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Ancient Maya Cities of the Eastern Lowlands$

Brett A. Houk

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780813060637

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2015

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813060637.001.0001

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Vaca Plateau and Maya Mountains

Vaca Plateau and Maya Mountains

(p.119) 6 Vaca Plateau and Maya Mountains
Ancient Maya Cities of the Eastern Lowlands

Brett A. Houk

Marilyn A. Masson

Michael E. Smith

John W. Janusek

University Press of Florida

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents two cities–Caracol and Minanha–from the Vaca Plateau area of the Maya Mountains. Caracol is the largest Maya city in the eastern lowlands, while Minanha is a small and short-lived center. The two cities represent contrasting expressions of Maya urbanism, but were likely linked politically by proximity. The chapter begins with a description of the natural setting of the area before examining first Minanha and then Caracol. The former experienced a rapid Late Classic expansion that accompanied the establishment of the royal court, possibly by elite from Caracol, ca. 675 CE, becoming the largest and most important city in the north Vaca Plateau until its royal acropolis was terminated ca. 810 CE. Caracol is a remarkable Maya site and a unique expression of city building in the eastern lowlands dominated by the towering Caana structure. Caracol’s large number of carved monuments and hieroglyphic texts provide more historical information than is available for all the other cities of the eastern lowlands combined. With its massive monumental buildings, large paved plazas, expansive network of causeways (sacbeob), extensive agricultural terraces, and dense settlement, Caracol represents a heavily engineered built environment and highly planned urban landscape.

Keywords:   Vaca Plateau, Maya Mountains, Caracol, Minanha, Caana, sacbeob, causeways, terraces

Separated from southern Belize by the rugged Maya Mountains lies the karstic landscape of the Vaca Plateau (see Figure 5.1). The southern part of the plateau served as the stage for the remarkable development of Caracol, easily the largest Maya settlement in the eastern lowlands. This chapter presents Caracol and, as something of a foil, Minanha, a much smaller center that thrived for a short period of time on the fringe of Caracol’s realm. The two centers represent contrasting expressions of Maya urbanism but were likely linked politically by proximity.


The Maya Mountains in the south-central part of Belize are an uplifted block of quartz-rich and granitic rock with peaks over 1,000 m (3,300 ft) in elevation (Wright et al. 1959:23). Younger Cretaceous age limestone deposited around the uplifted volcanic and metamorphic mountains has subsequently eroded into a series of foothills, including the Toledo Foothills to the south and the Central Foothills in the north (King et al. 1992:36–37). The Western Uplands land region is another area of limestone located between the Maya Mountains to the south and east and the Central Foothills to the north. This region includes the Vaca Plateau (see Figure 5.1). Although the area has steep-sided eastern scarps (Wright et al. 1959:28), it is also home to “some of the most impressive karst in the country, making the term ‘plateau’ inappropriate” (King et al. 1992:36). The Vaca Plateau comprises numerous dry karst valleys and residual limestone hills punctuated by sinkholes, solution fissures, and caves (Reeder et al. 1996:125).

Most of the streams responsible for carving valleys in the Maya Mountains and eroding the surrounding limestone drain east to the coastal plain, but the flow from a few western streams feeds the Macal and Mopan Rivers. The (p.120) Río Machaquilá in the southwestern part of the mountains and a few smaller streams drain west into Guatemala (Wright et al. 1959:24).

The rugged terrain has limited modern settlement of large areas of the region, and much of the Vaca Plateau and Maya Mountains are covered in broadleaf forest. The Mountain Pine Ridge area of the Vaca Plateau provides a startling contrast with its sandy soils, pine trees, and dramatic waterfalls.

The northern part of the plateau is home to the sites of Minanha, Waybil, Camp 6, Ix Chel, and Caledonia, among others. The central and southern plateau witnessed the development of small centers like Mountain Cow and Las Cuevas as well as the massive urban center of Caracol.



Minanha is located in the sparsely settled northern part of the Vaca Plateau on a strategic hilltop overlooking the junction of four important valley passes leading in different directions—one north toward the Belize Valley, one northeast toward the Macal River, one west toward the Petén, and one south into the Maya Mountains and toward Caracol (Iannone 2005:27, 29, 2010:359). The larger cities of Naranjo and Caracol, two important Classic period antagonists on the political landscape of the region, are 25 km to the northwest and south, respectively (see Iannone 2010:Figure 1).


While working at Lubaantun in 1927 with the British Museum Expedition to British Honduras, Thomas A. Joyce, Thomas Gann, and several workers from the project went to the Cayo District to investigate reports of a ruin south of the border town of Benque Viejo (Gann 1927:138; Joyce et al. 1927:295). After a grueling mule ride, the archaeologist and six chicleros reached the ruins, which they named Minanha, or “no water” (Joyce et al. 1927:319–320). During the short week-long visit, the archaeologists made a pace-and-compass map of the ruins and conducted limited excavations at the ball court and several other mounds. The account of the investigations repeatedly describes the results of the excavations as “disappointing,” but the expedition did establish that Minanha was a large site (Joyce et al. 1927:320, 322; see also Gann 1927:155).

At the request of the Belizean government, Gyles Iannone of Trent University attempted to relocate Minanha in 1997, 70 years after the British Museum’s Expedition had first mapped and tested the ruins (Iannone 2001:127). Iannone’s (p.121) initial trip was unsuccessful because the site’s location was incorrectly plotted on government maps, but a second trip in 1998 succeeded in finding the ruins, approximately 3.4 km northeast of their reported position (Iannone 2001:127). The site proved to be larger than expected and seemed like a promising locale for a multiyear project (Schwake 2008:102).

Following the site’s rediscovery, Trent University’s Social Archaeology Research Program (SARP) investigated Minanha between 1999 and 2012 (Iannone and Schwake 2013; Schwake 2008:102). Much of the initial SARP work focused on the site’s epicenter (Iannone 2005; Iannone and Reader 2011:3; Schwake 2008; Lamoureux St-Hilaire 2011), investigating the rise and fall of the royal court (Iannone 2005) and collective memory (Schwake and Iannone 2010), but SARP subsequently studied the city’s support population, nearby minor centers, and surrounding cave systems (see Iannone and Reader 2011:3–4; Iannone and Schwake 2013; Longstaffe 2011).

Site Plan and Urban Features

The Minanha epicentral court complex, as Iannone (2010) describes it, covers 9.5 ha of a strategically located hilltop and comprises 2 large plazas and 12 courtyards or patios (Figure 6.1). The line of monumental architecture exhibits a strong north–south axis (Iannone 2005:30).

A large plaza (Plaza A) dominates the southern end of the epicenter and is the setting for most of the apparent civic-ceremonial structures and six of the site’s eight known stelae (Iannone 2010:360). The plaza measures approximately 100 m north–south by 80 m east–west and is irregularly shaped, likely conforming in part to the configuration of the hilltop on which it is built. The southern edge of the plaza is bound by a long range building. Structure 12A, a 40-m-long, 6.5-m-high tandem range building, which fronts an elevated courtyard (Courtyard F), is on the western side of the plaza (Lamoureux St-Hilaire 2011:52). The southern face of a large acropolis group forms the northern end of Plaza A. Minanha’s ball court on the north and the complex of Structures 3A, 4A, and 5A on the south mark the eastern edge of the plaza. Structures take up much of Plaza A’s floor space: the Structure 7A temple-pyramid in the southeastern corner of the plaza faces west toward Structure 13C, another temple-pyramid in the southwestern corner of the plaza; and Structure 9A, a low platform supporting Stelae 1 and 2, is in the approximate center of the plaza.

Sonja Schwake (2008:114) classifies the Structure 3A complex on the east and Structure 9A on the west as an E-Group. Structure 3A within this complex was an eastern ancestral shrine (Iannone 2010:361; Schwake and Iannone (p.122)

Vaca Plateau and Maya Mountains

Figure 6.1. Map of Minanha, after Iannone (2010:Figure 3).

2010:334); at its western base excavators documented three stelae (two limestone and one slate) that were all broken in antiquity. Excavations along the primary axis of the mound encountered a series of three vertically aligned caches representing between 425 and 750 years of deposition between the first cache and the last (Schwake and Iannone 2010:335).

While many of the buildings in Plaza A share a common orientation (approximately 10° west of north), Courtyard F, the elevated and attached platform and supporting buildings on the western side of the plaza, the Stela 6 (p.123) courtyard to the north, and the acropolis group are oriented 15° east of north. This contrasting alignment means that the eastern face of Structure 12A has an oblique view of the ball court, the possible E-Group, and Structure 7A.

Excavations at Structure 12A determined it to be one of the few vaulted buildings at the site (Lamoureux St-Hilaire 2011:52). It has eight masonry rooms divided by a central passageway that allowed access to Courtyard F from Plaza A, and Jeffrey Seibert’s (2004:166) study of the building classified it as a “passageway range structure” and noted its dual public and private orientation. Similar structures are known at other sites in the Maya Mountains and Belize Valley including Caracol, Buenavista del Cayo, Las Ruinas de Arenal, El Pilar, and Cahal Pech (Seibert 2004:168–69).

To the north of Courtyard F, a sacbe exits Plaza A at an approximately 10° west of north orientation, terminating at a small platform supporting a south-facing temple-pyramid. With Stela 7 in front of it, Structure 53 is a terminus shrine and the farthest north building in the complex of civic-ceremonial structures. The sacbe shares the same orientation as most of the buildings in Plaza A and is aligned approximately 10° west of north, while the acropolis and Courtyard F are aligned 15° east of north. It is unclear if the differences in orientation reflect two different construction time frames and, thus, different planning agendas, or have some other significance. Drawing a line from the sacbe terminus shrine, down the center of the sacbe, to the southern end of the epicenter, highlights a possible ritual circuit or processional route involving the Structure 7A temple-pyramid, the small platform supporting Stelae 1 and 2, Stela 8, the sacbe, Stela 7, and the northern shrine. This possibility is explored more in chapter 11.

At the northern end of Plaza A rises the 13-m-high platform of the acropolis group, which includes a series of courtyards extending for nearly 200 m to the north. A formal vaulted entrance provided access to the southernmost courtyard in the acropolis from the south. The complex of structures, known as Group J, surrounding this courtyard included a vaulted throne room on the east, a performance platform on the west, and an 8.5-m-tall temple-pyramid with rounded corners on the north (Iannone 2005:30). Iannone (2010:360) believes all the buildings but the throne room were painted red, and the temple-pyramid was adorned with a stucco frieze; the throne room appears to have been painted red, blue-green, and white.

Immediately north of the royal courtyard is Group K, which Iannone (2010:36) refers to as a servants’ area. To the north of that the acropolis drops in elevation into Group L, a U-shaped courtyard group, facing the Group J/K platform. Group L’s buildings are low platforms with low masonry walls that (p.124) presumably supported perishable superstructures (Lamoureux St-Hilaire 2001:55). Despite the unimposing nature of the buildings, they contained large masonry benches (Paauw 2007).

Controlling rainfall runoff and managing water at Minanha would have presumably been a concern for population, particularly after the rapid Late Classic expansion of the site that accompanied the establishment of the royal court, but the landscape does not appear to have been engineered for water management purposes to the degree seen at La Milpa, another hilltop city, in northwestern Belize (see chapter 8). Only a small reservoir near the northern end of the acropolis appears on maps of the epicenter, and the main water source for the city appears to have been an artificially modified aguada about 1 km to the northeast of the site core (Primrose 2003).

Thirty-nine smaller courtyards and isolated structures surround the epicenter on terraced platforms ringing the hill (Longstaffe 2011:8; Lamoureux St-Hilaire 2011:61). Among these is Group S to the southeast of the epicenter. This Plaza Plan 2–type courtyard (see Becker 2009) measures 50 × 50 m and has a tripartite temple on its eastern edge and nine residential structures on the other sides (Lamoureux St-Hilaire 2011:64).

Below this zone of settlement and farther from the epicenter are smaller residential groups and structures associated with extensive agricultural terracing (Longstaffe 2011:8). Iannone (2009:36) speculates that Minanha’s settlement zone extends in a roughly 7-km radius, bound by the edge of the Vaca Plateau to the north, the Macal River to the east, and less firm frontiers to the south and west.

Recent settlement survey and reconnaissance by SARP have identified several secondary centers within the projected Minanha city-state territory. These include the sites of Waybil 1.92 km to the southwest and Martinez 5.8 km to the northeast of Minanha (Iannone 2011:24–25). Minanha is not connected to its secondary centers by sacbeob; this stands in stark contrast to the suburban landscape of the larger center of Caracol, discussed later.


Minanha was settled by the late Middle Preclassic period, based on ceramics from fill contexts, and Iannone (2009:34) reports gradual growth in population through the Terminal Preclassic period. The earliest documented architecture at the site is from the Terminal Preclassic (Iannone 2005:29), and the modest Preclassic population was confined to the hilltop area that would become the Classic period site epicenter (Iannone et al. 2008:150).

Early and Middle Classic sherds have been found in fill deposits of later (p.125) buildings in the epicenter, but no structures dating to these periods have been located in the epicenter of the site (Iannone 2005:29). The area around the hilltop, however, experienced moderate settlement growth (Iannone et al. 2008:150). In fact, the earliest version of the eastern shrine in the Group S courtyard dates to the Early Classic period (Lamoureux St-Hilaire 2011:65). The Early Classic buildings at Minanha were constructed in a consistent manner: small, dry-laid stone fill was overlain with a buff, or pinkish-orange, compact aggregate core, which was plastered, forming a thick and durable floor surface. The Early Classic platforms had faces constructed of cut blocks of limestone and supported perishable superstructures (Iannone et al. 2008:150; Longstaffe and Iannone 2011:49).

Although there is some evidence for ritual architecture in the area of the acropolis prior to 675 CE, it is after that date that Minanha’s epicenter was transformed into the complex of plazas, courtyards, and monumental structures still visible on the landscape (Iannone et al. 2008:150). Between 675 and 810 CE, Minanha grew rapidly and became the largest and most important Maya city in the north Vaca Plateau (Iannone 2005:29). Concurrent with this growth, the new architecture at the site reflected the material trappings of divine kingship (Iannone 2005:29–30), best exemplified by the royal courtyard in Group J and its throne room. In the countryside, the number of rural household courtyards increased dramatically, and most of the mapped structures surrounding the epicenter date to the Late Classic period (Iannone et al. 2008:151–152). The Late Classic construction shows a decline in quality from the Early Classic, as builders relied on a mixture of cut stone and crudely shaped limestone blocks (Iannone et al. 2008:153).

The newly established royal court at Minanha prospered for several generations until dramatically failing at the beginning of the Terminal Classic period. In the early part of the ninth century, the rooms in the buildings surrounding Group J, the royal courtyard in the acropolis, and the courtyard itself were filled in a methodical, nonviolent manner. Floors were swept clean, and then the entire group was buried by 10–20 cm of fine matrix and then large boulders until only the top of Structure 38J was left uncovered. The new surface that resulted from the infilling of the Late Classic royal compound then served as a rather mundane Terminal Classic residential courtyard (Iannone 2005:34, 2006:156–157).

After this apparent termination event, the population in the epicenter and countryside declined (Iannone 2005:37; Iannone et al. 2008:155). Remnant populations, like the occupants of the courtyard built on top of Group J and those in Groups S and U outside the epicenter, continued to function and even (p.126) engage in construction projects through the ninth century CE, but by the early tenth century Minanha was abandoned (Iannone et al. 2008:155–156). After this date, a few side-notched arrow points and Postclassic ceramics indicate subsequent visitations to the ruins or a very small Early Postclassic population at the site (see Iannone et al. 2008:157; Longstaffe 2011:209).

Political History

Although Minanha has eight stelae, none contain hieroglyphic texts and only two may have ever been carved (Iannone 2010:361). Therefore, reconstructing Minanha’s political history is based on inferences from other lines of evidence. Situated in a buffer zone between Caracol and Naranjo, Minanha’s political fortunes were undoubtedly tied to the actions of the kings and queens of those two long-time rival city-states. Despite their both being members of Calakmul’s Early Classic alliance and its maneuvering against Tikal (discussed later), Caracol and Naranjo frequently warred against one another and each other’s secondary centers (see Martin and Grube 2008).

Prior to the end of the seventh century or the beginning of the eighth century, Minanha was a small site with few civic-ceremonial structures. However, significant architectural construction in the epicenter accompanied the apparent establishment of a royal court at the site around 700 CE (Iannone 2005, 2010). Gyles Iannone (2010:365) uses multiple lines of evidence to conclude that nobles from the city of Caracol founded the royal court, albeit with the support and assistance of local agents. To briefly summarize his argument, the rise of Minanha’s short-lived royal dynasty coincides with an apparent period of weakness at Caracol; between 680 and 798 CE, only one carved monument was erected and monumental construction ceased at Caracol, signaling a political crisis (Iannone 2010:365; Martin and Grube 2008:205). The founders of the royal court brought with them a host of Late Classic Caracol-style ritual and political practices, according to Iannone (2010:362) including:

(1) a preference for caches and burials to be associated with eastern structures; (2) the construction and repeated use of multiple-entry grave chambers in both the epicenter and surrounding site core; (3) the construction of grave chambers long before they were actually used; (4) the use of slate capstones in graves; (5) the carving of slate monuments; (6) the practice of caching crude obsidian eccentrics, speleothems, and flanged effigy censers depicting the jaguar sun god of the underworld; (7) the smashing of flanged effigy censers as part of termination rituals associated with a royal funerary cult; (8) the caching of small ceramic (p.127) bowls with human finger bones inside; (9) the predominate use of Belize Red ceramic vessels in ritual contexts, particularly tripod plates with hollow oven feet with rattles; (10) the use of rounded corners on raised temples; (11) the widespread use of agricultural terracing; and, (12) the construction of an ancestor shrine complex comprising … an eastern structure fronted by a slate stela and two uncarved, compact limestone stelae and a western structure with two limestone stelae on its summit.

It appears that problems with Tikal kept Naranjo’s rulers occupied during the period of Minanha’s florescence. Tikal defeated Naranjo in battle in 744 CE, and only one new monument was erected at Naranjo between that defeat and 780 CE (Martin and Grube 2008:81–82). With both of its powerful neighbors weakened or distracted, Minanha’s upstart royal court prospered (Iannone 2010:365).

Both Caracol and Naranjo enjoyed short-lived Terminal Classic revivals, which coincide with the sudden demise of Minanha’s royal court and the infilling of the Group J courtyard. As a frontier kingdom between the two larger city-states, Minanha may have fallen victim to the Terminal Classic military campaigns Caracol and Naranjo launched against each other’s frontier cities (see Iannone 2010:366). Iannone (2005:39–40) points to the care taken to fill the royal courtyard and the fact that it was not reused subsequently as a royal residence as evidence that sympathetic local agents performed the task, but they did so under the direction of an antagonistic party. The apparent intentional breaking of Stelae 3–5 in front of the eastern shrine in Plaza A around the same time may be evidence of outside forces directing the termination of the royal court (Iannone 2005:40).


With apparently little antecedent construction in the area of the epicenter, the site plan of Minanha reflects fewer competing planning agendas than those at many cities in this volume. The epicenter has a strong north–south alignment, with the site’s large public plaza at the southern end and the elite residential acropolis at the northern end. The city has a ball court, eight stelae, a possible E-Group, an intrasite sacbe, several palace-type structures, and five temple-pyramids in its epicenter.

Although Minanha demonstrates a long history of occupation, extensive excavations from a number of contexts demonstrate that the Late Classic period witnessed tremendous growth at the site accompanied by the establishment of a royal court. As a frontier kingdom on the buffer between two larger warring cities, Minanha’s royal court was a short-lived experiment.

(p.128) SARP’s long-term research at Minanha is an excellent example of the type of analysis needed to reconstruct the political history of a site with no glyphic evidence for political connections. While speculative, the reconstruction of events put forth by Iannone and colleagues is based on multiple lines of evidence and links Minanha’s construction history to the broader sequence of events taking place across the region.



The massive city of Caracol developed in the contrasting and dramatic terrain of the southern Vaca Plateau and the foothills of the Maya Mountains. The site, named after the winding road that led there, is on the western edge of the Maya Mountains with the Macal River 15 km to the east and the Río Chiquibul 11 km to the west in Guatemala. The epicenter of the site is about 5 km from the border with Guatemala, on a high plateau 500 m above sea level (see A. Chase and D. Chase 1987:1). Mahogany logging in the early and middle twentieth century opened up a number of roads penetrating the plateau and making the ruins accessible. When sustained archaeological investigations began there in the 1980s, the site was largely covered in jungle consisting of mixed hardwood forest (A. Chase and D. Chase 1987:6; Healy et al. 1983:400).

Caracol, for a number of reasons highlighted in the following, is a remarkable Maya site and a unique expression of city building in the eastern lowlands. In terms of size, it dwarves the other cities in this book, and its large number of carved monuments and hieroglyphic texts provide more historical information than is available for all the other cities of the eastern lowlands combined. Beyond that, the city’s planners used sacbeob to integrate the surrounding settlement more tightly than any other Maya site in the southern lowlands.


A logger named Rosa Mai reportedly discovered Caracol in 1937. A. H. Anderson, the first commissioner of archaeology, visited in the ruins in 1938, making notes on structures, monuments, and reservoirs in the site core. He conducted limited excavations, discovering an intact doorway, complete with a wooden lintel, in a room in Structure A6 (A. Chase and D. Chase 1987:3).

In 1950 Linton Satterthwaite of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania—the same institution that would excavate Tikal beginning a few (p.129) years later—visited the ruins for a period of two weeks. He returned for two additional seasons in 1951 and 1953 to document the carved monuments at the site, map the site core, and conduct limited structural excavations (Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981:1; A. Chase and D. Chase 1987:4–5). A significant component of the 1951 season was the removal of a number of monuments from the site; several whole monuments were moved to Belize City, but some broken stelae were shipped to Philadelphia (Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981:1). During the 1953 season, the investigations discovered two open tombs, which Anderson excavated (A. Chase and D. Chase 1987:5). After the University Museum’s project ended, Anderson returned to the site over the next few years, excavating a rich tomb in the A Group and investigating the South Acropolis (A. Chase and D. Chase 1987:5).

Paul Healy of Trent University directed investigations of Maya agricultural terraces in the Maya Mountains, with visits to Caracol in 1978 and 1980 (Healy et al. 1983:401–2). Healy’s team examined a group of hills about 2 km east of Caracol’s epicenter, mapping and excavating terraces and house mounds and projecting high population estimates based on their results (Healy et al. 1983:402, 409).

The limited work at the site between its discovery and 1980 led Arlen Chase and Diane Chase of the University of Central Florida to conclude that the combination of epigraphy and archaeology at Caracol warranted intensive study. After two brief visits to the ruins to determine the feasibility of launching a project there, the Chases launched the Caracol Project (which was later renamed the Caracol Archaeological Project [CAP]) in 1985 (A. Chase and D. Chase 1987:6). Their advanced party of workers in 1985 found still-warm campfires in looters’ camps around the site, and some of the earliest work by the project targeted recording and cleaning up many of the illegal excavations in the epicenter (A. Chase and D. Chase 1987:6, 8). The project has operated continuously since 1985, making it one of the longest sustained research projects ever in the Maya lowlands.

The Tourism Development Project (TDP), which worked at several sites in Belize from 2000 to 2004, conducted excavations and restoration at Caracol in the early 2000s (Trein 2007:29). That work resulted in the complete consolidation of the front of Caana, the largest structure at the site.

Site Plan and Urban Features

The epicenter of Caracol forms the center of a complex, dendritic system of sacbeob that includes both intersite sacbeob and less formal vias and intrasite sacbeob that connect to sacbe terminus groups, or termini (A. Chase and D. (p.130) Chase 2001a:274, 276). Within the epicenter are a number of large plazas and architectural groups generally arranged in a north–south alignment (Figure 6.2).

The B Plaza forms the northern end of the line of monumental architecture at the site (Figure 6.3). The plaza measures approximately 150 m east–west by 50 m north–south and is surrounded by large buildings. A massive building known as Caana (Figure 6.4) towers over the plaza on its northern side, rising 43.5 m above the floor of the B Plaza (A. Chase and D. Chase 2001b). Although its visible architecture is Late Classic in age, the architectural complex follows the Late Preclassic triadic temple form. Three temple-pyramids (Structures B18–B20) crown its summit, facing a central courtyard and concealing two smaller courtyards (called quadrangles) on the northwestern and northeastern corners of the summit of the complex. The tallest of the three temples is Structure B19, which faces south into the central courtyard and across the B Plaza. An earlier version of the building contained one of the largest tombs ever excavated at Caracol; the tomb’s occupant was a woman, buried around 634 CE (A. Chase and D. Chase 1987:27).

The substructure that supports the summit architecture is massive, measuring over 100 m by 120 m at its base (A. Chase and D. Chase 1987:18). It sits on a low platform that extends out to the east, north, and west and supports smaller buildings. Caana’s substructural platform rises in six tiers and possesses a wide

Vaca Plateau and Maya Mountains

Figure 6.2. Map of Caracol’s epicenter, after D. Chase and A. Chase (2004c:Figure 1).

Used with permission of the Caracol Archaeological Project.

Vaca Plateau and Maya Mountains

Figure 6.3. Map of B Group at Caracol, after A. Chase and D. Chase (1987:Figure 47).

central stairway on its southern face. Midway up the stairs, a tandem range building containing 24 once-vaulted rooms occupies a southern extension of the lower three tiers of the platform. Another tandem range building crowns the summit of the platform in front of the central courtyard.

When considered as a single unit, Caana is an elaborate palace compound comprising minimally 71 rooms, many with benches, grouped into four “palace units” and integrated with the three summit temples (A. Chase and D. Chase 2001b, 2001c:110). Extensive excavations by CAP established that construction (p.132)

Vaca Plateau and Maya Mountains

Figure 6.4. Photograph of Caana at Caracol, courtesy of the Caracol Archaeological Project

(photograph by Diane Z. Chase).

post-680 CE raised the summit to its final level (A. Chase and D. Chase 2001b), and after this date, if not before, Caana functioned as the residential palace for the kings of Caracol (A. Chase and D. Chase 2001c:116).

Facing Caana from the south across B Plaza is the palace-temple compound of Structures B4–B6. Two palaces, Structures B4 and B6, flank a large temple-pyramid, Structure B5. The substructure for Structure B5 has distinctive rounded corners (Figure 6.5). The group dates to the Early Classic period, but Late Classic period construction significantly modified its appearance (A. Chase and D. Chase 2001c:117).

On the eastern side of the B Plaza is Structure B28, a small pyramid flanked by lower range buildings on its northern and southern sides. Inherently unstable construction matrix hampered excavations at Structure B28 in 2002, but excavations at the base of the building’s stairway located fragments of a previously unknown carved stela (A. Chase and D. Chase 2002).

Structures B8 and B9 constitute a north–south oriented ball court occupying the western end of the B Plaza. The court’s alleyway is approximately 5 m wide by 20 m long and is oriented on magnetic north. Excavations determined (p.133)

Vaca Plateau and Maya Mountains

Figure 6.5. Photograph of Structures B4–B6 at Caracol, from left to right

(photograph by the author).

the ball court was built in one construction episode. A centrally placed ball court marker found during those excavations is iconographically almost identical to a marker found near the A Group ball court, discussed below. Subsequent investigations discovered an additional marker at the northern end of the court in 1990 and another at the southern end of the court in 2004 (Helmke et al. 2006:1).

Two additional palace complexes complete the architectural inventory of the B Group. Immediately to the east of Caana is the Northeast Acropolis, a large complex built around a central courtyard with important Late Preclassic through Terminal Classic construction and deposits (A. Chase and D. Chase 2010:6). The group has an eastern temple-pyramid that rises 5 m above the courtyard and once contained a series of ritual deposits, burials, and tombs spanning the occupational history of the group.

Attached to the eastern side of the Northeast Acropolis is a group of buildings known as the Barrio palace compound. It comprises a series of once-vaulted structures facing a common courtyard. Three tandem range buildings bracket the southern, eastern, and western sides of the group, and Structure B26, an apparent temple-pyramid, borders the northern side (A. Chase and (p.134) D. Chase 2001b). Excavations revealed the remains of a series of deeply buried palaces under the latest version of this northern building, and determined that the final phase of the building was abandoned during a renovation project in the Terminal Classic period (A. Chase and D. Chase 2001b).

The A Plaza is situated approximately in the middle of epicenter of the site, over 200 m to the southwest of the B Plaza, and is home to some of the largest structures at Caracol, including Structure A2, a 20-m-tall temple-pyramid (Figure 6.6). Three temples define the formal plaza area: Structure A2 on the west, Structure A1 on the south, and Structure A3 on the north. On the east is a long platform supporting Structures A4–A8, with Structure A6 in center and dominating the other buildings (Figure 6.7). Penetrating excavations determined that the eastern platform was first constructed in 70 CE during the Late Preclassic period as part of an early E-Group, which included the western temple, Structure A3 (A. Chase and D. Chase 2007a:63; D. Chase and A. Chase 2006:4). The earliest monuments at Caracol were cached in the platform close to Structure A5 during the Early Classic period (Martin and Grube 2008:87), and Structure A6 remained an important ceremonial building throughout Caracol’s history (A. Chase and D. Chase 2007a:63).

On the eastern side of the Structure A6 platform is a broad open area that appears to share the same modified and built-up platform as the A Plaza. At the eastern edge of this surface is the Central Acropolis, a 5-m-high platform measuring 65 m east–west by 80 m north–south. Two temple-pyramids on the northern and eastern sides rise to 7 m above the plaza, while lower palace-type buildings mark the western, southern, and southeastern limits of the group. Excavations in the group encountered multiple tombs, including a royal tomb at the base of Structure A37, the eastern shrine (A. Chase and D. Chase 2001c:118–119; D. Chase and A. Chase 1996).

To the south of the open area between the Central Acropolis and Plaza A is a group of buildings not clearly organized around a common plaza. Among these buildings is the A Group ball court consisting of two parallel mounds oriented approximately 16° degrees west of north with an 8 m by 21 m alley between them. A large stone ball court marker was found east of the ball court, clearly out of context (A. Chase and D. Chase 1987:31), but excavations in the center of the alley discovered an in situ stone marker designated Altar 21 (A. Chase and D. Chase 1987:33). As discussed below, the 128 glyph blocks carved into the surface of the stone comprise one of the most important sources of political history in the Maya lowlands.

South of the ball court is Structure A13, a long range building with three stelae at its base that are all associated with an early Late Classic king named (p.135)

Vaca Plateau and Maya Mountains

Figure 6.6. Map of A and D Groups at Caracol, after A. Chase and (D. Chase 1987:Figure 46, 47, and 50) and Martin and Grube (2008:84).

Knot Ajaw (Martin and Grube 2008:90). South of that structure is the Main Reservoir, which is fed by water draining off of the A Plaza and the platform in front of Structure A13 (see A. Chase and D. Chase 1987:31).

The South Acropolis anchors the southern end of Caracol’s civic-ceremonial precinct. Three courtyards with over a dozen associated buildings all share a common elevated platform; the northern courtyard is the highest (p.136)

Vaca Plateau and Maya Mountains

Figure 6.7. Photograph of the eastern structures in Caracol’s E-Group

(photograph by the author).

of the three and is ringed by the largest structures (A. Chase and D. Chase 2003a). Structure D4, an approximately 80-m-long range building, fronts the South Acropolis and served as the formal entryway into the private northern courtyard behind it. Three heavily damaged buildings, Structures D16 through D18, from east to west, demarcate the southern side of the northern court and are the architectural focus of the entire South Acropolis. A. H. Anderson excavated these three buildings in the 1950s and encountered two tombs (A. Chase and D. Chase 2003a). More recent excavations by CAP determined the South Acropolis has a long construction sequence extending from the Late Preclassic through Late Classic, and the function of the group changed through time as its occupants modified and expanded it. During the Late Preclassic into the Early Classic, the South Acropolis was an elite residential unit, but its function shifted to a public one at the end of the Early Classic period. With the Late Classic construction of Structure D4, the northern courtyard retained a public function, but the southeastern courtyard functioned as residential space (A. Chase and D. Chase 2003a).

Surrounding the epicenter of Caracol is a heavily modified landscape of agricultural terraces, residential structures and courtyards, secondary centers, and causeways (Chase et al. 2011). Arlen Chase and Diane Chase (2001a:273) (p.137)

Vaca Plateau and Maya Mountains

Figure 6.8. Map of the Caracol sacbeob network, after Chase et al. (2011:Figure 1).

estimate that Caracol’s road system included up to 75 km of intrasite sacbeob and 85 km of intersite causeways that united an area covering 177 km2 (Figure 6.8). The sacbeob vary in width from less than 3 m to as wide as 30 m and in height from ground level to as tall as 3 m, and many have parapets along their edges (A. Chase and D. Chase 2001a:273).

The intrasite causeways link Caracol to its surrounding settlement and terminate in two rings 2.7–3.0 km and 4.5–7.5 km from the epicenter. The Chases have concluded that architectural groups at the ends of the inner ring termini served administrative functions and helped integrate the rural settlement around the site core. These groups are characterized by plazas as large as those in the epicenter and may have served as areas for local exchange. Although the termini groups in the inner ring were not residential, shorter sacbeob connect them to elite residential groups (A. Chase and D. Chase 2001a:276).

As Caracol’s suburban area sprawled, the city engulfed preexisting and once independent centers. City planners linked them to the epicenter by building long causeways; these groups constitute the outer ring of intrasite (p.138) termini groups. There are examples in both rings of termini groups where the causeway running from the epicenter passes through a special-function plaza with low structures before connecting with the preexisting center. The Chases view these plazas as serving some “special control function” (A. Chase and D. Chase 2001a:276).

A particularly interesting characteristic of Caracol’s road system is that the termini groups are for the most part only connected to the epicenter, rarely to another termini group. Less formal vias connect non-elite residential groups to various sacbeob, which would have presumably allowed people to move from one terminus to another without traveling as far as the epicenter, but formal communication links only existed between the epicenter and each of its termini groups (A. Chase and D. Chase 2001a:277).

Satellite imagery suggests that intersite causeways linked Caracol to other independent cities. One sacbe is projected to run 42 km to Naranjo in Guatemala, and two others appear to extend 24 km to the southeast (A. Chase and D. Chase 2001a:275).


The first evidence for occupation around Caracol dates to the Middle Preclassic period and comes from a residential group 4.5 km away from the epicenter. At the Veracruz group, CAP excavated a burial beneath a residential building with Middle Preclassic ceramics. Another group nearby, nicknamed Monterey, yielded evidence for Late Preclassic occupation in the form of seven caches and four burials. Even farther afield, in the early twentieth century J. Eric Thompson excavated Late Preclassic construction marked by Late Preclassic caches at Cahal Pichik, a sacbe terminus group 7.9 km from the epicenter (A. Chase and D. Chase 2006:42, 46).

The origins of the civic-ceremonial core of Caracol lie in the Late Preclassic period. Although Caracol could not have been much more than a small village at the time, its leaders constructed the initial version of the E-Group in the A Plaza, and dedicated a renovation of the eastern building around 10 to 60 CE (A. Chase and D. Chase 2006:50–51, 53). Extremely elaborate caches accompanied the various construction phases of the E-Group during the Late Preclassic, including a geode containing liquid mercury, jadeite chips, Spondylus shells, malachite pieces, pumpkin seeds, and a jadeite mask (A. Chase and D. Chase 2006:51; D. Chase and A. Chase 1998:314–315).

Although the E-Group likely formed the ritual center of Caracol during the Late Preclassic period, excavations documented coeval construction in other areas of the epicenter as well, including the South Acropolis, the Northeast (p.139) Acropolis, and Caana (A. Chase and D. Chase 2006:47, 2010:6). In the Northeast Acropolis, excavations exposed refuse dating to about 100 BCE and two slightly later Late Preclassic buildings (A. Chase and D. Chase 2001b:11). By the end of the Late Preclassic period, it is possible that Caana began to replace the A Plaza as the focus of ritual life at Caracol. Excavations by CAP in 1995 determined that the Terminal Preclassic structure was 38 m tall, only about 5 m shorter than the Late Classic platform’s summit (A. Chase and D. Chase 2006:47).

The Early Classic period’s archaeological deposits remain somewhat elusive at Caracol, but it is clear that the site continued to grow and prosper after 250 CE. As discussed below, hieroglyphic texts attest to the site’s power during the latter part of the period. A rich burial of a woman in the Northeast Acropolis, the architectural complex immediately east of Caana, in front of Structure B34 is one of several interments that mark the transition into the Classic period at Caracol. An elaborate mantle made of over 7,000 shell and jadeite beads and a fringe of dog teeth covered her remains in a cist containing 32 vessels spanning the Late Preclassic period to Early Classic period (A. Chase and D. Chase 2005:21). Excavations have also encountered caches dating to the first part of the Early Classic period from Structure A6 in the A Plaza, and it is clear that most of the A Plaza was constructed by end of the period (A. Chase and D. Chase 2005:25, 30). Outside the epicenter, Early Classic occupation around Caracol was sparse, but several architectural complexes enlarged older Preclassic constructions, creating a regularly spaced array of sizeable groups about 2 km from each other (A. Chase and D. Chase 2005:30).

Excavations in the Northeast Acropolis also encountered a rich offering buried in a pit over 2 m below the modern surface of the courtyard. The floor and walls of the pit were heavily burned, as were most of the artifacts within it. A 2–3 cm thick layer of carbon coated the floor, and a dense assemblage of artifacts that was covered in a thick layer of ash lay on the bed of carbon. The deposit appears to be a cremation, with the remains of at least three people evident. The offering included 20 ceramic vessels, only one of which had survived nearly whole, a broken mano and metate, 6 green obsidian points, 2 obsidian knives, 22 green obsidian blades and blade fragments, 7 gray obsidian blade fragments, slate backings for composite artifacts, and the shell tip of an atlatl, along with numerous other shell artifacts, specimens of worked bone, and stone, jade, and shell beads (A. Chase and D. Chase 2010:8–11). Based on the ceramics, several of which are Teotihuacan style, this deposit dates to approximately 330 CE, about the time Caracol’s royal dynasty was founded, as discussed below (A. Chase and D. Chase 2010:10).

(p.140) By the end of the Early Classic period in the early sixth century, the site was clearly well established. The earliest tomb from Structure B20 in Caana dates to 537 CE, and 40 years later, on the heels of a successful war against Tikal (discussed below), the rulers of Caracol substantially modified the building and constructed additional tomb chambers in it. Excavations in other parts of the site have documented similar intensification in construction around this time period and into the beginning of the Late Classic period (A. Chase and D. Chase 2005:32–33).

Both the archaeological and epigraphic records attest to Caracol’s Late Classic florescence. Most of the rapid growth at the site appears to be related to a successful war against the rival city of Naranjo in the early- to mid-seventh century. The dendritic causeway system is a largely Late Classic addition to the city’s plan, and it helped to foster a uniform “Caracol identity” (see A. Chase and D. Chase 2001a:280). This identity is expressed in commonalities across the Caracol community in ritual caches, burials, and residential architecture (D. Chase and A. Chase 2004b:142), and was part of a change in management strategy that characterized the Late Classic period. Arlen Chase and Diane Chase (2009:17–18) attribute Caracol’s success in the Late Classic to an intentional policy on the part of the ruling elite to promote “symbolic egalitarianism”—the use of symbols to increase cooperation and minimize differences among a group of people.

In terms of epicenter architecture, the major plazas and surrounding structures achieved their basic final forms during the Late Classic period, although Terminal Classic construction and renovations reshaped a few complexes. The Central Acropolis was built in the early Late Classic and used through the end of the Late Classic (A. Chase and D. Chase 2001c:119). Caana was enlarged, and both ball courts at the site were constructed during the Late Classic. Most of the carved stelae, altars, and ball court markers, likewise, date to this period. Despite a break in the textual record between 680 and 800 CE, the archaeological data suggest that Caracol was stable and prosperous throughout the entire Late Classic period (D. Chase and A. Chase 2006).

Outside the epicenter, special-function plazas were constructed at the newly incorporated termini groups, and the suburban settlement density increased as the rural populace constructed thousands of agricultural terraces across the countryside (A. Chase and D. Chase 1998, 2001a, 2003b). This construction transformed Caracol into a “garden city,” entirely dependent on terrace agriculture to feed its large population (A. Chase and D. Chase 1998:61).

Caracol’s epicenter witnessed continued growth in several areas during the Terminal Classic period, including the Barrio palace group (A. Chase and D. (p.141) Chase 2007b:21) and the Northeast Acropolis (A. Chase and D. Chase 2010). The elite at the site, however, apparently rejected the successful Late Classic strategy of symbolic egalitarianism, based on differential ceramic assemblages between elite and non-elite residential groups (A. Chase and D. Chase 2009:21). This may have had a destabilizing effect on the non-elite population and ultimately contributed to the downfall of dynastic rule at the site. Some areas of the site with evidence for Terminal Classic occupation demonstrate stone robbing of some structures, perhaps to maintain others (see A. Chase and D. Chase 2010:15–16).

The abandonment of the epicenter occurred suddenly, slightly before 900 CE. Many buildings in the epicenter have artifacts left on their floors, apparently abandoned in situ, and unfinished building modifications exist in both the A and B Groups (A. Chase and D. Chase 2004a:349). The rural populace, too, abandoned their houses around this time, suggesting a complete breakdown of social and political order at Caracol prior to the tenth century CE. There is some evidence for Early Postclassic visitation to temples at the site, but no one ever reoccupied Caracol (A. Chase and D. Chase 2004a:350).

Political History

Caracol has two dozen known stelae, an equal number of altars, and four carved ball court markers. While not all of the stone monuments contain legible texts, many do, and numerous other texts from tomb walls and capstones as well as artifacts allow for a more detailed reconstruction of Caracol’s political history than any other site’s in the eastern lowlands. Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube (2008:86–99) present a comprehensive reconstruction of the known rulers of Caracol, which is summarized in Table 6.1.

Caracol’s dynasty appears to have been founded in either 331 or 349 CE by a king named Te’ K’ab Chaak (Martin and Grube 2008:86). The elaborate Teotihuacan-style cremation from the Northeast Acropolis dates to roughly this same time period, but the connection between Caracol and Teotihuacan is completely unknown. There is some suggestion, however, that Caracol may have played a role in the founding of Copán’s ruling dynasty in 426 CE (see A. Chase and D. Chase 2011:15). The name of Copán’s founder, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo,’ and a special title that names Uxwitza,’ “Three-Hills-Water,” identified as Caracol’s place name, appear together on Stela 63 at Copán. David Stuart (2007) suggests that this indicates K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ came from Caracol rather than Tikal, as long suspected. Recent isotopic studies of his bones lead Price and colleagues (2010:31) to conclude that K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo was a Caracol lord who grew up in Tikal’s royal court. (p.142)

Table 6.1. Political history of Caracol


Long Count

Gregorian Date

Events and Notes

Te’ K’ab Chaak (Founder?)


Name mentioned in two Late Classic texts; likely dynastic founder (Martin and Grube 2008:86)


ca. 330

Teotihuacan-style cremation in Northeast Acropolis hints at connections with Central Mexico



Upper portion of Stela 20 gives likely accession date for unknown king (Martin and Grube 2008:86)

K’ahk’ Ujol K’inich I (Ruler I)

ca. 470

Place in dynastic chronology uncertain; named on sixth century Stela 16 and on later Stela 6 in a belt device (Martin and Grube 2008:86)

Yajaw Te’ K’inich I


Stela 13 lists father as K’ahk’ Ujol K’inich I? and mother as Lady Penis-head of Xultun. Son is K’an I (Martin and Grube 2008:86)

April 11, 484


October 16, 514

Celebrated period ending, Stela 13

K’an I (Ruler II)

July 3, 534

Celebrated period ending, Stela 16

Yajaw Te’ K’inich II (Ruler III)

April 16, 553

Accession under the auspices of Tikal’s king, Wak Chan K’awiil, Stela 21

March 20, 554

Celebrated period ending, Stela 14

March 30, 556

Defeated by Tikal, end of alliance with Tikal, Altar 21

April 29, 562

Calakmul defeated Tikal, commemorated on Caracol Altar 21

August 22, 593

Celebrated period ending, Altar 1, Stela 1

Knot Ajaw (Ruler IV)

June 24, 599

Accession, Stela 5

May 10, 613

Celebrated period ending, Stela 6

K’an II (Ruler V)

March 7, 618



Unknown event overseen by Calakmul’s ruler, Yuknoom Chan


Attacked Ko-Bent-Cauac, defeated Naranjo 40 days later


Battle against Tzam



K’ahk’ Ujol K’inich II (Ruler VI)

June 23, 658



Defeated by Naranjo

Ruler VII

March 16, 692

Celebrated period ending, Stela 21

Tum Yohl K’inich (Ruler VIII)

ca. 793

Involved in a fire-bearing ritual under supervision of ruler of Ixkun

K’inich Joy K’awiil (Ruler IX)


Dedicated B Group ball court


Accession, ball court marker

August 17, 800

Celebrated period ending, Stela 11


Captured rulers of Ucanal and Bital, Altar 23

K’inich Toobil Yopaat (Ruler X)

March 8, 804?


June 26, 810

Celebrated period ending, Stela 18


Alliance with Ucanal, Altars 12 and 13

March 13, 830

Celebrated period ending?

K’an III (Ruler XII)

November 28, 849

Celebrated period ending with another lord, Stela 17

Ruler XIII

October 7, 859

Celebrated period ending, Stela 10

Sources: After Martin and Grube 2008; Sharer and Traxler 2006:Table 7.4.


Caracol’s most important role in the political history of the southern lowlands swirls around the lifetime of Yajaw Te’ K’inich II, a king who took the throne in 553 CE. Many of the following events were recorded on Altar 21 at Caracol, a Late Classic monument dedicated in 633 CE and used as the A Group ball court’s marker. Yajaw Te’ K’inich II was inaugurated under the sponsorship of Tikal’s king, Wak Chan K’awiil, suggesting that Caracol was a client kingdom of its more powerful ally in the central Petén. Three years later Tikal attacked Caracol, implying that relations between the two kingdoms had soured. Six years after that, in 562 CE, Calakmul apparently attacked and defeated Wak Chan K’awiil at Tikal. Because this event is recorded on Altar 21 at Caracol, an early interpretation of the damaged hieroglyphic text was that Caracol was actually the conquering city, but recent studies suggest that Calakmul’s king, Sky Witness, was really the victor (Martin 2005:4–5; Martin and Grube 2008:89–90). That the monument bearing this information is found at Caracol suggests Caracol had become an ally or vassal of Calakmul after the 556 CE defeat by Tikal.

K’an II, the second of two sons of Yajaw Te’ K’inich II to take the throne at Caracol, apparently directed much of the Late Classic expansion of the kingdom and constructed the network of sacbeob during his 40-year reign between (p.144) 618 and 658 CE (Martin and Grube 2008:91). Caracol remained allied with the more powerful state of Calakmul throughout his reign, and the two cities waged a coordinated military campaign against the site of Naranjo and its secondary centers between 626 and 631 CE.

Caracol’s early Late Classic heyday ended in 680 CE when its next king, K’ahk’ Ujol K’inich II fled the city following a battle with Naranjo and remained in exile for two months before it was safe to return. After this, the written record at Caracol fell silent until 798 CE, except for Stela 21, the only dated monument (702 CE) from this apparent hiatus (Martin and Grube 2008:95). However, the archaeological record suggests continued construction and stable populations at the city during this time. Gyles Iannone (2010:365) proposes that it was during this interval that nobles from Caracol founded the royal dynasty at Minanha.

Near the end of the Late Classic period, K’inich Joy K’awiil revived Caracol’s royal traditions by embarking on a new construction campaign that included the B Group ball court and a number of new carved monuments around 800 CE. His successors continued to erect monuments in the site’s epicenter as well as at a few of the secondary centers incorporated into the kingdom up until 859 CE, when a king known only as Ruler XIII dedicated Stela 10 in the A Plaza (Martin and Grube 2008:96–99).


Caracol exceeds all the other cities of the eastern lowlands in terms of scale and complexity. With its massive monumental buildings, large paved plazas, expansive network of sacbeob, extensive agricultural terraces, and dense settlement, Caracol represents a heavily engineered built environment. Although the city grew incrementally, much of the Late Classic expression of the urban plan represents considerable planning, particularly with the use of sacbeob and the construction of water management features both within the epicenter, where two large reservoirs captured runoff from the paved plazas, and in the countryside, where settlement mapping has documented an average of five reservoirs per square kilometer (Chase et al. 2011:388).

The most striking feature of Caracol’s urban setting is the monumentality of its structures, particularly Caana. The building is a magnificent display of wealth and power, and it recalls Late Preclassic architectural canons from centuries past. The E-Group assemblage of buildings around the A Plaza is another example of continuity between the Late Preclassic and Late Classic in Caracol’s site plan.

The suite of common Maya city elements at Caracol includes temples, ball (p.145) courts (two), palaces, acropoli, sacbeob, reservoirs, and stone monuments. What is remarkable about many of these elements is the accompanying wealth entombed within caches and burials associated with them. As a quick comparison, the large site of La Milpa in northwestern Belize has a comparable number of stone monuments and two ball courts, but the site’s few known tombs and caches are impoverished when compared to Caracol’s. While this difference clearly highlights disparities in wealth between the two cities, the disposal of tremendous numbers of high-status items in burials and caches, particularly the Early Classic Teotihuacan-style cremation that incinerated a great deal of material wealth, is appropriately interpreted as differences in power between the two cities as well (see A. Chase and D. Chase 2011:13).

Part of the common Caracol identity that emerged in the Late Classic period included a preference for plazuela organization following the Plaza Plan 2 arrangement first identified at Tikal by Marshall Becker (2004:128). At Tikal, 14 percent of the mapped courtyard groups follow this type of organization, characterized by a shrine on the eastern side of the courtyard, but at Caracol a staggering 80 percent of known courtyards follow this pattern (D. Chase and A. Chase 2004b:144). The result of this preference is a degree of standardization in household groups not found at any other Maya city.

From an archaeological perspective, Caracol’s massive network of causeways is even more impressive than its monumental constructions. Sacbeob represent a tremendous labor investment and reflect strong central organization to oversee their planning, construction, and maintenance. They also indicate a completely different level of community integration at Caracol than is seen at any other eastern lowland city. While a number of cities, La Milpa included, have a ring of secondary centers approximately 3 km from their epicenters, only at Caracol are they physically connected by sacbeob to the center of the city. At other Maya cities in the eastern lowlands, including Dos Hombres and La Milpa, a radius of about 5 km established the limits of the city-state, but at Caracol a second ring of termini groups about 7 km from the site core reflects the integration of an atypically large area into the direct control of the kingdom.

Discussion and Concluding Remarks

Minanha and Caracol in many ways represent two extremes with respect to Maya urbanism given the disparities in the sizes of their epicenters. Minanha represents the vast majority of small kingdoms in the eastern lowlands, pushed and pulled by larger geopolitical players. Its short-lived royal court oversaw (p.146) rapid and impressive growth of the site’s modest epicenter before succumbing to outside pressures.

Caracol, on the other hand, is the city by which all others in the eastern lowlands are measured. Its rulers established Caracol as a ceremonial center as early as the Late Preclassic when they constructed an E-Group. By the Early Classic, the city may have been a direct participant in Tikal’s expanding hegemony and was certainly an important eastern lowland ally. Most of Caracol’s growth, however, can be attributed to the period following the defeat of Tikal. During the Late Classic, although part of Calakmul’s alliance, Caracol enjoyed a high degree of autonomy as evidenced by its size and extent as well as the high degree of integration of the kingdom. The network of sacbeob linking the site core to its surrounding minor centers is an indication of unprecedented planning and political integration.

With the Maya Mountains acting as a natural barrier to the south, the rulers of Caracol and Minanha concerned themselves more frequently with developments to the north. There a number of important centers flourished in the fertile lands of the Belize Valley. Chapter 7 examines two of them: Xunantunich and El Pilar.