the 'star war' against his former patron. Contrary to many previous interpretations, he cannot be credited with the conquest of Tikal.

Yahaw Te was succeeded by his older son Ruler IV in 599 A.D., who erected Stelae 5, 6, and 7 in front of Structure A13. He was succeeded by his younger brother Lord K'an II, who acceded to the throne at 618 A.D. and recorded the history of his wars in Stela 3 and the hieroglyphic stairs at Naranjo.

The success and power of Lord K'an II was based on his close association with Site Q, for being called a 'companion of' the king of Site Q. All the major war events took place in connection with members of the Site Q dynasty. He defeated Naranjo and other places in its vicinity, and also undertook a major building program. Under his patronage the epicenter of Caracol was completely reshaped and the density of settlement at the site reached its peak. This was Caracol's 'golden time' and no other Caracol ruler had so many monuments erected for their own glorification.

In 658 A.D. he witnessed the accession of his successor, Ruler VI, but there not known monuments of his own at Caracol, only Stela 3 at La Rejolla (672 A.D.). However, Ruler VI disappears and a kind of hiatus follows, interpreted from the erection of Stela 21, which provides evidence for ongoing militaristic activities, but the name of the current ruler is unknown due to the broken pieces. The hiatus, which follows the erection of Stela 21, continues until the beginning of the Terminal Classic period. It coincides with Tikal's rise to power under its rulers A and B.

The tradition of erecting monuments begins again with those erected by Ruler IX (K'inich Hok' K'awil): the markers from the B Group ball court, Stela 11, and Altar 23 were all erected close to 800 A.D. His successor, Ruler X, erected Stelae 18, 19, Altars 12 and 13 in the B plaza and Stela 8 in the A plaza. His first monument is Stela 18 (810 A.D.) and the last date associated with his reign is 830 A.D. on Altar 13. The last ruler that left traces on the monuments of Caracol is Houston's Ruler XII, whose name first appears on Hatz Cab Ceel Altar 1 (835 A.D.), and then on Altar 10 and Stela 17 of an outlying group to the southeast of Caracol's epicenter. The final days of Caracol are recorded on Stela 10. The date 859 A.D marks the final event in the history of Caracol.

Site Description

Group C (Structures B59-B64) - The third major plaza forming epicentral Caracol is situated at the point where Hatzcap Ceel/Cahal Pichik causeway enters downtown Caracol. Its western side was cursorily investigated in 1994 and proved to be a palace compound with an elaborate central complex decorated with stucco texts documenting Caracol's late history. This compound was occupied until the abandonment of downtown Caracol.

Barrio (Structures B21-26) – is an elite residential plaza with three palaces and a northern temple. The currently visible constructions, which were used until the abandonment of Caracol, date to the Late Classic.

Central Acropolis (Structures A33,34,37,38,40) - An elite residential group which in its final Late Classic form, contained two temples, a funerary building, palaces, and 2 smaller buildings. Artifacts were found on the floors in and around the buildings. Tombs, burials, and ritual offerings were uncovered in the cores of the buildings themselves (A royal tomb was found at the base of the north building containing remains of 4 persons and 20 pottery vessels. A painted text dated the tomb construction to A.D. 582. It was entered by the Maya at least 2 times to place bones and offerings.)

Reservoir - The reservoir served as the only water sources at Caracol. One of the many reservoirs constructed in the surrounding clay-lined area, was artificially raised and plastered for efficient catchment and storage.

South Acropolis (D Group) - This is an elite complex consisting of several residential plaza groupings. It is located between the junctions of two causeways south of the epicenter's primary reservoir. Two elite early Late Classic tombs were excavated in the 1950's in the central buildings. A third royal Early Classic tomb containing the remains of a man and woman was excavated in 1992 in the remaining central building platform.

Altar 21 (A Group Ballcourt; Strs. A11 and A12) - This altar is a ballcourt marker erected in 633 A.D. by Lord Kan II. The text explains that Kan II's father, Lord Water engaged in two war events with Tikal in 556 A.D. and 562 A.D. The unstated purpose of the monument is to compare Lord Kan II's first defeat of Naranjo in 631 A.D. with his father's defeat of Tikal.

A Group (A2,A3,A4,A5,A6) – Stelae and altars were erected throughout the A Group Plaza. Atop the west building, Structure A2, lies the stela with the longest glyphic text in Belize; it was erected during the reign of Lord Kan II in the seventh century A.D. Structure A2 is 25 meters high and never supported a formal building on its summit. Stelae and altars were erected throughout the plaza. The north building, Structure A3, has a wide central staircase leading up to a pair of rooms: the edifice was once covered with modeled red stucco. A tomb inside Structure A3 dates to the late seventh century A.D. A platform supporting 5 buildings forms the eastern side of the A Group. The central 3 buildings on the platform may have comprised (with Structure A2) an astronomical observatory group; three tombs are known from 2 of these buildings and a ‘double-decker' tomb is located at plaza level in front of the temple.

Temple of the Wooden Lintel or Structure A6 - is the focal building on the A Group's eastern platform, is one of the oldest and longest used buildings at Caracol. Zapote lintels still in place date the currently visible to the first century A.D. Early construction here dates to 300 B.C. and the building continued in use until 1100 A.D.

Stela 11 - located in the center of the A Group plaza, is the best preserved stela and it portrays Mahk'ina Hok Kawil holding a symbol of rulership (the ceremonial bar) and being offered a scepter from a dwarf.

Northwest Acropolis (Structures A61-A73) – A major architectural complex that has yet to see formal excavations.

B Plaza (Structures B4-B29) - The focal plaza for the most massive architecture at Caracol. A temple-palace complex (Structures B4-B6) forms the south side of the plaza with a ball court forming the western side of the plaza. Structures B8 and B9 low line-of-structures ring the interior of the actual plaza. Caana forms the northern platform complex.

Caana (Structures B14-20) – This massive complex rises some 43 meters above the B Plaza and is the tallest man-made construction in Belize. At mid-level there is a range/palace building with a series of rooms that were actually lived. Residences also surround the 3 temples located about the central summit plaza. Caana was rebuilt many times, the final version was completed after 800 A.D. Illegal looting of Caana prior to 1985 destroyed three tombs in the eastern Structure B20; an intact fourth tomb was excavated in 1993. The largest tomb known from Caracol (containing the remains of a female) was excavated in 1986 beneath the front portion of the northern temple, Structure B19.

Altar 23 is a monument erected in 800 A.D., is located on the eastern edge of the B Plaza. It represents two bound royal captives sitted cross-legged on stone altars. The captive on the right was taken from the site of Ucanal in Guatemala.

For additional information on this site, please contact the IA.