Caracol at Cambridge

by Stephen Houston, Brown University, and Alexandre Tokovinine, University of Alabama

Cambridge University is known for many things—punting, the excellence of College meals at high table, clotted cream and scones at The Orchards, only a short ways up along the River Cam. Above all, there is the University’s generous tradition of intellectual hospitality.

But it is not known for Maya archaeology. A. P. Maudslay went there, studying Natural Sciences, as did Eric Thompson some 50 plus years later. And rolling forward another 50 years or so, Norman Hammond took his Ph.D. at Peterhouse. One of us, Houston, could not have been more surprised, then, to see, in a small vitrine in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, a small bowl from the beginnings of the Late Classic period. Doubling his astonishment was something else. A label assigned the ceramic to Caracol, Belize. By odd chance, that was where he first trained in Maya archaeology with Arlen and Diane Chase during the initial seasons of their field project. A third surprise, too: the bowl was clearly from the area of Naranjo, Guatemala, in a style fully consistent with that provenance.

By what route did this bowl go from Caracol to a case in distant Cambridge? The main figure here is A.H.Anderson, M.B.E. (1901–1967), Archaeological Commissioner of (then) British Honduras. Born in Australia to immigrant parents from Scotland, Anderson exemplified the geographical quirks of empire and the movements of its servants. He went to school in Nairobi, on to Glasgow for further education, shifting to Burma, where he became accomplished in the language, and finally moving on, at his father’s request, to join the family business in British Honduras (Pendergast 1968:90–91). That was in 1927. By the time of his death, in 1967, he had served as Private Secretary to the Governor, founder of the colony’s library service, Chief Price Control Officer, Commissioner of two districts (Stann Creek, followed by Cayo, in whose area Caracol lay). During a stint with Pan Am Airways, he even traveled with Charles Lindbergh, who piloted him over parts of British Honduras.

Confident in certain abilities, such as the repair of ancient Land Rovers, Anderson was modest in other ways. He knew his limits as an archaeologist, although he did acquire some tutelage, in 1950, 1951, and 1953, under Linton Satterthwaite at Caracol. Motivated by what we would now call “boosterism,” he practically pleaded with Geoffrey Bushnell, curator of the Cambridge Museum: “I do hope that Cambridge will be able to join us here, we have plenty to offer” (Letter from Anderson to Bushnell, Oct. 15, 1953, Archives, MAA). That was not to happen. Until a few decades ago, and in Houston’s early experience—his first visit was in 1981—Caracol was a deucedly difficult place to reach. And, after hard rains, to exit. Satterthwaite moved on to Tikal, but Anderson was able to secure funds from the Crowther-Beynon endowment at Cambridge (doubtless facilitated by Bushnell) to continue work in a part of the site suspected to contain tombs (others had been found in 1953; Anderson 1959:211).

In 1958, Anderson located and cleared what he termed “Burial 5” (Figure 1; Anderson 1959:214–215). A sizable crypt, it contained parts of an earlier building with cord-holders: at one time, the living, not the dead, used this structure. A masonry bench along one wall supported an extended body, head to the south, teeth inlaid with jade (often a marker of royal rank [Andrew Scherer, personal communication, 2014]). Another skeleton lay on its side, just off the bench, its head to the north, now with hematite dental inlays. The finds indicate high status, probably a member of the Caracol dynasty. There were two polychrome bowls (one now at Cambridge, Cat. #63.260), “the sherds of a plain dish along with a pottery figurine, a pottery whistle in the form of a bird, a very small pottery monkey effigy pot, two obsidian blades and several other small artifacts,” along with beads of shell and jade, interspersed with Oliva shells (Anderson 1959:214–215). His description, somewhat confusingly, then refers to “two nests of two pottery bowls each,” one of them the bowl at Cambridge, replete with “allegorical drawings” (Anderson 1959:215).


Figure 1. Excavations in 1958 by A. H. Anderson, Burial 5, Caracol (Anderson 1959:211, 213). 

In an email, Arlen Chase confirmed that Anderson had penetrated what is now termed “Structure D18” of the South Acropolis. In 2003, this was re-excavated by the University of Central Florida project, which documented the tomb profile and plan (Figure 2; Chase and Chase 2003:9–10, figures 63–68). Early constructions seem to have been, to judge from ceramics in fill, of Early Classic date. The tomb was part of a 6th (perhaps early 7th) century refurbishment, a repurposing of the building.  


Figure 2. Re-excavation of tomb by UCF project (Chase and Chase 2003:figures 67–68).

In Anderson’s case, tragedy came a few years after his dig. With peak winds of 160 mph, Hurricane Hattie mauled British Honduras in 1961. Anderson’s office was badly hit, his notes destroyed, artifacts forever scattered or destroyed. Yet, by improbable chance, two objects survived from Burial 5, if buried deeply in mud. In 1963, Anderson gave these bowls to the Cambridge MAA in gratitude for the funds given by Bushnell for the work in Burial 5…and perhaps as an inducement for other assistance and expeditions. These bowls are now in the Museum, catalogued as #1963.260 (the “Naranjo” vessel) and #1963.261 (Figure 2, 3). Another bowl photographed by Anderson appears to have disappeared in Hattie’s fury. 


Figure 3. Two vessels from Burial 5, pre-Hurricane Hattie (Anderson 1959:216). 

The three known vessels (two surviving, one only photographed) leave little doubt that the set was temporally coherent, namely, made (and probably deposited) at more or less the same time. All are securely “Tepeu 1,” probably from the later 500s. The monochrome agrees with that placement (Figure 4).


Figure 4. Monochrome brown, Burial 5, MAA #1963.261, dia. 14 cm, ht. 8 cm.   

The “Naranjo” find measures 14 cm in diameter and 8.7 cm in height. One of us (Tokovinine) reworked images kindly sent by Dr. Wingfield into a rollout and then a drawing (Figure 5). 



Figure 5. Rollout and rendering by Tokovinine from images sent by Dr. Chris Wingfield, Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

There can be little doubt the object is linked to Naranjo, Guatemala, and, in particular, to a key ruler of the late Early Classic/transitional Late Classic period. The iconography, of Itzam Old Gods in their feathered shells, water birds, Spondylus creatures, and fish are consistent with the mythic names favored for other such vessels (they display Principal Bird Deities, dancing jaguars, monkeys or maize gods, partying ritual clowns, many with signs for fragrant air in the background). His name, whose precise reading in Maya eludes complete consensus, is simply “Ruler I” in some sources, albeit with certain elements that can be decoded (AJ-?NUUM-sa-ji, Martin and Grube 2008:71–72; Martin et al. 2016:617; n.b.: no sa or ji variants ever occur in this spelling, suggesting some conventional fixity of form or, as a less welcome possibility, alternative or logographic values of those signs). Said to have been the 35th ruler since the founding of kingship at Naranjo, Ruler I was quite the novice. Rather like a Maya Louis XIV, he came to the throne young, at 12 years of age, in AD 546, dying sometime around AD 615. His is among the longest reigns—perhaps the longest—in Classic Maya history.

A large number of chocolate pots were said either to have belonged to him or to bear close resemblances in their layout, form and size, use of color, and paleography (e.g., K681, 774, 1558, 2704, 4562, 4958, 5042, 5362, 5746, 6813, 7716, 8242). Most appear to designate the king as a chak ch’ok keleem (but see K681). For Houston, this is a secure token of the king’s youth when the pots were commissioned.[Footnote 1] They also hint that many of these were created in sets, not as ad hoc productions from workshops over time. The Caracol bowl at Cambridge is close in style to others, including one excavated in a primary tomb, Burial 72, under a 6+ m high, west-facing pyramid in a peripheral part of Tikal (Figure 6, Becker 1999:figure 55). 


Figure 6. Ruler I vessel from Burial 72, Str. 5G-8, Tikal (K2704, photograph © Kerr Associates).

Potsherds found at Naranjo itself are also close to those on the Cambridge bowl (Figure 7), as are those from a variety of related vessels: note especially the variants of the T’AB-yi and ka?-ka-wa signs (Figure 8) [Footnote 2]. 

comparanda_B15Figure 7. Glyph fragments from special deposit (Midden NRB-003) in Str. B-15-sub (Central Acropolis), Naranjo: a) u[tz’i?]-ba (after Fialko 2009:fig. 47a); b) -bi ? (after Fialko 2009:fig. 27); c) 5?-KAB yu- (after Fialko 2009:fig. 47a); d) CHIT?-? CHAK- (after Fialko 2009:fig. 47a).


Figure 8. Stylistic comparison of Cambridge bowl with other vases from the reign of Ruler I of Naranjo (photographs © Kerr Associates). 

If one thing has become clear in recent years, including a fresh find at Xunantunich (Xunantunich Finds, Helmke and Awe 2016), it is that relations between Caracol and Naranjo were highly complicated. Historically, they also make sense in terms of macro-politics, viz., the strategic, enduring, and pervasive antagonisms between the “Snake kingdom” and Tikal that Simon Martin has studied intensively (e.g., Martin 2014).

Ruler I, doubtless the owner or commissioner of the bowl in Cambridge, was closely allied with the Snake kingdom. And so too, after initial bonds with Tikal, broken by heavy-handed intervention from the Snake kingdom, was Caracol (Martin and Grube 2008:89). In effect, this remote overlord had some purchase over much of what is now the border between Belize and Guatemala. (Perhaps the branch of the “Snake” family at Dzibanche, due north of the two sites, was the major force in the region.) At the least, the presence of the bowl at Caracol dates to that time of the Snake kingdom’s influence over these two allies. It was a time in which a pot could move with freedom along ties of relative amity. 

All of this would change markedly after the passing of Ruler I. Within two decades, a fury like Hattie’s would spill over Naranjo. The city would be assaulted by Caracol under the aegis of the Snake lords. It seems probable, from the Xunantunich finds, and those at La Corona (Simon Martin and David Stuart, personal communications, 2016), that this was in part the result of schisms within that powerful dynasty to the north.

By about AD 635, the dust had settled. One branch of the Snake family emerged triumphant. But the pot from happier times already lay in its tomb, awaiting discovery and, by curious quirks of weather and history, a move across the Atlantic to Cambridge, England. 


Footnote 1. A vessel at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (K7716) is the puzzle in this set: it refers to his youthful titles, but also to a more advanced personal age by means of the so-called “katun notations” that frame a royal life in terms of 2o-year, anticipatory segments. Houston has examined this vessel. He is unsure whether the number with the “katun” notation is a 2 or 4, the former more consistent with a youthful epithet, the latter wildly off. In any case, could it be that this vessel, the only one with an historical scene, blends earlier events and later ages of the lord? The scene itself displays the “palanquin” or patron deity (a hummingbird-feline-Old God) of the Naranjo dynasty (Martin 1996:224–230, figures 1, 2). The Los Angeles bowl remains enigmatic in what it shows, but could the palanquin have come at an earlier date to Naranjo from some other site? Warriors congregate to viewer’s left, and the sense is of offering, highlighted by incensing in a brazier placed in front of the ruler. 

Footnote 2. There is still discussion about where these bowls were made. Preliminary neutron activation studies situate their workshop in Holmul, a known subsidiary (at least for a time) of Naranjo (Dorie Reents-Budet, personal communication, 2016; see also Estrada-Belli and Tokovinine 2016:163–165). Yet, to date, there is no evidence that the Holmul potters were literate, although their exposure to inscribed pottery is revealed by many whole vessels and sherds with imitations of writing (Tokovinine has examined those collections closely). Moreover, to our knowledge, sampling of sherds has not been full at Naranjo itself, and their place of origin may well shift back to that site. For us, it would seem likely that so many pots mentioning a ruler of Naranjo would originate in his home city, not a more distant subordinate.  

Acknowledgements: Prof. Cyprian Broodbank was the warmest of hosts in Cambridge, offering Houston a week’s stay as a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. This visit, enlivened by a visit to the Grantchester Meadows with Cyprian’s family, also allowed Houston to give the 2nd Raymond and Beverley Sackler Distinguished lecture in Archaeology in honour of Professor of Norman Hammond. Dr. Chris Wingfield, Senior Curator of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge, could not have been more helpful with Houston’s requests for information, which Chris supplied at remarkable speed, and with kind equanimity. Houston must also thank, for their hospitality, Graeme Barker (Cyprian’s immediate predecessor as Disney Professor), Elizabeth DeMarrais, Cameron Petrie, Nicholas Postgate, Kate Spence (host at Emmanuel College, former home of many Puritans), Simon Stoddart, Prof. John Robb hosted a memorable high table, in glorious Medieval murk, at Peterhouse College. Sara Harrop, personal assistant to Cyprian, needs promotion to Vice-Chancellor of the University: all problems smoothed, thoughtful always. Arlen Chase was most collegial in sharing information from his re-excavation of Anderson’s operations at Caracol. Licda. Vilma Fialko graciously allowed Tokovinine to examine and document the sherds from Naranjo. 


Anderson, A. Hamilton. 1959. Actas del XXXIII Congreso Internacional de Americanistas,San José, 20-27 Julio 1958:211-218.

Becker, Marshall J. 1999. Tikal Report No. 21: Excavations in Residential Areas of Tikal: Groups with Shrines. University Museum Monograph 104. University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Chase, Arlen F., and Diane Z. Chase. 2003. At Home in the South: Investigations in the Vicinity of Caracol’s South Acropolis: 2003 Field Report of the Caracol Archaeological Project. Report submitted to the Belize Institute of Archaeology.

Estrada-Belli, Francisco, and Alexandre Tokovinine. 2016. A King’s Apotheosis: Iconography, Text, and Politics from a Classic Maya Temple at Holmul. Latin American Antiquity 27(2):149–168.

Fialko, Vilma. 2009 Archaeological Research and Rescue Project at Naranjo: Emerging Documentation in Naranjo’s Palacio de la Realeza, Petén, Guatemala (2005). FAMSI Grant report.

Helmke, Christophe, and Jaime J. Awe. 2016. Death Becomes Her: An Analysis of Panel 3, Xunantunich. The PARI Journal 16(4):1–14. Xunantunich Article Helmke and Awe

Martin, Simon. 1996. Tikal’s “Star War” Against Naranjo. In Eighth Palenque Round Table, 1993, eds. Martha J. Macri and Jan McHargue, pp. 223–236. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, San Francisco.

Martin, Simon. 2014. The Classic Maya Polity: An Epigraphic Approach to a Pre-Hispanic Political System. Ph.D. dissertation, University College, London. 

Martin, Simon, and Nikolai Grube. 2008. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens: Deciphering the Dynasties of the Classic Maya. 2nd ed. Thames & Hudson, London.

Martin, Simon, Vilma Fialko, Alexandre Tokovinine, and Fredy Ramirez. 2016.   Contexto y texto de la estela 47 de Naranjo-Sa’aal, Peten, Guatemala. In XXIX Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueológicas en Guatemala, 2015, ed. by B. Arroyo, L. Méndez Salinas, G. Ajú Álvarez, pp. 615–628. Ministerio de Cultura y Deportes; Instituto de Antropología e Historia, Guatemala.

Pendergast, David M. 1968. A.H.Anderson, 1901–1967. American Antiquity 33(1): 90-92.