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.
“What happens in the collapse is that cohesion is lost — it goes away,” Diane said.
“You get a 1 percent elite,” said Arlen, instantly following her line of thought.
The ease of exchange between the two shouldn’t come as a surprise — the Chases have worked alongside one another for more than 30 years, excavating Caracol and uncovering the history of the sprawling Maya city located beneath a dense tropical forest.
As co-directors at Caracol, they amassed many varied and important contributions to the field of archaeology.
“Projects that have that kind of longevity and that are run by the same people provide a kind of wealth of information about a site in a way that you can’t get anywhere else,” said Marcello Canuto, an anthropology professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.
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.”
A 30-year run
Diane and Arlen Chase arrived at Caracol in January 1985 to embark on their first full investigation into the site and the Maya people who lived there.
And while they returned home four months later, they never really left. The Chases since have undertaken a full season of archaeological investigation, each lasting eight to 20 weeks, at Caracol each year.
Canuto, who has followed their work over the years, said the Chases have been able to acquire what archaeologists refer to as a “thick description” of Caracol. Through fieldwork and new technologies, they’ve been able to thoughtfully examine the complex relationships that existed among these ancient people and their environment.
“When we talk about thick descriptions, we don’t mean that the table is flat, blue, and hard,” Canuto said. “We talk about people — what they do, and who they are, and their motivations. For a complex civilization in a remote part of the world, that kind of thick description is invaluable.”
Spending four to five years at a site is “pretty good.” Spending 10 years at a site is “excellent.” But 30 years is “unheard of,” he said, mostly because it’s difficult to find money to sustain research at the same site over a long period of time.
But the Chases have been able to keep the funding coming. Their strategy has involved grouping their research into three-year chunks. The 2019 field season marks the second year of their newest three-year investigation.
Last year, they studied Maya markets and market systems — research which “promises to significantly augment our understanding of the Classic Period Maya,” they wrote in their 2018 field season report. Excavation and analysis have suggested that different kinds of goods may have been available in different quantities in various parts of the site. If and why this may have occurred is the subject of their newest investigation.
In 2019, they’ll continue to investigate market locations by analyzing soils for residues and excavating to see if there is variation in goods across the households that dot the landscape.
Best mapped site
What we know about the sprawling landscape of Caracol has been brought into even greater focus with each field season.
“It was supposed to be a small site of 78 structures,” said Arlen Chase. “That’s what we were provided when we started. Now it’s 200 square kilometers with miles of integrated road systems.”
Using the transit-stadia survey method, the Chases mapped 23 square kilometers of Caracol by hand. The method involves using a stadia rod, which is a large ruler, tape, and a level, in order to plot and determine the elevation of points throughout the site.
The painstaking work requires a team effort; 20 to 100 people have worked at the site with the Chases every field season.
By 2009, Caracol was known as one of the best-mapped sites of the Maya lowlands of Central America. But then new technology took their pioneering work to the next level.
“We were tired of just walking and mapping,” Diane said.
“You could only add one or two-square kilometers per season, so it would have just taken another 100 years to do the mapping,” Arlen added.
For the first time in 2009, the Chases got their hands on LiDAR, which stands for Light Distance and Ranging. It works by sending laser pulses down to the earth from a sensor that’s mounted to an aircraft overhead. As the pulses go out, the sensor is collecting data of all of the places that the laser beam hits.
Aerial photos have often been used for such work, but Caracol's location in the middle of the tropics limited what the researchers could observe.
It was finally possible for the duo to demonstrate effectively how intensively the landscape had been modified by the ancient Maya, including road systems, agricultural terracing, reservoirs, household plazuela units, and civic-ceremonial space.
Together, excavations and settlement survey revealed the changing nature of social, ritual, and economic relationships among the various parts of the site over time. Combining that with hieroglyphic texts provided a nuanced picture of the ancient landscape and people, they wrote in a 2017 paper in the Journal of Archaeological Research.
Their work inspired many other archaeologists, including Canuto, who was working and mapping a site in northwestern Guatemala.
“LiDAR was a proof of concept,” Canuto remarked.
“I saw what the LiDAR at Caracol managed to reveal, and I said there’s absolutely no point in wasting time, energy, and risking lives to continue the mapping efforts we were doing,” Canuto recalled. “What we need to get is the LiDAR.”
With LiDAR work in hand, the Chases confirmed their earlier population estimates. Between 600 and 650 A.D., following the war with Tikal, Caracol entered its heyday and boasted a population of over 100,000.
“At that point in its history, Caracol was at its maximum size and maximum complexity,” Diane said.
So what happened?
In the epicentral buildings, the Chases found a series of floors that were burned. That is like a gold mine for archaeologists.
“If we can scrape up pieces of carbon, we can get dates,” Chase said, adding that the site burned around 895 AD.
“There are items left on the floors, which makes it look like people left relatively quickly,” she said.
There’s the possibility of a broader explanation that led to the demise of Caracol — one that we could learn from today.
At one point in Caracol’s history, there was a widespread distribution of imported goods among the Maya people, which was likely the result of a purposeful management strategy by the elite that focused on symbolic egalitarianism. That meant that most Caracol inhabitants had access to the same resources and ritual items, derived at least in part from a functioning market economy.
“It’s not that people were perceived as equal, but people had access to the same kinds of things,” Diane said. “There’s a kind of cohesion about Classic-period Caracol that I think has a lesson for us today.”
But that cohesion falls apart. Diane said that more work needs to be done to examine why this happened.
“We need to work a little bit more on looking at the ways we can document that shift towards a shared, huge middle class to something that’s completely different — to a system of ‘haves and have nots,' and why that leads to the collapse,” she said.
A ‘life changing’ experience
The search for answers is continuing this field season with a team of 33 people, including Roxayn Povidas, a December 2018 UNLV graduate. It will be her second time working alongside the Chases at the ancient Maya site.
“I want to continue to learn from them and get better at what I do,” said Povidas, who plans to enroll in the anthropology graduate program at UNLV. “They’re amazing at pushing you and enriching your skills.”
Involving a team of people in the archaeological digs has always been at the center of what they do, Diane and Arlen said. The longevity and success of the excavations at Caracol would be impossible without the team mindset.
“One of the things we always talk about is there’s no 'I' in archaeology,” said Diane. “The only way you can do archaeological research with one person is if you’re analyzing a collection that’s already excavated. So there’s always a team of people with us.”
And including both undergraduate and graduate students as part of that team is also key to their success. Arlen said the experience, especially for undergraduate students who are still figuring out what they want to do with their careers, is life changing.
Povidas agreed. “It’s a very rewarding experience,” she said. “They’re trying to teach you everything you need to know so that you know how to do it when you begin professional work.”
She recalls Diane pulling her aside last field season whenever she came across bones or teeth. Povidas wishes to pursue a Ph.D. in bioarchaeology, which is the study of skeletal remains.
“Anytime we’d have a moment, she would pull me aside to give me tips and tricks,” Povidas said. “They’re both wonderful. They’re always talking to you as an equal to just make you better.”