Archaeology Magazine - Maya Caves of West-Central Belize: Student Journals 2000 - Archaeology Magazine Archive

Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Karla WhittenburgArchaeology can be a very challenging and rewarding experience! The effort involved in surface excavation is multiplied tenfold when working in caves. For example, setting up a one-meter unit in a cave is much harder than I imagined. A project that takes an hour on the surface can take more than eight hours underground.

I have also discovered that the rewards of being involved in cave archaeology are well worth the trouble. The flooded tents, broken-down vehicles, and stinky clothes and equipment would try the patience of anyone. Despite these difficulties, there are very few places I can think of that I would rather be than on this project.—Karla Whittenburg, graduate student, Colorado State University


Jack ClarkThe hike to Actun Chapat is an incredible journey through the lush green rain forest of western Belize. This jungle is incredibly dense and one cannot help but feel a spiritual connection to the land. Contemporary slash-and-burn fields slowly smoke on many terraces. The trail gets muddier as the rain begins to fall. With our gear piled in dry bags, each step is carefully planted to avoid sliding.

Actun Chapat (Centipede Cave) sits in the jungle like a black hole--another world. "Soda-pop straws" and other stalactites hang from the ceiling of the cave. Just a few steps inside the mouth of the cave sits a metate and, just slightly to the right, potsherds litter the ground. This is the entrance to the Mayan underworld. With helmets and headlamps now on, our small group of students led by the Western Belize Regional Cave Project is about to encounter a world seldom seen.

The terrain is rocky and, although the headlamps light our path, the ceiling of the cave is nowhere to be found. The light from the entrance disappears and we find ourselves surrounded by darkness. Evidence of Maya occupation in this cave can be seen every few steps. We find potsherds sitting out in the open, along the walls, and on top of boulders.

By this time, my imagination is running wild. What was going on here? What were these people thinking? How could they climb to virtually inaccessible heights within the cave? This being only my second day in the field, I can't wait to get our excavation units set up and try to answer some of my own questions. I've visited Maya surface sites before, but this is truly the adventure of a lifetime.—Jack Clark, recent graduate of Northern Arizona University


Sarah ParcakImagine a week filled with rapelling, canoeing, rock climbing, and excavating on ledges, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what working at Barton Creek Cave was like. We started our days by canoeing into the cave, which reached about 65 feet from river to ceiling. The Maya used the cave ledges for performing bloodletting rituals, caching pottery, sacrifice, and ritually burying their dead. Canoeing into the caves, one is immediately struck by the peace and solitude and the majesty of towering rock formations forming fingers which dip into the cool waters.

We disembarked from the canoes with our climbing gear, guided only by the light of our headlamps, and began our ascent to the point where we rapelled 30 feet to the ledge where excavating and surveying were taking place. Repelling in caves is nerve-racking for, unlike normal rock climbing, you cannot see the bottom clearly, and shadows can easily be mistaken for footholds.

Doing archaeology in a cave is unlike anything I have ever done, The survey work is hard, but rewarding once you see the maps you helped to create. Digging here is quite different from surface archaeology as the levels can have little change in soil type and formation due to cave looters moving bones and artifacts out of their original positions.

I spent the majority of my week at Barton Creek Cave surface collecting bones and ceramics from one ledge and cleaning them in lab with a toothbrush. I found the caving to be a challenge and an experience I will remember for a long time to come.—Sarah Parcak, undergraduate, Yale University


C. Mathew SaundersAs an archaeology student and a recreational diver, I found the excavation of the stelae chamber in Actun Tunichil Muknal to be a custom fit. Entering such a sacred space and observing the deep caverns of Xibalba allowed me to be transported back in time. I learned about the rewards of underwater excavations as well as some of the complications.

The area of excavation was a deep pool found directly under what is known as the stelae chamber. Rituals performed there included human sacrifice and bloodletting. It was our goal to find any artifacts used in these rituals through underwater excavations.

The work inside the chamber was difficult and the conditions were less than accommodating, but the project was well-planned and properly executed. I had a great feeling of accomplishment after completing the work inside the chamber, and I hope that this project is just the beginning of my underwater archaeology work.—C. Mathew Saunders, undergraduate, University of Kentucky


Meghann LundyIt's not hard to see stepping out of the airport in Belize City that this country is beautiful. Belize has many great natural resources for tourists to enjoy. Canoeing, biking, snorkeling, diving, fishing, horseback riding, and caving are all at one's fingertips. Tourism is Belize's second highest contribution to the economy, yet it suffers.

I have come to Belize as a Tourism Planning and Development major from the University of New Hampshire. My main objective during my month's stay is to explore tourism in the archaeology/caving realm under the guidance of Jaime Awe, who is the head of the anthropology department at UNH and native to San Ignacio, Belize. I am exploring what Belize has to offer to archaeologists. I would like to somehow devise a plan how tourism can be better connected to archaeology. It is impossible to be sure what methodology should be used and what outcomes may develop. I hope to gather as much information as possible during this month from interviews, tours, and observation. In addition to the tourism/archaeology study I am taking the archaeology field school offered here. By learning exactly what the archaeologists are doing I can better develop a proposed plan of action.

At the end of this month I will have completed a preliminary step to this project. I will be writing a summary report on the outcomes of the month. In years to come I hope to further this investigation to implement a development proposal for archaeology tourism in Belize.—Meghann Lundy, undergraduate, University of New Hampshire


Virginia Lee WallaceI've been to every site now except Barton Creek. This week I went to jungle camp, and it rained harder than I've ever seen. We went to Handprint Cave, which was breathtaking. I saw a negative handprint on a cave wall that has been around for more than a thousand years. It made me feel connected to the ancient Maya.

Belize is filled with ancient Maya ruins, and the landscape is beautiful. It is guide inspiring for my senior thesis. I've decided that I am going to write on women's roles in ancient and modern Maya rituals. Women's issues intrigue me and I think that studying Maya women will be rewarding. Many people here have given me sources, literature and helpful hints to successfully get my thesis underway.—Virginia Lee Wallace, undergraduate, Agnes Scott College


Matt KalchAlthough I have worked on previous field projects, am an avid caver, and have been in Belize before, I must admit that the learning experience of doing cave archaeology in Belize is like nothing else. The field of cave archaeology takes elements from other fields but assembles them in a way that is truly its own. Whether it is the preservation of ancient bones or the use of cave structure coupled with that of Maya design, I cannot compare it to any other work.

The intricacies of mapping through tight passages and multilevel rooms gave me new respect for patience and good batteries. The first few days were devoted soley to learning how to lay out a unit in a less than traditional manner within Barton Creek Cave. The opportunity to have worked in caves where hundreds of years of Maya use lay side by side in the form of sherds or charcoal was great and challenging. Blown-out boots, broken belts, and chechem (a rash from the sap of a local tree) all paled when, after a long hike or canoe ride, we reached the caves.

Caves were not the only focus, though. We worked on surfaces sites too, as they were built by the same culture that was performing rituals deep in the caves. How the use of these caves correlated to the surface sites made the information come to life. I learned to recognize Maya modification and architecture in caves that I would never have noticed. Through personal excavation experience on the same project, I was able to directly compare it to the construction phases of surface Maya sites. The experience here and the knowledge gained will not be soon forgotten as I hope to apply it to the BVAR project next year.—Matt Kalch, undergraduate, University of West Florida


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