Archaeology Magazine - Maya Caves of West-Central Belize: Actun Tunichil Muknal - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Actun Tunichil Muknal "Maya Caves of West-Central Belize"
Summer 2000


The skeleton of a young female was found in Actun Tunichil Muknal. Dripwater has completely encrusted it with calcite over the years.

Jaime Awe, currently of the University of New Hampshire, was the first archaeologist to explore Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre), and the cave was featured in the National Geographic Explorer film Journey Through the Underworld (1993). (Click here to see clips.) It was named after the sacrificial chamber within the cave where the remains of a young woman were found. Fourteen burials have been found in Actun Tunichil Muknal. The cave also contains two slate stelae in front of which Maya elites cut themselves with obsidian blades to collect their blood and offer it to the gods. A stream flows out of this cave, providing the main water supply for the camp. Actun Tunichil Muknal also contains large broken pottery. Calcite from dripwater has encased many of these finds over the centuries.


Slate stelae monuments in situ (Illustration by Christophe Helmke)

In the summer of 2000, the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance Project/Western Belize Regional Cave Project conducted underwater excavations at Actun Tunichil Muknal for the first time. Actun Tunichil Muknal represents a challenge as it has a two-meter deep pool in the entrance and a stream running through. Consequently, it is necessary to investigate some areas through the use of scuba.

In documenting the material culture present in Maya cave sites in recent years, we have noted a large concentration of artifacts at the entrances of caves. Preliminary ceramic analysis suggests that it is at these entrances that ritual activities were most intensive. These locations also demonstrate the most prolonged ritual usage.

The 2000 investigations attempted to verify the trends of ritual activity at the entrance of the cave. In the chambers exhibiting high concentrations of artifacts, a virtual one-by-one-meter grid was superimposed over detailed floor plans. This enabled us to account for artifact clustering distribution and patterning for each square meter. This data was subsequently transferred into GIS software for post-field processing and analysis. In order to enhance the data base established over the previous five years, it was deemed necessary to account for artifacts which may have been washed out of the cave. Indeed, hydraulic activity inside Actun Tunichil Muknal is intensive during the rainy season and flooding has been documented both inside and outside of the cave, promising areas of artifact deposition and thus requiring the use of scuba. Although thus far the artifacts recovered have been heavily eroded, we are hopeful that further investigation will reveal intact cultural material.

Underwater excavation at Actun Tunichil Muknal in June 2000 was supervised by Megan Bassendale, a graduate of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, and Jeff Ransom, who is pursuing his M.A. at Florida Atlantic University.

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