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In Belize, 2012 is a special year for celebrating the significance of the Mayan culture and history. Belize tours, specifically the 2012 Equinox Tour of Belize’s Caracol Mayan Ruins, is just one of many events taking place in Belize in 2012. Both scholars and pundits, from around the world, are debating the meaning of the end of the Mayan calendar on December 20th of this year.
Here in Belize, a series of special events have been scheduled in 2012, to educate both visitors and Belizeans about the accomplishments and mysteries of this great Mayan civilization. Caracol is the Mayan site in Belize where a series of Equinox and Solstice events are being held. My husband and I were fortunate to participate in the very first event…
Caracol is the site of the most significant Mayan historical settlement in Belize. In the last article about Caracol I described the “first of its kind” Spring Equinox event held at the Caracol ruins on March 20-21st. But this article will focus on details about the Mayan settlement of Caracol itself. If you missed the first article, you can find it here…Caracol Ruin 2012 Event
Those of us who attended the event were fortunate to be included in a private site tour led by renowned Mayan archaeologist, Dr. Jaime Awe. So I’ll share some of his insights. Dr. Awe is a Belizean. He grew up wondering about the history of the Maya. He later became the first Belizean to be educated as an archaeologist.
We arrived at Caracol at 3 PM on March 20th, the first day of the event. The tour with Dr. Awe began at 4 PM, at the camp headquarters. But first, a bit of background about Mayan ruins and Caracol…
Caracol and the Mundo Maya…
Caracol is located in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve, in the Western Region of Belize’s Maya Mountains. It sits on the Vaca Plateau, 2000 ft above sea level. Mayans inhabited this region from 600 BC- 900 AD; their population peaking around 650 AD. At one point it is believed that over one million Mayans inhabited the country of Belize.
Scholars surmise that Caracol is to date the largest known Mayan site in Belize. Dr. Awe calls it the Crown Jewel of Belize’s Mayan sites. Caracol was one of the four most significant settlements in the Mundo Maya. It’s spread out over 70 square miles. Many of the structures in Caracol are well preserved. Others have been carefully restored since archaeologists began to uncover it in the mid 1970s.
I asked Dr. Awe how much of Caracol has been uncovered to date. He estimates that approximately 1/1000th of the buildings have been excavated so far. So there are many mysteries yet to be unraveled…
Urban Caracol supported a population of up to 140,000 people at its peak. This population was supported by an immense agricultural field system. Elaborate city planning was also required for such a large settlement and population.
Caracol was first discovered by a Belizean logger in the 1930s. But it wasn’t until 1975 that serious excavation began. At that time Dr. Awe and a team of archaeologists began studying Caracol. Dr. Awe committed himself to living at the Caracol ruins for over 7 years. Not surprisingly, he is an authority on this particular Mayan settlement.
There are numerous Mayan ruins in Belize, and in the Central American region. Tikal, located across the border from Belize, in Guatemala, is the most famous of those in Central America. Tikal has undergone significant excavation since 1956. But Caracol is in the early stages of excavation, so there is yet much to be learned. What archaeologists have seen however, leads them to believe that the Caracol settlement was one of the most politically powerful, and extensive in the Mundo Maya.
When I asked Dr. Awe to compare Caracol to Tikal, his response was easy to grasp. He suggested that Tikal was the Mayan equivalent of New York… Caracol was their equivalent of Los Angeles. Tikal has taller temples and structures. But they are located within a tighter geographical area. Caracol, on the other hand, is spread out. And it has a well thought out series of roads and agricultural terraces.
Although clearly a scholar, Dr. Awe has an appealing personality and an infectious sense of humor. He was not at all the serious, elderly professor of archaeology I had expected. He is quite youthful in appearance, although he must be in his mid to late 50s, given his years of study and field work. He is an engaging speaker and tour guide. It was a delight to accompany him on his journey into an long past era at the Caracol site…
Another bonus was that after the tour, at the dinner camp, Dr. Awe presented a series of slides, showing the history of the Caracol excavation. I certainly did not expect to see such an enjoyable slide show out in the jungle, in a makeshift dining hall! Many of his pictures were from the 1970s. It was clear that Dr. Awe and the other researchers had endured many hardships in their determination to uncover this Mayan gem.
Dr. Awe showed us the before and after pictures for select structures. This gave us a realistic perspective on how far this painstaking research and restoration process has come during this last 35 year period.
Illuminating the Mayan World with LiDAR
Dr. Awe described a breakthrough technology that has assisted him, and other archaeologists, to visualize the complex community and infrastructure of Caracol. He explained how an innovative technology has helped archaeologists visualize buried Mayan settlements.
The LiDAR remote sensing technology allows researchers to view an image that mimics a 2.5/3-D version of Mayan settlements, such as Caracol. LiDAR was historically used for environmental monitoring in forests. But around 2005 it was adapted to assist archaeologists. With LiDAR they can see beneath the dense rainforest canopy. It allows them to establish the form of the settlement below the jungle terrain. The Caracol research team used this technology to view the location of hidden structures, causeways and agricultural terraces.
Once the team could apply LiDAR techniques, it became clear that Caracol had been a large-scale, highly integrated settlement. They were able to identify the many roads into and out of Caracol, indicating a high level of city planning. LiDAR also illustrated that agricultural terracing was used extensively at Caracol. This fact had not been anticipated. But since Caracol is not built on a river, using agricultural terraces allowed the Mayans to expand their settlement. .
Dr. Awe pointed out several examples of how buildings were built on top of existing buildings. He also pointed out where they had found a series of facades.
On the Tuesday afternoon tour we visited the Barrio, Building A, and B areas, the various Ball Courts and Plazas A and B. Dr. Awe began the tour at the less auspicious living areas. His intent was to first show us where and how the common folks had lived.
Another unusual aspect of Caracol that Dr. Awe pointed out was that they found burial tombs at all the residences. It is unusual to incorporate tombs into the living square for the lower class Mayan residences. But at Caracol, in every living square where there were multiple residences, there is a single tomb. The archaeologists found the bones of up to 18 people in one tomb! Near these bones they found artifacts, which convinced them that these were indeed tombs.
After dinner, some of the attendees scaled the largest temple, Caana, in the dark of the moonless night. Their only light came from flashlights and the twinkling stars. Mike and I opted to hit our sleeping bags early. We didn’t want to miss the 4 AM Fire Ceremony.
Caana, in Plaza B, is the focal point of Caracol’s extensive urban system. At an elevation of 145 ft, it is the tallest structure in Belize. This impressive temple has multiple levels, each with a series of steep steps. We climbed Caana with Dr. Awe and the press group, on the second day of the event. Climbing to the top is not for the faint of heart, nor those with bad knees… But the view from the 13th level is breath taking…
Dr. Awe explained how Caana, the Sky Palace, directly reflects the Mayan view of life, death, and heaven. They viewed their world as organized into three horizontal planes – one each for heaven, earth, and the underworld. He noted that there are 13 levels of heaven, and nine levels in the Maya underworld, also known as Xibalba. Xibalba is where an unfortunate majority of the Maya’s ancestors spent eternity, after their death.
But for the Maya, Xibalba is not just a place for the unfortunate dead. It also represents a place of rebirth. Water and seeds sprouted at this level, sustaining life for those still living on earth.
So the Mayan view of their existence was in some ways similar to our own. They believed in heaven, earth and hell, as do so many cultures and religions. Their temples were designed in accord with the levels of existence. The Caana temple is consistent with this view. Just one example is that the 13 steps at the highest level of the temple correspond to the 13 levels of heaven.
For the Maya, their heaven and underworld were interconnected by sacred trees. The Ceiba tree is the Mayan Tree of Life. It forms the axis of their world. Sacred trees are located at the four corners of the horizontal planes, with the Ceiba tree in the center. The Maya believed that the branches of the Ceiba tree connected to the 13 levels of heaven and the roots extended into the nine levels of the underworld.
Visit Belize in 2012 and Learn More about the Mysterious Maya
The Belize Tourism Board has provided a list of the 2012 events being held in Belize. You can find the full listing of Mayan related events in Belize here… http://www.belizedev.com/belizemaya2012/the-experiences/event-calendar.html
If you are interested in attending one of the Solstice or Equinox Events being held at Caracol, three more events will be held during 2012, on the following dates:
· June 20-21
· September 21-22
· December 20-21
The last 2012 Equinox Tour of Belize’s Caracol Mayan Ruins will be held on the day that the Mayan calendar ends. If you would like to attend one of these special events, be sure to sign up soon. Only 100 participants will be allowed for each event. Contact Toni, at the Belize Institute of Archaeology, at 501-822-2016, to make your reservation. Or send an e-mail to email@example.com. Being that it is 2012, this is a perfect year to immerse yourself in the Mayan culture, in Belize. Don’t miss out. Plan a trip to Belize to learn about this amazing civilization. Coordinate a visit here with one of the special 2012 events. Of course, there is much more to see in Belize than the Mayan ruins…
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