Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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A Mighty Maya Nation Volume 49 Number 5, September/October 1996
by Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase

[image] Palaces and temples grace a massive platform known as Caana, or "Sky House," which rises 142 feet above the forest floor. (Photo Caracol Archaeological Project) [LARGER IMAGE]

By the close of the seventh century A.D. the Lowland Maya settlement of Caracol had become one of the most populous cities in the Precolumbian world. The 65-square-mile metropolis was home to more than 120,000 people--nearly double the maximum estimated population for either Tikal or Calakmul--who enjoyed a prosperity unparalleled in the Mesoamerican world.

More than a decade of excavation has revealed that Caracol was quite different from other Lowland Maya cities. It was laid out on a radial plan much like Paris or Washington, D.C. Luxury goods, such as jadeite pendants, eccentrically shaped obsidian objects, and exotic shells, confined to the ceremonial precincts of other sites, were found throughout the city. Vaulted masonry tombs, traditionally believed to have been reserved for royalty, were discovered not only in temples and pyramids, but also in humble residential units. The distribution of vaulted masonry tombs and the presence of luxury items in the simplest residential units suggest that the people here were somehow sharing the wealth. Any gap in quality of life that may have existed between elites and commoners rapidly closed as a sizeable "middle class" developed. It was this social cohesion that allowed the site to become one of the most powerful and prosperous Lowland Maya cities during the Classic Period.

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America