Caracol Thirty Years Later

A Preliminary Account of Two Rulers

By: Carl P. Beetz

Originally Published in 1980

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This year marks the beginning of the third decade since the University Museum began its interest in the ancient Maya site of Caracol, Belize. April 3rd will be the thirtieth anniversary of the day that Linton Satterthwaite first spied the siren Caracol sulking behind its curtain of forest. In early 1950, Satterthwaite was in the process of examining several ruins in the western part of what was then British Honduras. During this exploration, he worked in cooperation with the then Commissioner of Archaeology, A. Hamilton Anderson. Anderson directed Satterthwaite’s attention to Caracol following visits to several other sites in the Belize River Valley.

Incredibly dense tropical forests conceal Caracol where it lies behind the barrier formed by the Mountain Pine Ridge. Anderson had faced a long trip by mule to the site along overgrown chicleros trails when he first visited it in 1938 just after its discovery. At that time he noted several carved monuments projecting through the foliage. Satterthwaite had a keen interest prompting Anderson to suggest the trip to the site. Facilitating the visit was the fact that logging operations were in full swing around Caracol, and roads had been built by the loggers. As a result, access to the site was easier than it had been before and than it ever has been since.

Caracol is not a large site in comparison to major Maya centers such as Tikal or Palenque (Fig. 1). Nevertheless, it does possess a number of structures of considerable size. Dates recorded on the Caracol monuments indicate that the site was occupied from at least the Maya “Early Classic” through to the end of the “Late Classic” period—A.D. 494-900. Everything is now covered by topsoil and vegetation. The buildings are all partly tumbled-down from the assaults of tree roots and rainfall. The entire site was once cleared by the Museum expeditions of the early 1950’s. But within a year Caracol had again cloaked itself with its mantle of green.

During Satterthwaite’s first short visit, the expedition found many additional monuments. In two weeks of surface survey, twenty-four new stelae and altars turned up. Satterthwaite subsequently organized a field season in 1951 and another in 1953 to record and salvage the monuments. The total count rose to 20 stelae and 19 altars. There was a concern about leaving so many finely-carved stones alone in the bush. Thus the Government and the Museum cooperated in a project of shipping out the best stones. Under the then-current law, equal division of archaeological materials was made. British Honduras chose to keep only intact monu­ments, since they lacked the facilities to conserve and reconstruct the fragmented ones. The Museum brought back mostly broken pieces which were subsequently re-assembled to be displayed.

The monuments have been seriated in time by calendric inscriptions preserved on them. The only long, well-preserved texts at Caracol occur in the middle of the monument sequence, dating to A.D. 520-640. Earlier and later monuments, although numerous, are too poorly preserved to allow the detailed sort of analysis necessary for an historical reconstruction. In our discussion here, we will concentrate on two large and important stones, Stelae 6 and 3.  Their texts, in addition to being the longest readable from Caracol, also conveniently overlap in time.

The earliest known monument from Caracol is Altar 4 which bears an abbreviated calendric record. This, coupled with stylistic consideration of its carving, allows the placement of Altar 4 at around A.D, 494, 9.3.0.0.0 in the Maya calendar. (The Maya calendar and counting system operated basically on a system of twenties. The middle digit of our notation for recording their dates represents the num

The three seasons of field exploration resulted in the compilation of a massive quantity of notes, drawings and particu­larly photographs. Satterthwaite began to analyze the calendric portion of the inscriptions immediately after the field­work ended. However, just as he was reaching the point of preparing some of his results for eventual publication, the University Museum began its fifteen-year involvement in the enormous Tikal Project. From 1956 onwards, Satterthwaite’s time was entirely taken by the analysis of the Tikal monuments. Two articles in the University Museum. Bulletin by Satter­thwaite (1951, 1954) and one by Horace Willcox (1954), a student who worked at Caracol, were all that was published regarding the Museum’s efforts at Caracol.

By 1970, research into the monuments of Caracol had been all but abandoned. The materials languished on the shelves of the American Section offices. In response to the death of Dr. Satterthwaite’s wife Margaret in January of 1977, a memorial fund was formed in her name for the pur­pose of assisting the completion of a publication on Caracol. My own evident fascination with Maya writing prompted Dr. Coe to entrust the task of completing the Caracol monuments volume to me in exchange for a small honorarium from that fund. Within a year, I had finished the minimal task of completing the half-written manuscript in a straightforward manner (resulting in a typewritten text of some 250 pages with about 100 line drawings and halftone reproductions for publication by the Museum). Shortly after this, in late winter of 1978, Dr. Satterthwaite died.

My involvement had shown me several weaknesses in the original text. When Satterthwaite began the effort, the field of Maya epigraphy was dominated by the study of calendrical notations and calcula­tions. This emphasis had predominated for over fifty years, and Satterthwaite had been very thoroughly trained within the tradition. However, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the whole field of study was turned on its ear by work that revealed site names on the monuments (Berlin, 1958) and, more importantly, names of rulers with their dates of birth and accession to power (Proskouriakoff, 1960, 1961, 1963, 1964). The representations of people on monuments, which had previously been seen only as priests or perhaps deities, were revealed to be actual historical characters. This pattern of research into the historical content of Maya inscriptions has revealed expressions of parentage, titles and possibly death. In contrast to this, the Caracol monuments volume represented an archaic tradition of study as it stood after I had completed it to Satterthwaite’s outline.

While completing the calendric analysis and presentation for publication, I had observed the opportunities for gleaning historical data from the Caracol inscriptions. The monuments of the site, though large in quantity, offer relatively few well preserved texts. Nature’s efforts at destroying the stones and their carvings through erosion, falling trees and root action had been complemented in antiquity by ancient residents or visitors to the site who had broken up some monuments and moved many others, then-current Iaw, equal division of archaeological materials was made. British Honduras chose to keep only intact monu­ments, since they lacked the facilities to conserve and reconstruct the fragmented ones. The Museum brought back mostly broken pieces which were subsequently re-assembled to be displayed.

The three seasons of field exploration resulted in the compilation of a massive quantity of notes, drawings and particu­larly photographs. Satterthwaite began to analyze the calendric portion of the inscriptions immediately after the field­work ended. However, just as he was reaching the point of preparing some of his results for eventual publication, the University Museum began its fifteen-year involvement in the enormous Tikal Project. From 1956 onwards, Satterthwaite’s time was entirely taken by the analysis of the Tikal monuments. Two articles in the University Museum. Bulletin by Satter­thwaite (1951, 1954) and one by Horace Willcox (1954), a student who worked at Caracol, were all that was published regarding the Museum’s efforts at Caracol.

By 1970, research into the monuments of Caracol had been all but abandoned. The materials languished on the shelves of the American Section offices. In response to the death of Dr. Satterthwaite’s wife Margaret in January of 1977, a memorial fund was formed in her name for the pur­pose of assisting the completion of a publication on Caracol. My own evident fascination with Maya writing prompted Dr. Coe to entrust the task of completing the Caracol monuments volume to me in exchange for a small honorarium from that fund. Within a year, I had finished the minimal task of completing the half-written manuscript in a straightforward manner (resulting in a typewritten text of some 250 pages with about 100 line drawings and halftone reproductions for publication by the Museum). Shortly after this, in late winter of 1978, Dr. Satterthwaite died.

My involvement had shown me several weaknesses in the original text. When Satterthwaite began the effort, the field of Maya epigraphy was dominated by the study of calendrical notations and calcula­tions. This emphasis had predominated for over fifty years, and Satterthwaite had been very thoroughly trained within the tradition. However, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the whole field of study was turned on its ear by work that revealed site names on the monuments (Berlin, 1958) and, more importantly, names of rulers with their dates of birth and accession to power (Proskouriakoff, 1960, 1961, 1963, 1964). The representations of people on monuments, which had previously been seen only as priests or perhaps deities, were revealed to be actual historical characters. This pattern of research into the historical content of Maya inscriptions has revealed expressions of parentage, titles and possibly death. In contrast to this, the Caracol monuments volume represented an archaic tradition of study as it stood after I had completed it to Satterthwaite’s outline.

While completing the calendric analysis and presentation for publication, I had observed the opportunities for gleaning historical data from the Caracol inscriptions. The monuments of the site, though large in quantity, offer relatively few well preserved texts. Nature’s efforts at destroy ing the stones and their carvings through erosion, falling trees and root action had been complemented in antiquity by residents or visitors to the site who had broken up some monuments and moved many others.

The technique pioneered by Proskouriakoff for historical analysis relies on examination and comparison of glyph “clauses” of similar date or content in order to isolate and recognize glyphs by their repetition in a variety of contexts. Both the original work and subsequent successful efforts have been carried out at sites with relatively high proportions of legible inscriptions. The shortage of chronologically overlapping clauses at Caracol virtually obviates the substantiation of new readings there. Rather than working from a predominantly internal base, analysis must rely upon advances made at other sites.

The problems involved in this approach are fairly basic. How can we identify personalities? What allows us to point at a glyph and say that it is a ruler’s name? These difficulties hinge upon the proper identification of ancient Maya clauses. These clauses might be taken as roughly analogous to a sentence. As defined for the monuments (Kubler, 1971), these clauses begin with a time statement (either a year notation or a calculation of the passage of years since another earlier or later point in time) and continue until the last glyph preceding the next time statement. Subsequent work indicates that an “event” marker regularly follows the last glyph of a time-statement—beginning a non-calendric historical statement. Events that have been definitely identified are birth and accession to rule. Other events tentatively recognized are capture, death and title-acquisition. Following the event glyph, a common pattern presents a string of names alternating with glyphs specifying the relationship between the names. This pattern is well illustrated by the opening clause on Cara col Stela 3 (Fig. 4).

Important components of these clauses are “emblem glyphs” (hereafter abbreviated as EG’s). Each of these glyphs is unique in its association with a single site. It is possible for a single site to have multiple EG’s. An example is Tikal, which has three. These glyphs might represent a distinctive feature of the site, a titular deity or perhaps the name of a dominant family there (Berlin, 1958). These glyphs commonly come at the ends of clauses and following nomitive phrases for individuals. At Caracol, the only true EG occurs on Stela 3 (Fig. 5c). There are reasons that give rise to the suspicion that this EG is not that of Caracol at all, but that of another site. For instance, the two Caracol lords that have been identified do not use that EG. Also, it occurs only in association with a single character who gives no other indications of being a ruler at all.

At Caracol, another glyph fills the positions normally taken by an EG and seems to function in all ways as an EG. Since it lacks some of the attributes of a true EG it cannot be labelled as such. Rather, it shall simply be called the “Caracol Glyph” (Fig. 5a, b). The question of EG’s ties into the problem of identifying the names of actual rulers as opposed to those of merely important people or of royal relatives. Proskouriakoff suggested that there was a strong but not definite relation between association with an EG and connection to a “royal lineage” (1964: 90). Also, names of rulers can be distinguished by relative frequency of appearance. The name of a ruler is simply far more often represented than that of a non-ruling relative. An additional clue to rulership is provided by a title recently recognized in the inscriptions of Palenque which has been transcribed into Maya as “moh-kin-oh” (Lounsbury, 1974: ii). This affix is apparently limited to the name phrases of ancient Maya leaders. It may thus be considered a reliable indicator of rulership when found in company with a name (Fig. 5d).

The monuments have been seriated in time by calendric inscriptions preserved on them. The only long, well-preserved texts at Caracol occur in the middle of the monument sequence, dating to A.D. 520-640. Earlier and later monuments, although numerous, are too poorly preserved to allow the detailed sort of analysis necessary for an historical reconstruction. In our discussion here, we will concentrate on two large and important stones, Stelae 6 and 3. Their texts, in addition to being the longest readable from Caracol, also conveniently overlap in time.

The earliest known monument from Caracol is Altar 4 which bears an abbreviated calendric record. This, coupled with stylistic consideration of its carving, allows the placement of Altar 4 at around A.D, 494, 9.3.0.0.0 in the Maya calendar. (The Maya calendar and counting system operated basically on a system of twenties. The middle digit of our notation for recording their dates represents the number of 360-day historical years, or “tuns,” that have passed since an arbitrary starting point. The next space to the left records these tuns in units of twenty. The far left space records them in units of 400. Thus 9.3.0.0.0 notes a count of 9×400 plus 3×20 plus 0x1 or 3660 tuns of 360 days each.)

The earliest Caracol monument with a sizable inscription is Stela 13. This stone is dated to 9.4.0.0.0, some twenty tuns after Altar 4. Unfortunately the date is about all that is readable on this monument. Tantalizing vestiges remain of other hieroglyphs, but nothing that is really readable.

The earliest probable ruler known is found on the next monument in the sequence, Stela 16 (Fig. 6). Its weathered text opens with a date followed by what is apparently a single long clause some sixty glyph blocks long. Portions of the text are unreadable. The inscription is very diffi­cult to translate because it lacks calendric notations to subdivide it. An additional obstruction arises from the fact that the event glyph following the opening date is lost. An apparent ruler’s name does appear shortly after the date, where the mah-kin-oh affix is attached to a glyph representing an animal-head (Fig. 7a). Since this is the single known occurence of this ruler’s name, it is impossible to know whether the glyph is actually a “name” glyph or just a title.

Jumping ahead somewhat in time, the next identifiable ruler appears on Stela 6 between 9.5.19.1.2 and 9.8.10.0.0. His name glyph bears the mah-kin-ah title in all but one manifestation. The name glyph can be isolated because it appears in a short clause which it shares only with the Caracol Glyph at one point in the text (E9) (Fig. 5a). There is therefore no possibility that it represents merely a title. Stela 6 opens with the date 9.5.19.1.2 and a clause with an unknown event glyph followed by a parentage expression for a ruler: Lord Water (Fig. 7b). The context of this event does not allow us to postulate with any surety its nature. The uncertainty at this point raises difficulties with the interpretation of another event later in the text, as will be noted. The events most likely to be recorded at the beginning of a text are birth or accession to office. The two are equally possible for Stela 6, with the provison that if we read the event as accession, Lord Water’s birth must have been within the preceding nine years. The basis for this statement will be revealed in a moment. Following the birth/accession of Lord Water, the text records the passing of three katun-ends (units of twenty tuns). Then at the date 9.8.5.16.12, a long compound clause registers an event (or possibly two events) of some greater importance. If the initial event is interpreted as birth, then this subsequent clause probably marks Lord Water’s accession to rule. If, however, the first event is accession, then this must

mark the acquisition of a new title or perhaps the birth of a son. It definitely cannot mark Lord Water’s death since we know from elsewhere that he lived well past this date. The final preserved clause on Stela 6 follows this and brings the count of time to a half-katun end at 9.8.10.0.0. At this point, Lord Water is stated to be in the third katun of his life. That is to say, he was between 41 and 60 years old at the time. Calculating back, it can be seen that this means that he must have been born between 9.5.10.0.0 and 9.6.10.0.0. This agrees with the interpretation of the opening event glyph as birth. It also indicates that the sovereign could have been no more than 9 years old when he acceded to power if we interpret that first event as accession.

Stela 3 opens with a record of some events that happened during the time of Lord Water’s reign (Fig. 11). The first event marked is the birth of a character called God C Star. This person and a later ruler, Lord Storm-water Moon, were first identi­ fied by Berlin in a paper that named them both rulers (1973). However, this individual is tied to an EG that differs from the Caracol Glyph, and is never found to be given the mah-kin-ah title of rulership. It is considered unlikely for these and other reasons that God C Star was actually a Caracol ruler. Indeed, it is possible (though unproven) that God C Star was actually a woman—perhaps the mother of Lord Storm-water Moon and the wife of Lord Water. Stela 3 goes on to mention some events of unknown significance in God C Star’s life before marking the birth of Lord Storm-water Moon at 9.7.14.10.8. At this date, Lord Water was some 35-45 years old and God C Star about 22.

The first records of Lord Storm-water Moon do not use his rulership name or title. Rather, a pre-rulership name (Yellow Storm) is applied to him up to the time he gets into office (Fig. 7e). He apparently succeeded Lord Water in 9.9.4.16.2. The bulk of the clause referring to this succes­sion is lost on Stela 3, although much of the date can still be read, Following this event, Stela 3 marks his reign up to 9.10.4.7.0.

Some other details can be brought into this discussion from Lintel 1 at the Maya site of Naranjo, Guatemala. This lintel makes prominent mention of Lord Storm-water Moon of Caracol, as does the tumbled-down, and therefore confused Hieroglyphic Stairway at the same site. Some sort of connection is evident between Caracol and Naranjo from this, although its exact nature remains uncertain. Naranjo Lintel 1 begins with a damaged record of Storm-water Moon’s birth date followed by a long clause that mentions first God C Star and then Lord Water. Despite the fact that the glyphs are unclear, the whole bears a strong resemblance to a relation­ship clause naming Lord Storm-water Moon’s mother and father. Also, Lord Water is referred to on this stone as having lived into the fourth katun of his life-61 to 80 years old. This age is in full agree­ment with the idea that Lord Storm-water Moon directly succeeded him at 9.9.4.16.2. For, if Lord Water died shortly before the date of accession of Lord Storm-water Moon, he would have been some 65-75 years of age.

The Museum is fortunate to have two of the monuments mentioned in this article on display in the Middle America Gallery (Fig. 10). Stela 6, the tallest carved stone from Caracol, bears a well-preserved inscription discussing the career of Lord Water on one side. The inscription on the other side has been lost through erosion. The large figure in ceremonial garb repre­sented on the front of Stela 6 may well depict Lord Water himself. The smaller figure on the other side is presently unidentified. When found, Stela 6 was grouped in a line with two other shafts, Stelae 5 and 7. Stela 7 has lost all traces of carving. Stela 5, also on exhibit in the Museum, retains the depiction of a person on the front even though fracturing ruined the glyph panels on the sides almost entirely. The character depicted bears strong similarity to that on the front of Stela 6 which has been tentatively con­nected with Lord Water.

Standing next to Stela 6 in the gallery is a small misshapen stone with faintly inscribed back text and a partially eroded front. This diminutive monument is Stela 16. Near the bottom of the text, in the second column from the left (B17) it carries the bit of a clue that suggests the existence of the earliest known Caracol sovereign. It is possible that this elusive character is depicted on the front of the stone in an elaborate costume.

The discussion presented above neces­sarily takes a few short-cuts and evens out some of the difficulties in interpreta­tion, The full dynastic interpretation will be presented with the Caracol monuments volume, which is nearly ready for publica­tion. The present exposition also passes over the enormous possibilities for field­work that the expanding knowledge of the historical component of the inscriptions opens up. Indeed, the American Section of the University Museum will be sponsoring a season of research at Caracol beginning late this year with the intent of. actually tying some structures and possibly tombs to the reign of Lord Water or possibly Lord Storm-water Moon. The historical analysis of the inscriptions of Caracol is giving some character and reality to the people who made the site and carved the stones.

Cite This Article

Beetz, Carl P.. "Caracol Thirty Years Later." Expedition Magazine 22, no. 3 (March, 1980): -. Accessed February 27, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/caracol-thirty-years-later/


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