Planetary Society Expedition to Belize

In Search of other Adventures -- An Ancient Mayan Ceremonial Cave

by Paul Dudley
Throughout the limestone karst regions of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize there are numerous cave systems. Deep within some of the "dry" caves are large chambers where the ancient Mayans practices special ceremonial rituals. Most of these caves that are known today have been looted and their artifacts removed. However, we were privileged to be taken into an undisturbed cave that was recently discovered.
[Picture of Guide Briefing Us] Peter Zubrzycki, our speleologist guide (at left) giving us our last briefing prior to entering the cave. Peter is the only guide that is allowed to take visitors into this cave. He guided the archaeologists who mapped the cave and its contents through the labyrinth of winding passages. The archaeologists elected to leave the cave undisturbed and it remains just as it was when re-discovered a few years ago.
Listening intently are Tim Herman of Vista, California, and expedition co-leader Kevin Pope.
[Click on any of the pictures on this to see enlargements. ]
After swimming, wading, walking, crawling, and climbing, for an hour and a half or so, we reached rooms which contained artifacts that were left by the Mayans about 1,000 years ago. This pottery was resting on a rectangular stone alter. [1000 year-old Mayan Pottery]
[Pottery Partially Encrusted with Dripstone] More pottery. Sometimes these rooms become partially flooded during periods of heavy rainfall. Such high-water episodes result in calcite encrustations on many of the artifacts. Most of the pottery was broken, but some of the pots were intact with the exception of a "kill hole" broken in the bottom. The kill holes were deliberately made by the Mayans as part of the ceremonial offerings to their deities.
This mano and matate are encrusted with a layer of calcite "dripstone" which covered the floor of the cave and many of the objects. Peter speculated that maybe they were grinding bones rather than corn with these stone tools. We soon learned why he thought this. [Mano and Matate Grinding Stones]
[Human Skull and Long Bones] As we proceeded further into these ceremonial chambers, we began to see bones beneath the dripstone deposits on the cave floor. Particularity obvious were the skulls and scattered long bones. The foreheads of some skulls were flattened, which was due to these individuals having their heads tightly bound to special cradle boards as infants. This was a common practice of the ancient Mayans for people of special rank, who could be recognized by the shape of their foreheads.
This outstretched skeleton is of a woman. Peter showed us a stone axe found nearby that may have been used to perform human sacrifices. Outside of the cave Peter warned us of the Mayan "spirits" that haunted the caves. He said that sometimes equipment , such as the electric head lamps, stops working inside the caves. After taking this picture, my camera's electronic shutter stopped working and I was unable to take any more photos for the remainder of the expedition. [Outstreached Woman's Skeleton]

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