Archaeology Magazine - Maya Caves of West-Central Belize: Actun Nak Beh: Update 1 - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Actun Nak Beh: Update 1 "Maya Caves of West-Central Belize"
June 20, 2000
by Amélie A. Walker

We have been excavating six units at Actun Nak Beh and one on the nearby sacbe, or causeway. Of the units at the cave, three are in the rock-shelter-like entrance and the others are inside.

Unit 1, in the northeastern section of the cave's entrance, was placed with the hope of locating burials, as similar areas in other caves investigated by WBRCP have yielded human remains. The most interesting discovery to date are some pieces of carved pottery. This type of ceramic is called Belize Molded-carved pottery and dates to the Terminal to Early Postclassic Maya period (A.D. 830-1000). This type of pottery is generally found in non-royal but elite contexts--areas that were used by people of high social class. The iconography on the various sherds is uniform, which is why it is believed the Maya may have used molds to produce these vessels. Parts of at least three such vessels have been found in the Roaring Creek Valley, and comparable sherds have been found at the surface sites of Baking Pot, Cahal Pech, and Pook's Hill. This is an important find, as it shows a connection between these sites and caves.


Belize Molded-carved pottery found in Unit 1

Unit 2 was placed was placed within the cave entrance, where a jute cache was found on the surface. Jute, or freshwater snails (Pachychilus spp.), were heavily used by the Maya as food and in feasting rituals as offerings of "food for the dead."


We set up Unit 3 in an alcove which goes about 16 feet into the side of the cave--a small area and difficult to excavate. There were jute shells on the surface and a gas can left by looters, so we thought the opening might be of interest. We found a small amount of pottery and some faunal bone, but reached sterile soil about two feet down and closed the unit.

Left, hauling buckets out of Unit 3 was a tight squeeze!

Inside the cave, there was a looter's pit about six and a half feet across with many large rocks--river cobble and limestone--and evidence of Early Classic potsherds on the surface. We started Unit 4 here to try to salvage the area. In level 1 (the surface), we found an Early Classic basal flange (a ridge at an angle to the base of a dish), a ring base, polychrome potsherds, and human remains (long bones, digits, and a tooth). We also thought we hit what could have been a badly eroded plaster floor, though we are unsure. Except for some obsidian blades, we have not found many artifacts below the surface level. We believe we are most likely still in soil disturbed by the looters, and we plan to keep excavating further.

Right, excavating inside Actun Nak Beh in Unit 4


Another unit within the cave, Unit 6, was started in one of the passages. We collected river cobbles and slate on the surface, which would have been purposely brought into the cave. We speculate that such rocks could have been symbols for water, used in agricultural rituals to ensure good crops. We have also found pottery sherds, obsidian blades, a cat claw (possibly a jaguar's), and a fairly widespread layer of charcoal.


The latest area we are investigating (Unit 7) is a small oval room that must be accessed through a very small opening. So far we have found rim sherds representing at least three different vessels, possibly some plaster, and what may be bone.

Left, digging in the small chamber. Below, webmaster Amélie at the opening of the room containing Unit 7.


Unit 5 is being dug on the massive causeway, called a sacbe, that leads up to Actun Nak Beh. We want to know when the causeway was built to see if it was constructed at the same time that the cave was being used. One way to do this is to look at the pottery and compare it to that found at the cave. Among the artifacts recovered here was a large mano, or grinding stone (see below). Why would a mano be on a causeway? We speculate that it would have arrived here as part of fill when building the causeway, dropped en route to the cave, or placed there intentionally.


Excavation begins on the sacbe near Actun Nak Beh

The mano found on the sacbe

Nak Beh Intro | July 16