Return to Caracol

Behind the Scenes

By: Lee Horne

Originally Published in 1993

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In A.D. 820, two hundred years after Stela 5 was erected, Altar 13 was carved and set in the plaster floor of a public plaza at Caracal. Altars and stelas were often paired, but this one, like Stela 5, appears to have stood alone. On the left of the central scene, two figures, one standing and one kneeling below a feather wand, gaze at the more elaborately clothed figure to the right, who was probably Caracol's current ruler. Severely eroded traces of royal titles such as the bacab at the upper right and lower corners of the frame point to the name glyphs of the figure and a possible reference to his parents. The scene is enclosed by a four-lobed frame used in glyphic writing as a symbol both for the completion of a cycle and for the world with it's four directions. The altar's dedicatory date ended one 400-year cycle (Baktun 9) in the Maya calendrical system and began the next (10.0.0.0.0). Its importance of the Maya is comparable to our impending celebration of A.D. 2000. Only a few of the classic Maya centers survived to celebrate this momentous date. Within the next 100 years, monument carving ceased forever throughout the Maya Lowlands.
In A.D. 820, two hundred years after Stela 5 was erected, Altar 13 was carved and set in the plaster floor of a public plaza at Caracal. Altars and stelas were often paired, but this one, like Stela 5, appears to have stood alone.
On the left of the central scene, two figures, one standing and one kneeling below a feather wand, gaze at the more elaborately clothed figure to the right, who was probably Caracol’s current ruler. Severely eroded traces of royal titles such as the bacab at the upper right and lower corners of the frame point to the name glyphs of the figure and a possible reference to his parents. The scene is enclosed by a four-lobed frame used in glyphic writing as a symbol both for the completion of a cycle and for the world with it’s four directions.
The altar’s dedicatory date ended one 400-year cycle (Baktun 9) in the Maya calendrical system and began the next (10.0.0.0.0). Its importance of the Maya is comparable to our impending celebration of A.D. 2000. Only a few of the classic Maya centers survived to celebrate this momentous date. Within the next 100 years, monument carving ceased forever throughout the Maya Lowlands.
Stela 5, A.D. 613. In a typical classic Maya scene, a ruler gazes off to the side, his feet planted firmly on the foreground of the great earth crocodile facing us at the bottom of the carving. In his bent arms he holds the double-headed ceremonial bar, symbol of rule. Human heads with glyph-bearing headdresses emerge from the open mouths of the serpents at each end of the bar. The one on the right bears the name Lord Water. Two more human figures emerge from flanking shield-like panels at the ruler's hips. their glyphs-possibly- names- are unreadable. The name Lord Storm-water Moon is attached to the headdress of a head emerging from a serpent's mouth behind the small figure that kneels at the ruler's lower left side. A complimentary name on the right side is largely unreadable. Stela 5 originally held more the 200 glyph blocks, nearly all of which are missing of illegible today. The name and date glyphs incorporated into the main scene, however, make it likely that the stela commemorates the reign of the fourth known ruler at Caracol, who rose to power in A.D. 599: he was still a ruler in A.D. 617 when Caracol defeated the great center of Naranjo.
Stela 5, A.D. 613. In a typical classic Maya scene, a ruler gazes off to the side, his feet planted firmly on the foreground of the great earth crocodile facing us at the bottom of the carving. In his bent arms he holds the double-headed ceremonial bar, symbol of rule. Human heads with glyph-bearing headdresses emerge from the open mouths of the serpents at each end of the bar. The one on the right bears the name Lord Water. Two more human figures emerge from flanking shield-like panels at the ruler’s hips. their glyphs-possibly- names- are unreadable. The name Lord Storm-water Moon is attached to the headdress of a head emerging from a serpent’s mouth behind the small figure that kneels at the ruler’s lower left side. A complimentary name on the right side is largely unreadable.
Stela 5 originally held more the 200 glyph blocks, nearly all of which are missing of illegible today. The name and date glyphs incorporated into the main scene, however, make it likely that the stela commemorates the reign of the fourth known ruler at Caracol, who rose to power in A.D. 599: he was still a ruler in A.D. 617 when Caracol defeated the great center of Naranjo.

In September of 1951. The University Museum received a 20­ton shipment of limestone monuments. most of them in frag­ments, from the ancient Maya site of Caracole, Belize (see Fig 1). Excavated by American Section curator Linton Satterthwaite and presented to the Museum by the government of British Honduras, thee had been cleared, drawn, photographed under nat­ural and artificial light, crated and hauled out of the tangle off jungle growth in which they were found. In Philadelphia the frag­ments were restudied, reassembled, braced with steel, stabilized, with plaster, and placed on display in the Museum’s Mesoamerican Gallery. Forty-three years later, in January 1994, a return trip took place, not of the original fragments, but of three fiberglass replicas of two monuments-Stela 5 and Atar13.

La Ruta Maya Conservation Foundation directed the pro­duction and return of the replicas, with a grant from Land Rover North America. The Foundations is dedicated to helping todays Maya thorough conservation of the cultural and environmental assets of their ancient homelands and the promotion of cultural and ecological tourism. La Ruta Maya—the Maya Road—conceptually circumscribes the lands of the ancient Maya and connects them five countries that today occurs that part of Mesoamerica.

The replicas of The University Museums monuments traveled to Belize as one phase in the Foundation’s project “La Ruta Mayan 1994: An Expedition of Discovery.” According to its president. retired National Geographic editor WE. (Bill) Garrett. the trea­sures of the ancient Maya are endangered throughout their home­land. threatened by damage both unintentional (climate. expanding roots. falling trees, industrial pollution) and intentional (vandalism, theft). Among the most vulnerable are carved lime­stone stelas and altars. invaluable repositories of cultural and his­torical information. They are today the only written record remaining from the ancient Maya, whose codices were destroyed by Spanish missionaries in the 16th centers. Removing the orig­inals to museums or other public institutions safeguards them in settings accessible to both scholars and the public. Replacing them with exact replicas encourages “cultural tourism.” which benefits not only the tourist lint also the economy of the regional hoist, whose main resource many he its cultural heritage.

The University Museum intended to continue its research at Caracol, and indeed returned for another season in 1953. By 1956, however, the new discoveries at Tikal eclipsed the Caracole pro­ject and absorbed all of Satterthwaites time. Not until the 1980s were full-fledged excavations at Caracole once again undertaken. Under the directorship of Arlen and Diane Chase, archaeologists at the University of Central Florida, these new explorations make it clear that Caracol was one of the largest centers of the lowland Maya and a serious rival to the great city of Tikal. They also make it clear that potential destruction of monuments by natural and human causes has increased dramatically. The preservation of Maya monuments and the assurance of their access to scholars, tourists, and all who care about the past is more important than ever.

Cite This Article

Horne, Lee. "Return to Caracol." Expedition Magazine 35, no. 3 (November, 1993): -. Accessed June 25, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/return-to-caracol/


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