year was 750 A.D. At a time when London was just a collection
of wooden huts, the vast metropolis of Tikal flourished in the
jungles of Guatemala. It was a thriving city of 40,000 people
and covered an area the size of Manhattan. And yet, less than
a century later, it stood empty. All over the Mayan empire the
cities were deserted rather than destroyed. It was as if they
walked into the forest, never to return.
In a period lasting from 250-900A.D., the sophisticated society
we call the Classic Maya would flourish. Hundreds of city-states
were created. The vast territory that is now Southen Mexico, Belize,
Guatemala, and Honduras became the empire of the Maya.
When Europe was still in the Dark Ages, The Mayan culture produced
artists and scientists whose achievements still astound us. Highly
developed mathmatics was closely tied to a complex system of astronomy.
The detailed observations of the nightsky were reported with amazing
thousand years before the first computer, they recorded events
eons in the past. The cycles of the moon were mapped so precisely
that today their calculations are only off by 33 seconds! They
developed an elaborate system of hieroglyphic writing to record
their history. Some of the greatest feats of decoding have occured
in the last few years to unlock the secrets of the Mayan culture.
the interpretation of these writings, scientists have learned
the importance of the underworld to ancient Maya religion. The
Mayans believed that to get to heaven one had to pass through
the nine levels of the underworld. Here we find the dark evil
lords of Xiabalba, or literally, the place of fright. Little Blood
and Skull Staff were creatures that
Griffith and Dr. Bruce Minkin
controlled the daily life of the Maya on the surface.
is only in the last 10 years that the importance of these underground
ceremonial sites has come to light. A new breed of archeologists
has come to the forefront. Armed with ropes, lights, surveying
equipment and a sense of adventure, these scientists are probing
deeper into the caves of Belize to unlock their secrets. They
have adapted the techniques of surface archeology to the dark
and dangerous world of Xiabalba. It is in this forbidding realm
that new insights of the Maya are coming to light. But there
are mysteries that are still buried in the caves of Belize.
What would you do to find out?
I have been working with the Western Belize Regional Cave Project
(WBRCP) for five years. This group has been studying the importance
of caves to the ancient Maya. Scientists from all over the world
congregate in western Belize to investigate the underground
ceremonial sites. It is an amazingly diverse group, each person
bringing their own expertise in their field of interest. Even
within the specialized focus of cave archeology, it is common
to meet a hieroglyphic expert from Finland, a ceramic authority
from Japan or a human bone specialist from Canada.
skorpion encountered while researching an underground
ceremonial site in Western Belize
particular interest lies in cave exploration and reconnaissance.
I have been caving since I was 9 years old and developed the
skills of vertical cave climbing. This technique is especially
useful in exploring the caves used by the Maya. The ancient
Maya went to extraordinary measures to hide their ritual sites.
For example, one of the caves that we discovered had a 120
foot pit entrance. The underground chamber was the size of
a basketball arena! Getting in and out of this cave required
freefall rappeling and ascending using special vertical climbing
rigs. At the bottom, we found a small grotto filled with delicate
pottery vessels. How the Mayans were able to access this site
and leave such beautiful artifacts intact is truly a mystery!
Looting of Mayan artifacts is a huge problem in Belize. This
is especially true in the caverns used by the Maya. Oftentimes,
the urns and human bones are lying in the open exactly as
they were 1000 years ago. Once these artifacts have been disturbed,
the scientific importance has been lost. Our goal as archeologists
is to get to these sites, record and preserve the artifacts
before they are stolen. With the aid of vertical cave techniques,
we have been able to reach pristine , undiscovered ritual
sites to study before the looters found them.
part of this process of finding potential sites in the jungle
for preservation, we have turned to advanced technology to
help us out. For the past 3 years, I have been assisting Cameron
Griffith in a project to identify caves hidden in the jungle
by using satellite and radar.
from space can detect subtle changes in temperature, vegetation
and elevation. By matching these differentials with a GPS
point, we can locate sinkholes deep in the rainforest.
course, this new age technology is of no use sitting on a
computer. The sites must be "ground-truthed" or
checked out on foot. Imagine carrying a 50 pound backpack
through almost impassable bush following the GPS signals for
hours. You finally reach the waypoint but all you see is a
thick clump of vines. But sure enough, you crawl into the
brush and find a 30 foot sinkhole! The radar pinpointed the
pit within one meter! We would have walked right past it.
the help of dedicated scientists and advanced technology,
there is a chance that these wonderful Mayan sites will be
preserved for the world to see.
I. Minkin, M.D., is a practicing hand surgeon from Asheville,
North Carolina. He has been caving since he was 9 years old,
and has been a member of the National Speleogical Society since
1960. When he was 16, the Mexican government of Campeche invited
him to help excavate some Maya burial caves in the jungles of
the Yucatán, starting him on a lifelong quest for adventure.
graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.A. in physical
anthropology, then attended medical school. Throughout his studies
and practice, Bruce has continued his interest in the outdoors,
and his passion for archaeology and caving led him to the Belize
Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance project in 1998. Even though
he is not a professional archaeologist, he was accepted as a crew
member because of his experience with vertical caving and anthropology.
The next year he returned with his son Erik, who did his senior
project on Maya cave archaeology.
photos provided by Dr. Bruce Minkin. All rights reserved.