Husband and wife anthropologists study ancient Maya city
By Elizabeth Redden
When Arlen and Diane Chase first came to Caracol in 1983, the city was completely covered by Belizean jungle. Very little of what we now know about Caracol was known then – that it had defeated the mighty Tikal in battle, that at its peak its population had exceeded 100,000, or that its collapse may be partly attributable to the concentration of wealth and a growing divide between haves and have-nots.
In more than 25 years of research, the Chases, husband-and-wife anthropologists at the University of Central Florida, have pieced together what Diane describes as “a much more complete story about Caracol,” one of the largest Maya cities. Through stable isotope analysis they can tell you what Caracol’s residents ate -- which residents had a high-maize, high-protein diet, and which didn’t -- and they can also tell you how the relatively uniform distribution of pottery suggests a strong sense of shared identity across social classes.
In 2010, experimenting with new laser technology, they were able to map the 177-square-kilometer site, revealing the density of agricultural terracing and pinpointing the locations of the site’s 36,000 structures, the vast majority of which remain unexcavated. What emerges is a portrait of a low-density, agriculturally self-sustaining, prosperous city that achieved and, for a while, maintained social integration and cohesion through investment in common infrastructure -- such as causeways and markets -- and propagation of what the Chases describe as a deliberate program of “symbolic egalitarianism,” characterized by the distribution of luxury and ritual items across the general population. The result was a literal “sharing of the wealth” and the cultivation of shared ritual practices.
“The number of years [of fieldwork] has made it a lot easier for us to think about and answer a number of different questions about the Maya,” Diane says. “On the other hand, in terms of the sample, we’ve barely scratched the surface.”
The story of the Chases’ research is that of an ancient city uncovered, but it is also a yarn about balancing fieldwork and family. For years the Chases buckled their three children into the car for the annual four-day road trip from Central Florida to Caracol. The kids joined their parents in the field from the age of two months until when they went to college. The oldest, Adrian and Aubrey, are now at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively; Adrian, who studies computer science and archaeology, is writing his undergraduate thesis on the location of reservoirs at Caracol. The youngest, Elyse, a high school junior, still accompanies her parents for the annual field season. Twice, the Chases brought their dog.
These days the Chases fly instead of drive, typically remaining at Caracol for two months per year. Their camp is remote and rustic: thatched-roof, open-sided buildings in which they can hang their hammocks. UCF students join them at the site; participating in this year’s dig are three master’s students and six undergraduates, who can earn up to 15 credits for the field season. (As Arlen jokes, “We’ve done undergraduate research since before there was undergraduate research.”)
In all, it’s a sharp departure from life at Central Florida, where the Chases spend much of their days bogged down in the details of academic administration. In addition to both being Pegasus professors, UCF’s highest teaching distinction, Arlen is chair of the anthropology department and Diane is the university’s executive vice provost. “I can do without vacations,” Diane says, “but I can’t do without fieldwork.”
The Chases’ research put Caracol on the Maya map. The city was only rediscovered in 1937, by a lumberjack out looking for mahogany. Although archaeologists had done preliminary sampling at Caracol in the 1950s and early ‘80s, at the time the Chases arrived it was considered to be a minor Maya site.
That’s no longer the case. “There’s no question that the research that they’ve done has helped to place Caracol within the context of the great Maya cities of pre-Columbian days,” says Jaime Awe, director of Belize’s Institute of Archaeology. “They certainly helped to establish the fact that the site was an important player in the sociopolitical landscape when Maya civilization was at its peak.”
The once-overgrown site now attracts about 20,000 tourists per year, according to Brian Woodye, associate director of parks at the Institute of Archaeology. Woodye is one of three institute employees whom the Chases trained as undergraduates.
The Chases have worked closely with institute archaeologists in conserving and stabilizing the site for tourism. In the 1980s and early ‘90s, they successfully petitioned the U.S. Agency for International Development for grant funding, arguing that archaeological tourism development would make a good investment. (“I admit,” says Diane, “the first time we went into USAID they thought we were funny.”) The idea, Diane says, was to make Caracol a main inland attraction. While tourism is a leading industry in Belize, many visitors come only for the Caribbean. “The question was what could be done to keep the tourists inland for even a day or two more, to spend money on food or other types of things,” Diane says.
When the Chases started their research there was no road to Caracol. As Arlen recalls, “We would make it about four miles out [by vehicle] and have to walk in, and the men would all have to carry 100-pound sacks of flour into the site. Initially, the British army made a helipad at the site, and they helicoptered water into us the first two field seasons.” Now there’s a paved road, bathrooms with flush toilets, and a modest museum for tourists.
Of course, every tourist who ventures to Caracol wants to know the same thing: How did it collapse? Interpretations differ. Awe, at the Institute of Archaeology, attributes the city’s decline to drought and agricultural over-exploitation: “I think the Maya were victims of their own success,” he says. “Things were going great, the population kept increasing, and eventually they got to the point that they couldn’t produce enough food for their people.” By contrast, the Chases emphasize social and political decisions, arguing that weather conditions and variations in agricultural yields are not in themselves sufficient in explaining the collapse.
For whatever reason, the system of symbolic egalitarianism failed. The elite simply stopped sharing, and by the end, says Diane, it was as if the wealthy were using fine china and everyone else plastic dishes. “It’s that great a distinction.” Furthermore, rather than invest in common infrastructure, as they had in the past, Caracol’s leaders increasingly focused their construction efforts on palaces and temples for the elites downtown. The sense of common identity began to erode, as suggested by evidence of ritual patterns.
There are indications of violence at the end, a sudden abandonment of the epicenter: crushed ceramic on the palace floors, an unburied child in a doorway. Around 895 Caracol’s epicenter was burned, “by whom,” the Chases write, “we do not know.”
It was not easy or comfortable living back there then and nearly impossible to get supplies. I first went to Caracol on horseback; it took 3 nights camping in the bush each way. Then a rudimentary road only a Mercedes Unimog could handle at about 10 jarring miles per hr in most areas. Kudos to the Chase's for all their efforts; Caracol is a spectacular site and fascinating drive thru the Mtn Pine Ridge and into the Chiquibul forest-a gorgeus drive and now a paved road from the bridge to the site-easy.
After our visit to Palenque, we were already feeling kind of burnt out on ruins. To the point that we skipped every other opportunity to see ruins. Being shuttled around with a large group of people, with only a short period of time and a set itinerary is not our idea of a good time, and often, these spots are crowded with tourists.
In Belize, we finally decided to give Mayan ruins another shot, and Caracol was the perfect spot to do it. We found ourselves with a personal guide, on a day when barely anyone was visiting the ruins.
During the height of Caracol, over 100,000 Mayans called this land home. Rediscovered in 1937, it’s been visited by many archeologists over the years. Today, many of the buildings remain buried beneath the ground. Archeologists excavate, then bury the buildings to protect their delicacy.
Caana, the sky palace, is to this day the tallest building in Belize. This was once the administrative building of the king. The climb is steep, and the descent is perilous.
Overtaken by Nature
Monkeys howled in the distance, and we spotted a flock of at least 20 keel-billed toucans (the national bird of Belize) settle in a tree overlooking the ruins. But our favorite critters of the day were the small, crawling, sort. Angel tasted termites straight from the nest (they taste like dirt), and we watched as George picked up a large leaf-cutter ant. It’s pinchers wiggled constantly, and when George held it against a leaf, it held on tight.
At one structure, we spotted the largest group of ants we had ever seen. These fire ants were moving from their current nest to a new spot. We watched as they scurried along the edge of a ruin, completely oblivious to the history that surrounded them.
When a Tour is Suggested
Whenever possible, we prefer to make visits on our own, without a guide. This was one instance where it would have been difficult. Renting an all-wheel drive car would have been an added cost, but necessary to get out to these ruins. The last few miles of the drive include a military escort. Since Caracol is so close to the border, and Guatemalans often enter the land to pan for gold, it’s an extra precaution by the Belizian military.
Stop along the way – Rio On Pools
Rio On Pools is a stunning formation of granite, formed by the rushing water. Since it was early morning, and we were on the way to Caracol, we didn’t even dip our toes in, but we hiked down to the water’s edge and watched the powerful flow.
Stop along the way – Big Rock Falls
The perfect spot for a refreshing dip, we hiked down to the falls, then slid in the water. Slide really is the best way to describe it, the granite rocks were slippery and Angel had a hard time staying on his feet.
The water was cold, so it was a short dip. We floated in the pool underneath the falls for a while, then, when a large group showed up, started the hike back up to the parking lot.
Dozens of swallowtail butterflies are dancing in the air, and we pull the car over to watch. We’ve been on the road in Belize for nearly three hours with no shortage of sightseeing along the way. The drive from San Ignacio winds through San Antonio, a Maya town that is also the home of my tour guide, Israel Canto. We drive through the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, and the deserted sustainable logging town next door. We take a pit stop to stretch our legs in a massive tunnel system–the Rio Frío Cave. Alas, we are on the final stretch, a few miles of dirt road leading to the largest Maya site in Belize–larger than its famous neighbor, Tikal in Guatemala. We are arriving at Caracol.
The site is like nothing I’ve seen before. We are four of only a handful of people exploring the area. There is no gift shop, no restaurant, not even water for sale. It’s the beauty and challenge of going so far off the beaten path.
The history of this Maya city is unique for many reasons. One interesting cultural shift was their governance system, unique in the ancient Maya world, that “deemphasized the power of the ruler,” says Dr. Arlen Chase of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In A.D. 562, Caracol was also able to defeat the powerful kingdom of Tikal, just to the west in what’s now Guatemala. “This marked the start of a gloomy period for the city of Tikal during which no buildings nor monuments were erected,” says Canto, whose great grandfather, Rosa Mai, first discovered the site in 1937 and reported it to the archeological commissioner, A. Hamilton Anderson.
“We effectively changed a lot of the perceptions about how a Maya city is composed and what a Maya city is,” says Chase. “When we started working there, no one could believe that Caracol was as large as we said it was,” a fact they proved through lidar scanning.
Chase and his wife, Dr. Diane Chase, have been taking archaeological field teams out to Caracol since 1985, a time when the journey to the site was a two-day affair. In 2002, the Belizean government completed a road that cut down the trip to just a few hours. Today, Caracol sees about 10,000 visitors a year, which works out to just a few dozens a day.
Click here to read the rest of the article and see more photos in National Geographic
National Geographic visited Caracol, and made a video about the experience. They also visited Rio Frio Cave on the way, and Rio On Pools while returning. "Deep in the jungles of Belize you'll find the largest Maya city in the region. The ancient Maya settlement of Caracol is uncrowded with tourists, but filled with breathtaking views and nearby hidden gems."
Archaeological Research at Ancient Maya Site Spans Three Decades
UNLV’s Diane and Arlen Chase engage in fieldwork and new
technologies to uncover Maya history at Caracol, Belize.
Diane and Arlen Chase are one of those couples that finish each other's sentences. The husband-wife researchers were talking about the demise of Caracol, an ancient Maya City in Belize, during a recent conversation in Diane's office on UNLV’s campus.
Year after year — first as professors at the University of Central Florida and now at UNLV — they unearthed clues that turned conventional understandings of the Maya upside down.
“Caracol was in most of the Maya texts as this tiny little place,” said Diane Chase, archaeologist and executive vice president and provost at UNLV. “And it’s not tiny. It’s anything but tiny. From the first season that we worked there, we realized that Caracol was a lot bigger than it was mapped — a lot bigger than anyone would have thought."
The city boasted causeways and a complex road system. Those roads connected the Maya people to strategically located marketplace plazas, where both foreign and local goods were available.
The inhabitants of the city — which is located miles away from a significant water source — developed a method for collecting water and managing water flow, which also led to the practice of agriculture within the city’s confines.
And in 1986, the Chases discovered that Caracol defeated the mighty Tikal, an ancient Maya city 76 kilometers away in northern Guatemala, a finding that debunked the thinking of the time.
“We found an altar at Caracol that recorded a star war, which is a major Maya war against the site of Tikal,” said Arlen Chase, an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at UNLV. “And until that point, no one had ever thought that Tikal could have been defeated in war.”
Click here to read the rest of the article and see more photos in the UNLV News Center