Archaeology Magazine - Search for the Maya Underworld: Q&A - Archaeology Magazine Archive

Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
interactive digs
Q&A with Staff and Students "Search for the Maya Underworld"

Main Page | 2000 Season | Q&A | Map of Caves

What impact does the tropical weather have on your research?

The weather circling effects our camping conditions in that it means we have to ensure that our camps are provisioned to meet changes in amount of rainfall. We usually have to use heavy-duty tarps over tents to keep them dry. We also have to monitor the level of the river as that can interfere with transportation of supplies into camp and with exiting of camp on weekends. In two cases we have also been unable to access sites for a few days because of increased water level in the caves. On a positive side, increased water flow in the cave indicated to us that the Maya purposely deposited artifacts and placed human remains in areas that were periodically submerged.

The caves maintain an average temperature of 75 degrees Fahrenheit, thus the ambient temperature is generally cooler than that on the exterior. The areas in which we work are predominantly in nature reserves, thus most of the jungle is primary forest with considerable wildlife and very little modern human destruction.

Jaime Awe, director

What do you do in the caves?

The type of work we do in the caves includes the mapping of the cave passages, recording the distribution of ancient remains, and an attempt to understand the nature of prehistoric activities in them.

Jaime Awe, director

Did the Maya use preservation techniques in burial chambers?

We have yet to find any direct evidence for purposeful attempts at ancient conservation. However, we do know that materials once deposited in the caves appear to have been left undisturbed and respected by the ancient Maya.

Jaime Awe, director

Are any of these caves connected? Did the ancient Maya do any underground traveling?

While we have not confirmed any connections between the caves currently under investigation, Actun Chapat and a nearby cave nicknamed "Son of Chapat" may ultimately connect somewhere deep underground. However, four other caves near Belmopan (Petroglyph Cave, St. Hermans Cave, Blue Hole Cave and Caves Branch cave) are all part of the same river system. We know that Petroglyph Cave and Caves Branch cave are connected because Jaime and a small team placed a special dye in the river and traced the route of the water flow.

With regard to the use of cave systems as travel routes, it is unlikely that this took place. The ancient Maya regarded caves as sacred entrances to the underworld. The underworld was considered to be a foul, dark, and watery place. Moreover, ancient Maya activities in caves were connected with underworld mythology.

Josalyn Ferguson, staff

Which Maya dialect do the modern Maya speak? Do the names of the caves derive from their language or are these translations in classical Maya?

As far as I understand, the locals who speak Maya tend to speak the Yucatec dialect. The caves were given the names we use by the project directors, who asked locals for appropriate names in Yucatec Maya. We don't have any record as to whether the ancient Maya named these caves.

Alison Miner, student

Do local people try to sell objects from the caves?

I didn't encounter any locals selling objects. The Belize government is doing a lot to stop the illegal sale of ancient artifacts, so the problem is less conspicuous these days. We still see lots of evidence of looters, however, in the disturbance of the places we dig, which is also why the stratigraphy is often not very clear.

Alison Miner, student

Do you believe in the spirit and underworld of these ancient people?

Many of our staff members are strongly affected by the spiritual nature of the caves in which we work. For me, Actun Tunichil Muknal fills me with a sense of awe every time I enter the cave...despite the fact that I have visited the cave over 250 times! Some of the project staff perform mini-rituals of their own prior to entering caves, such as burning copal, leaving a candle burning at the cave entrance until their return, etc. While these rituals may serve to appease these various staff members, they are not a requirement of the project, nor are they a part of the archaeological investigations.

Cameron Griffith, co-director

Are the artifacts you are finding donations to the gods of the underworld or were they put in caves for safe keeping?

You have hit upon the two prevailing theories about the artifact assemblages in caves. Some argue that caves were used for storage and/or water collection, others believe that the artifacts are from ceremonial activities. I believe that although caves may have been used for storage in certain cases, they were primarily used for ritual purposes. Our research this summer should shed more light on this!

Cameron Griffith, co-director

Did the ancient Maya kept their valuables in the rafters of their homes?

It is quite likely that the ancient Maya kept valuables and other household items in the rafters of their homes. Unfortunately, when we encounter ancient Maya houses they have collapsed and been reclaimed by the surrounding jungle. In most cases all that remains is the outline of the foundation of the house peeking out from underneath the jungle plants!

Cameron Griffith, co-director

Why are the stratigraphic levels usually disturbed in caves? I would have thought that, in a cave, the levels would have been left alone. Do you know why this is the case?

The mixed contexts to which Jaime refers in his debriefing occur on the calcite or limestone surfaces in caves.

What I mean here is that in many cases certain chambers of various caves will contain little or no matrix. In these areas the artifacts are simply laying on the surfaceŠwith no stratigraphy whatsoever. This is where we encounter the problem that Jaime pointed out. However, there are areas in many of the caves that do contain different matrices (dirt, clay, mud, bat guano, etc). In these contexts the stratigraphy is typically excellent, unless there has been looting, water erosion, or bioturbation.

Cameron Griffith, co-director

How many hours a day are your students spending in the caves a day? And then, how many hours a day are spent afterwards looking for ticks?

At the cave camps we spend most of the day in the caves. Some of my friends questioned my integrity when I returned from sunny Belize without a suntan.

Ticks are also a problem (well, nuisance really) but by walking at the rear of the group through the jungle most of these are avoided. I have found as many as 6 in one day, but this is extreme unless peforming reconaissance (the little buggers like to go where it's dark and warm, so appear in the most inconvinient places. Of this, I will speak no more).

In addition to ticks we have snakes (the nasty fer de lance), spiders of all sorts (tarantulas, barking spiders), assassin beetles, the disturbing botfly, and the occasional mean-spirited gibnut.

The biggest hazard to our group seemed to be Che Chem otherwise known as poison wood, Belize's version of poison ivy, only worse (thanks to Raffi, who built our screening stand out of it).

Douglas Weinberg, student

What has been found so far by the underwater excavation of Actun Tunichil Muchnal?

We are planning on posting a final update of the underwater excavations soon, but to answer your question, the artifactual component of the excavations was extremly minimal. Nonetheless, this feature is of interest and we are currently trying to account for the taphonomic processes responsible.

Megan Bassendale, staff

Have you found if the difference in the hydrology of these caves has produced a different type of artifact; that use of the caves depends on its environment inside?

Excellent question! We have been exploring how differences in the caves (hydrology, morphology, entrance size, etc.) are related to artifact assemblages. So far it seems that the ancient Maya did treat caves with water differently than dry caves. However, our work on this issue and that of our colleagues (Peter Dunham and Keith Prufer in the Toledo district in southern Belize, Jim Brady in Guatemala, and Dominique Rissolo in Yucatan, Mexico, and many others) is still in progress. Thus, I am hesitant to provide specifics at this time. Once sufficient data have been collected from regional approaches such as ours we should be able to identify statistically significant correlations between certain forms of cave utilization and particular cave features.

Cameron Griffith, co-director

Has there been any new work done in Yaxteel Ahau this year, and if so was the olla found on the ledge ever excavated?

Work this season was concentrated on other cave sites in the valley. Unfortunately, time constraits did not permit us to return to Yaxteel Ahau. I'm not sure which olla you are referring to so I am unable to answer that question.

Vanessa Owen, staff

Yes, as Vanessa said, we couldn't get back to Yaxteel this summer. In fact, I don't think anyone really wanted to after all of the close calls in that cave! I think Yaxteel may be the last hold-out for the denizens of Xibalba...

Cameron Griffith, co-director

Is there an archaeological site that accepts amateur diggers for brief periods of time?

Yes! There is a project in Belize that people can volunteer with. The government of Belize is running an archaeological tourism development project and a number of sites will be excavated over the next four years. If you are interested in an archaeological vacation, send an e-mail to for more details.

Carolyn Audet, staff

How many years of school did it take you (Jamie Awe) to be able to be a full time archaeologist? Did it take you a long time to get a permit to excavate?

To become a fulltime archaeologist, I did a four year Bachelor's degree, a two year Master's degree and three years for my Ph.D. Many students with B.A.'s, however, get employed to do contract archaeology in the U.S. If you want to be a professor you would need to do the Ph.D. After you get your Ph.D. you can also apply for a permit from host countries to do work there. Alternatively, you can join other projects (for example, I have a number of students who work with me here in Belize).

Jaime Awe, director

What are the ruins near Crooked Tree?

There is a large surface site near the village of Crooked Tree named Chau Hiix. Dr. Anne Pyburn of Indiana University has been conducting research at this site since 1993.

The villagers of Crooked Tree informed the public about the presence of Chau Hiix in 1990. If you had searched for mounds during your trip with the people from Crooked Tree--you would have been one of the first non-Belizean visitors to the site!

If you are interested in more information on the site of Chau Hiix, visit Dr. Pyburn's website at:

Click here for photos.

Cameron Griffith, co-director

How do you obtain funds for your project?

Check out the project webpage at for information on our sponsors. We are continually adding updates to that section of the page.

Cameron Griffith, co-director

I was very interested in your description of the "Labrynth of the Tarantulas" cave, and your observation that it harbors these spiders. Can you tell me more about what these spiders looked like and how they acted?

I am definitely not an expert on tarantulas. In fact, what I can tell you is that I try to avoid them as much as possible! When I first visited the cave there were quite a few tarantulas in the cave, which prompted me to name it Laberinto de las Tarantulas. However, in subsequent visits I have noticed that the presence of tarantulas and other creatures in that cave and other caves depends on the season, the amount of rainfall, etc. One season I didn't see a single tarantula in the cave...instead there were hundreds of assassin beetles lurking about.

In Tarantula Cave in 1996 the tarantulas were all over the place. Tarantula cave is interesting in that it is really a network of passages through breakdown rocks, with multiple entrances. In 2000 I was attacked by about 1000 baby tarantulas, and, I'm sorry to say, I was forced to defend myself.

Cameron Griffith, co-director

I was wondering what you, as archeologists, think about tourism in these caves (particularly as they are still being studied) and if there are any plans to manage such tourism there in the future.

Dr. Awe established the initial guidelines for tourism in Actun Tunichil Muknal and the surrounding sites with the Government of Belize in 1996. In many ways, managed tourism in the caves is the best way to preserve the archaeological materials inside. If tour groups are going in with guides that are trained by archaeologists it provides a level of control over the visitors. Frequent tours to caves also serve as a way to monitor any unauthorized excursions to these sites.

Dr. Awe and members of the WBRCP have been working recently with the Department of Archaeology and the Ministry of Tourism to establish a country-wide policy on cave tourism. This should go into effect shortly and we hope that it will serve to better protect the caves of Belize for future generations.

Cameron Griffith, co-director

Main Page | 2000 Season | Q&A | Map of Caves