Coordinates: 16°45′50.14″N 89°7′3.33″W / 16.7639278°N 89.1175917°W / 16.7639278; -89.1175917

View from atop Caracol
Country:  Belize
Region: Cayo District
Culture: Maya
First occupied: 1200 BCE
Excavation and maintenance

Caracol or El Caracol is the name given to a large ancient Maya archaeological site, located in what is now the Cayo District of Belize. It is situated approximately 40 kilometres south of Xunantunich and the town of San Ignacio Cayo, at an elevation of 460 metres above sea-level, in the foothills of the Maya Mountains. The site was the most important political centre of Lowland Maya during the Classic Period within Belize. In 650 CE, the urban area of Caracol had a radius of approximately 10 kilometres around the site's epicenter. It covered an area much larger than present-day Belize City (the largest metropolitan area in the country) and supported more than twice the modern city's population.[1]



The site was first reported by a native logger named Rosa Mai, who came across its remains in 1937 while searching for mahogany hardwood trees to exploit. Mai later reported the site to the archaeological commission for British Honduras, as the British colony was known at the time. In 1938 the archaeological commissioner, A. H. Anderson, visited the site along with a colleague H. B. Jex, spending two weeks in preliminary surveys and noting a number of carved monuments, stelae and Maya inscriptions. It was Anderson who gave the site its name —from the Spanish: caracol "snail, shell", but more generally meaning spiral- or volute-shaped— apparently on account of the winding access road that led to the site.[2]



Ancient Caracol as a site was occupied as early as 1200 BCE. Its greatest period of construction was in the Maya Classic period, with over 40 monuments dated between 485CE to 889CE which record the dynastic sequence of the rulers. All are in Classic Choltian, the prestige tongue of the Lowland Maya. Its real name is provisionally translated from its glyph, as of 2003, ox witz ha (hispanicised, "Oxhuitza") or "place of three hills"; K'antumaak is also possible.[3]

The town grew into one of the largest ancient Maya cities, covering some 65 square miles (168 km²) with an estimated peak population of about 120,000, or possibly as many as 180,000 people.

Caracol was at first a client state of the more powerful city that is today called Tikal, but was probably called Mutal by its inhabitants, 70 km to the northwest. Tikal's influence weakened during the mid sixth century; losing control of Naranjo, between the two cities, to rival Calakmul. In 553 CE Tikal's king Double Bird appointed a new lord over Caracol in attempt to outflank Naranjo. But then Caracol also allied itself with Calakmul. Three years later, Tikal declared an "axe war" against Caracol - "a war with intent to destroy" - and defeated it; but not, it turned out, decisively. In 562, Lord Kan ("Water") I of Caracol, alongside Calakmul, declared a "star war" against Tikal - a holy war, planned in accordance with astrology - and captured and sacrificed Double Bird.[4] This event is seemingly concurrent with archaeological and epigraphic evidence indicating the beginning of the Tikal mid-Classic hiatus, when an apparent decline in the Tikal site's population, a cessation of monument building, and the destruction of certain monuments in the Great Plaza occurred as Caracol's population and urban development seemingly skyrocketed.[5] After that, the Tikal site took on cultural characteristics of Caracol.[6]

Lord Kan I passed on his throne to the eldest of two brothers 26 June, 599. His younger brother succeeded him 9 March 618 and took the name Lord Kan II. He performed a ritual of alliance in Calakmul's territory the following January.

Caracol's sometime ally Naranjo by this time had meanwhile made feelers toward Tikal. So, in 28 May 626, Lord Kan II preemptively attacked Naranjo. He attacked again 4 May 627, and sacrificed its king. This destabilized Naranjo, provoking a third attack 27 December 631. He did it a fourth time 4 March 636. On 24 November 637, he capped it off by celebrating his first katun of reign at Naranjo itself; and, on 6 December 642, he imposed the Hieroglyphic Stairs monument upon it.[6]

In 682, Tok-Chan-K'awil of the Tikal royal family-in-exile at Dos Pilas installed his daughter as queen in Naranjo, removing it again from Caracol's demesne. In 800 CE, Hok K'awil captured the lord of Ucanal. The last recorded date in Caracol (and Choltian-speaking Belize) is 859 CE, on Stele 10.[7]

Known rulers

Note that this list is not continuous, as the archaeological record is incomplete.

The southern acropolis.
  • 331–349: Te' Kab' Chaak
  • circa 470: K'ak' Ujol K'inich I
  • 484–514: Yajaw Te' K'inich I
  • 531–534: K'an I
  • 553–593: Yajaw Te' K'inich II (Lord Water)
  • 599–613: "Knot Lord"
  • 618–658: K'an II
  • 658–680: K'ak' Ujol K'inich II
  • circa 700: name unknown
  • mid 8th century: name unknown
  • 793: Tum Yohl K'inich
  • 798: K'inich Joy K'awiil
  • 810–830: K'inich Toob'il Yoaat
  • 835–849: K'an III
  • 859: name unknown

Excavations, investigations, and modern development

The site was first noted and documented in archaeological terms in 1937. More extensive explorations and documention of the site was undertaken by Linton Satterthwaite of the University of Pennsylvania in 1951 and 1953. A project of archaeological excavations and restorations of the ancient structures at Caracol started in 1985 and is ongoing.

The project is currently directed by Drs. Arlen and Diane Chase of the University of Central Florida in Orlando, United States. The site is maintained by residential wardens from the Belize Institute of Archaeology, a sub-division of the National Institute of Culture and History, a government-run agency. In the Spring dry season of 2009 they conducted a LIDAR survey with an aircraft that allowed a very rapid assessment of the entire site and surrounds, with results published in May 2010.[8]

The site currently accommodates an average of 15-20 tourists per day, with greater numbers during the peak season around Easter. A museum to hold the large monuments found at the site is currently being constructed. A visitor center is already at the site, and recent developments include new directional and informational signs and a house for the residential staff.

The only road Caracol may be accessed by is paved for the last ten miles and leads to the Western Highway between San Ignacio and Belmopan and to Santa Elena.

Caana ("sky-palace") is the largest building at Caracol. It remains one of the largest man-made structures in Belize.

Other area sites

Other Maya sites within the Cayo district include Xunantunich, Cahal Pech,[9] and Chaa Creek.[10]

See also

  • List of Mesoamerican pyramids


  1. ^ "History: Site Overview". Retrieved 7 March 2011. 
  2. ^ For an accounting of the name origin, see Chase and Chase (1996); also Kelly (1996, p.82). An alternative explanation, popularly recounted yet unsourced, presumes that the many snail shells to be found at the site was the inspiration for the name. See Kelly, loc. cit.
  3. ^ Huw Hennessy, Insight Guides - 2003; also Nikolai Grube, "Hieroglyphs" in Divine Kings of the Rain Forest (Könemann, 2000), 115f; 120
  4. ^ Peter D Harrison, THE LORDS OF TIKAL, (Thames & Hudson, 1999): Chapter 8, The Hiatus: War and Outside Dominance
  5. ^ Sharer (1994, pp.214–215)
  6. ^ a b Linda Schele & David Freidel, Forest of Kings (William Morrow & Co, Inc, 1991), 174-9
  7. ^ Nikolai Grube, "The Dynastic History of the Maya" in Divine Kings of the Rain Forest (Könemann, 2000), 169. Also see Timeline, Caracol excavation team, extracted 28 July 2009.
  8. ^ Mapping Ancient Civilization, in a Matter of Days, John Noble Wilford, IHT, 10 May 2010, accessed 11 May 2010
  9. ^ Awe et al. (1990)
  10. ^ C.Michael Hogan, Chaa Creek, Megalithic Portal, ed. A. Burnham, 2007


Awe, Jaime; Cassandra Bill, Mark Campbell, and David Cheetham (1990). "Early Middle Formative Occupation in the Central Maya Lowlands: Recent Evidence from Cahal Pech, Belize" (PDF online reproduction). Papers from the Institute of Archaeology (London: University College London, Institute of Archaeology) 1: 1–5. ISSN 0965-9315. OCLC 231692266. 
Beetz, Carl P.; and Linton Satterthwaite (1981). The Monuments and Inscriptions of Caracol, Belize. University Museum monographs, no. 45. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania. ISBN 0-934718-41-5. OCLC 60071978. 
Chase, Diane Z.; and Arlen F. Chase (1996). "Changing Perspectives on Caracol, Belize: Long-Term Archaeological Research and the Northeast Sector Settlement Program". In Juan Luis Bonor (ed.) (online publication of presented paper). Proceedings of the First International Symposium on the Maya. 1st International Symposium of Maya Archaeology, San Ignacio, Cayo, Belize May 29 - June 2, 1995. Belmopan: Department of Archaeology. 
Kelly, Joyce (1996). An Archaeological Guide to Northern Central America: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-2858-5. OCLC 34658843. 
Schele, Linda; and David Freidel (1990). A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya (Reprint ed.). New York: Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-688-11204-8. OCLC 145324300. 
Sharer, Robert J. (1994). The Ancient Maya (5th, fully revised ed.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-2130-0. OCLC 28067148. 

External links

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