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#432944 - 03/14/12 03:01 PM Barton Creek Cave gets some exposure
Marty Offline

What do Oranges, Mennonites & Caves have in Common?

Answer: They are all found in the diversity of the Cayo District of Belize.

The Cayo district in Belize is full of an incredible mix of history, culture and sites to explore. Today we delved into the Mayan underworld at Barton Creek Cave. But to get to the Barton Creek Cave, we drove past beautiful citrus fields and Mennonite country.

Driving to the Caves

The Barton Creek cave isn’t that far from downtown San Ignacio, but the condition of the poorly maintained government roads makes it over one hour away. They are beyond bumpy and only got better when we reached the Mennonite community. The Mennonites take care of their own roads and do a much better job than the Belizian government.

The drive took us past citrus groves owned by a US company and filled with sweet, sweet Valencia oranges. Most of these oranges are transported to Dangriga where they get processed into concentrate for Minute Maid, Sunny Delight, and other large companies. Eddie, our guide, explains to us the hard work that these orange pickers do. Every orange is picked by hand and the workers earn $0.62 bzd ($0.32 cents US) for every bag picked. The minimum wage in Belize for a days wage is $22.50 bzd ($11.25 US) per day! So, next time you feel like you don’t earn enough…think of this and get a perspective.

These large bags of oranges sell for $8 bzd ($4 US) in San Ignacio. On Ambergris Caye, oranges sell for 4/$1 bzd.

Huges bags of Valencia Oranges grown in Belize

Huge bags of Valencia Oranges grown in Belize

After the citrus groves, we came upon the Mennonite community. The Mennonites are great farmers and have helped improve the agriculture in Belize. They are quiet and peaceful people who live off the land. We stop along the way to taste various fruits from trees, to say hello to farmers and allow this horse and buggy to pass us.

This is the form of transporation of the Mennonites

This is the form of transportation of the Mennonites

We drove through a shallow river, after which the cave was 5 minutes away.

Canoeing Barton Creek Cave with Kids

Entering Barton Creek Cave

Entering Barton Creek Cave

Entering the cave, we canoe into complete darkness. The temperature drops to a cool air conditioned level as we paddle further into the cave. Our guide, Eddie, turns on the lamp and we are able to see the vastness of this cave and the beautiful formations of stalactites hanging from the walls and ceiling. Eddie explains the significance of caves in the Maya culture. Caves were sacred to the Maya. Maya used caves for a variety of purposes including agricultural rituals, fertility rituals, bloodletting and human sacrifice to appease gods. It is believed that these caves were used more often during the time of a great drought, which may have led to the end of the Maya civilization.

We rowed about 500 meters into the cave, turning off the lamp at various points to imagine what it must have been like for the Maya to enter the caves with torches burning. It was completely black. Black, cool and very mystical. It’s no wonder why the Maya considered this the Spiritual dwellings of the Gods. The air we breathed in deeply seemed to be charged with a special, clean energy. It was very refreshing.

Mayan human sacrifice skull located on a ledge of the cave

Mayan human sacrifice skull located on a ledge of the cave

The ceiling of the cave is surprisingly high, yet there were points where we had to duck down in our canoe to pass the stalactites that were hanging low enough to nearly touch the water. At various points, what appeared to be stalactite chandeliers hung from the ceiling. It was beautiful.

The formations are unique. They vary from sparkly crystalline structures to black Manganese formations. We played a game with the kids to guess what they looked like. This was a perfect tour to do with kids. The canoe ride lasted about one hour, which was a perfect time frame for child attention spans. G loved working the spotlight to illuminate the geology of the cave and create shadows. When the stalactites became too low we turned around and headed back towards the light.

Stopping at the Mennonite Store on the way back

On the way back, we stopped at the simple Mennonite store where they were packaging beautiful, perfect looking produce into boxes to take to the San Ignacio market. We buy some delicious celery and on our way out of the store, Mr. King notices a box of fresh baked cinnamon rolls and donuts. We purchase some and devour their sweetness. Eddie, who refused the celery, accepted the rolls and donuts!

Love the values listed here at the Mennonite Store.

Love the values listed here at the Mennonite Store.

We continue back along the bumpy road and to San Ignacio and don’t mind the drive, since our guide Eddie is so knowledgeable about the whole area. We decide to rest up and head to the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich for the afternoon.

Logistics

We booked our tour with Chelo (aka Sergio) of Destiny Tours located inside Flayva’s Restaurant (located in the heart of downtown). The tour cost $55 US per person with no charge for our children. Chelo can be reached at 604.4345 or 501.804.2267

Images of Barton Creek Cave – Cayo District, Belize

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#438770 - 05/24/12 03:10 PM Re: Barton Creek Cave gets some exposure [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

Barton Creek Cave on 'most beautiful and unusual caves' list

Barton Creek Cave is world famous, and canoeing through it is quite an experience. It was just listed as one of the 9 most beautiful and unusual caves in the world. Mother Nature Network is right to put it on their list.

"This cave was considered the 'underworld' by the ancient Mayans who inhabited the area and was used as a burial place. Human remains can still be found inside the cave. It is this unique history and Barton's amazing rock formations that make it one of the more interesting of all of Central America’s underground attractions.


9 of the world's most beautiful and unusual cave destinations

Another underground waterway that makes it on to many tourists' itineraries is the Barton Creek Cave in the Central American nation of Belize. This cave was considered the “underworld” by the ancient Mayans who inhabited the area and was used as a burial place. Human remains can still be found inside the cave. It is this unique history and Barton's amazing rock formations that make it one of the more interesting of all of Central America’s underground attractions. Barton is located in the Cayo District, a region of Belize known for its eco-tourism. Tour companies offer guided canoe cruises through the cave. Truly adventurous travelers can swim in the cave's waters. The unusual nature of these underground waterways makes Barton an attractive caving option, but it is the cave's spectacular domed chambers that earn it a place alongside the world's best cave destinations.


Barton Creek Cave

Glide through a remote underground water cave system in a canoe equipped with powerful spotlights. It is believed that the Maya once used this cave for ritual burials. Access to this cave is through a picturesque Mennonite farm community. While canoeing through the cave see large and colorful formations, skeletal remains and other cultural artifacts left behind by the Maya centuries ago. Swim in its cool waters by a small waterfall inside the cave. From the cave's entrance it's about a mile through the cave to the stopping point.

Tour details:

Departures: 8:00 am and 1:00 pm

Distance : Approximately 1 1/2- hour drive time from Chaa Creek Resort.

Duration: Half day

Fitness: Basic to moderate

Lunch: Pack lunch can be pre arranged with concierge if required

Dress: Short or long pants and comfortable walking footwear- sleeve lengths are optional

What To Bring Along:

Hat, extra clothes, water, insect repellant, camera and raingear if needed.


A Preliminary Report on the Archaeological Investigations at Barton Creek Cave

The Barton Creek Cave Site is best known as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Cayo District, Belize. The cave’s large riverine passage and pristine formations are just two of the reasons why this site is appealing to both local and foreign visitors. Beside its natural beauty, the site is made even more interesting by the presence of a wide range of cultural remains that were deposited within the cave by the ancient Maya. Numerous artifacts, hearths, modified cave formations, and human remains that were deposited on various ledges above the river all serve to indicate that the cave was of great ritual importance to the Maya who once inhabited the upper Barton Creek Valley.

This brief report presents preliminary results of archaeological research that was conducted in the cave by the Western Belize Regional Cave Project (WBRCP). The WBRCP operates under the auspices of the Department of Archaeology, in Belmopan Belize, and under the direction of the senior author. It should also be noted that investigations at Barton Creek are ongoing thus a more detailed report will be available following completion of our research.

Like numerous other caves in western Belize, Barton Creek Cave represents a very fragile and sensitive environment. The site’s cultural and natural resources are therefore at the mercy of responsible human intrusion. The responsibility of the WBRCP is to document the cave’s cultural materials before such valuable information is lost. On the other hand, the responsibility of all archaeologists, tour guides and visitors is to preserve the site and to ensure that it will be enjoyed by many future generations.

History of Archaeological Research
The first archaeological investigation of Barton Creek Cave was conducted in the 1970’s by Barbara MacLeod and Carol J. Rushin-Bell. MacLeod and Rushin-Bell were Peace Corps volunteers attached to the Belize Department of Archaeology and had been recruited by the Archaeological Commissioner to assist with the exploration and recording of cave sites in Belize. During their exploratory trip to Barton Creek they found the cave predominantly undisturbed by looters and both cultural and natural features were still in relatively pristine conditions. MacLeod informed us that following their trip they produced a brief report of their preliminary investigations. Unfortunately, the report has yet to be located, and thus we know little of how the cave must have appeared in earlier times.

More recent investigations of Barton Creek Cave began during the Western Belize Regional Cave Project’s (WBRCP) 1998 field season. At this time Dr. Jaime Awe, requested the undertaking of a brief reconnaissance into the cave to determine the archaeological potential of the site. Although the cave had been heavily looted and despite the fact that artifacts and other cultural remains had been displaced by irresponsible recreational use, it still held clues that could shed important information on ancient Maya ritual activity in cave sites.

The first season (1998) of investigation at Barton Creek Cave were also prompted by a request from the Department of Archaeology in Belmopan. Because Barton Creek Cave had become the premier tourist cave site in Belize, the D.O.A was concerned that increasing traffic within the cave could completely destroy prehistoric data and remains before they could be professionally recorded and scientifically studied. Over the course of the summer, intensive research thus concentrated in areas of the cave that contained cultural materials. In addition, the Windy City Grotto, a Chicago based spelunking group associated with the National Speleological Society of the United States, aided in the production of a comprehensive map of the cave and its ledges. It is hoped that a preliminary version of this map will be completed during the 2001 field season.

Site Description
Located in the Barton Creek River Valley, of the Cayo District, Belize, Barton Creek Cave is a large subterranean riverine system which, according to informants, could be as long as 10 kilometers. Despite the length of the cave, cultural material is found only within the first kilometer from the main or downstream entrance. In this kilometer long space we discovered ten ledges above the river that contain evidence of ancient Maya activity. This area incorporates the first ledge on the left as one canoes through the entrance of the cave, to roughly 30 meters past a ledge that straddles the river and is commonly known as the “Maya Bridge.”

It should be noted that none of these ledges, or bridges, were constructed by the Maya. In actuality, all the ledges are the result of natural cave formation processes and were formed during the gradual dissolution of softer calcium carbonate deposits and were subsequently covered with flowstone, stalactites, stalagmites and other formations. Later, about 1800 years ago, the Maya began utilizing these ledges for ritual activity. The ceramics that we have found suggest that the Maya were actively using Barton Creek Cave from the Early Classic Period (200 to 600 A.D.) to the Late Classic Period (600 to 900 A.D.). This is typical of many caves in the area, however at this site we are finding Early Classic material deeper into the cave than is the usual pattern.

Artifacts
Currently, a number of interesting artifacts have been discovered in the cave. Some of them are quite unique when compared to the typical cave assemblage found in the surrounding region. One of the most interesting discoveries was a necklace composed of perforated animal finger bones and one carved bone. The carving on the latter bone consisted of a seated figure with his hands across his waist and legs out forward. In another area a small jade pebble with a polished side and an incised circle was located in close proximity to a cluster of limestone rocks. From a small niche in the wall we discovered a carved sandstone spindle whorl. Spindle whorls were used in weaving and it may have been placed in the cave as an offering to Ix Chel the Moon Goddess who is know to be associated with healing, fertility and weaving.

Several chipped stone tools were discovered in various regions of the cave. On one of the ledges a complete laurel-leaf knife was found at the base of a large alcove in association with sherds of a censer (incensario) and other vessels. It is possible that this alcove was central to some important Maya ritual in which this blade was cast aside at the end of a ceremony, thus landing at the base of the entrance to the alcove. These tools are commonly found in caves throughout the region. Other stone tools include several metates and manos. The manos were all found cached in small niches in the wall and the single in situ metate was discovered with a portion broken off in the middle of a chamber next to an inverted complete olla. The explanation of these artifacts may be related to Maya creation myths, or in particular, the Maya belief that humans were created from corn in a cave. They may have also been used to make ceremonial (corn) bread that was used during an important ritual in the cave.

Hearths
A large number of hearths were discovered throughout the cave. These features are recognized by a light-gray, ash lens speckled with charcoal flecks and fragments. Typically these features were found against the wall or near the drop to the river. Little evidence of cooking have been found associated with these hearths, therefore we believe that the predominant function of the hearths was to provide light or lighting effects on the ledges, or for the burning of copal and other offerings.

One particularly interesting hearth contained the remains of 6 to 10 burnt corncobs and large quantities of the stem and leaves or the corn plant. Other plant remains appear to include pine needles that apparently had been spread over the floor of the ledge. A similar practice continues in Chiapas and Highland Guatemala where the contemporary Maya still spread a bed of pine needles and flowers over the floor of areas they utilize for ritual activities. Associated with the latter hearth were also a very small olla, a laurel leaf chert biface and a crude chert adze (or hoe). It is believed that this may be some sort of agricultural ritual associated with the first fruiting of the corn based on the evidence that the size of the cobs are fairly small (C. Morehart, personal communication 2000.)

Human Remains
Osteological investigations have revealed that at least 28 individuals were left in Barton Creek Cave. These individuals range in age from young children to older adults. One of the biggest questions regarding these human remains in the cave is whether or not they represent victims of sacrifice. At this point in the analysis, we are unable to provide a conclusive answer for this question. The fact that many of the individuals in the cave are children suggests that sacrifice may be the strongest possibility and that these children represent offerings to the rain god, Chac, whom the Maya believed to have resided in caves. However, there are other individuals in the cave, such as an older adult female who suffered from many diseases and who seems an unlikely candidate for sacrificial offering. The latter may suggest that perhaps some individuals may have been placed in the cave as a form of ancestor worship.

Most of the individuals in this cave were found placed in dry rimstone pools or depressions in the floor over a blanket of ash and charcoal. This indicates that some organic material was burnt over or around the deceased and that perhaps the burning of these materials may have been a form of purification of the area in which they are placing their dead or sacrificial victims.

Current investigations of the skeletal remains have much to reveal regarding the health and well being of this population. The teeth and bones of the individuals can provide us with insight into the ancient Maya diet and disease as well as cultural modifications of both teeth and cranium.

Modified Cave Features
One area of the cave, where several drapery formations were broken, appears to have been extensively modified by the Maya to improve access to an otherwise difficult to reach locatgion. The best example of this situation was in the upper reaches of a ledge in which they broke through three successive draperies to gain entry to a rimstone pool in which a small child and an olla were interred. This modification was obviously intended to facilitate access to this rimstone pool where the sacrifice of the child may have taken place as part some fertility ritual.


Other areas of modification are less dramatic; however, they are very similar in which drapery formations were broken as a means of providing access to chambers. Other forms of modification include biconically-drilled holes in flowstone. These holes may have been used to attach ropes as a means of climbing hazardous areas. A total of two, possibly three, drilled holes have been discovered to date.

Once again we would like to emphasize that the area of the cave commonly known as the “Maya Bridge” was not constructed or modified in any way by the Maya. This bridge is a natural flowstone formation and was left straddling the main passage when the level of the river dropped due to the erosion of the river bed. The holes in the flowstone, which some have suggested to be footholds carved by the Maya, are also natural features caused by either dripwater or acidic bat feces which dissolves the calcium carbonate rocks.

Concluding Remarks
Our work at Barton Creek Cave has produced a number of interesting finds which generally conform to other patterns of ancient Maya cave use in the region. The placement of individuals in rimstone pools or near formations and dripping water suggests that these individuals may have been interred or offered to the rain god Chac in the Late Classic Period. This was a time of stress in Maya prehistory when overpopulation, depletion of soils and drought were affecting the survival of the culture. We believe that in these desperate times the Maya may have intensified ritual activity to their gods and the presentation of human offerings in exchange for rain was a major part of there ceremonies. This is not to suggest that the cave was exclusively used for this purpose because it is also possible that ancestor worship may have also played a role in early Maya cave use.

In other areas of the cave different types of artifacts were discovered and these also help to indicate the use of the cave by the ancient Maya. Large globular shape vessels known as ollas were placed under dripping water in small recesses near the wall. These vessels were situated in such a manner so as to collect water, which, until it reaches the floor, was considered sacred by the Maya, much like holy water in Catholic churches today. In another area we found a layer of broken sherds 20 to 40 cm thick suggesting that the Maya tossed numerous vessels into a small depression. This type of artifact cluster may be indicative of period-ending events (i.e. katuns, baktuns, etc.) where old ritual vessels were ceremoniously discarded or it they may represent the accumulated debris of vessels that were ritually terminated following their use in important rituals.

Presented here are just a few examples of how Barton Creek was utilized by the Ancient Maya. As archaeologists continue to look at cultural materials from this and other caves, we hope to get a clearer picture of how and why the Maya utilized these sacred places. Tour guides can assist us on our quest to learn more of these early Belizeans, and they can also be our most important partners in our efforts to protect these fragile, beautiful and inspiring locations.

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank the Department of Archaeology in Belize for giving us the privilege to work in Barton Creek Cave. We are particularly indebted to the staff and students of the WBRCP for putting in exhaustive hours in order to complete the research for this season. In particular, we would like to thank Christophe Helmke, Sherry Gibbs, Reiko Ishihara, Cameron Griffith, Jen Piehl, David Lee, and Chris Morehart for their guidance and support. Special thanks goes to David and Eleanor Larsen and all of the cavers of the Windy City Grotto for providing us with light in the darkest of places. We would also like to thank Logan McNatt, Barbara MacCleod, C.J. Rushin-Bell and Bernard Neal for all the information they have provided us. Finally, we would like to thank Mike Bogaert, Snooty Fox, Pedro Cuc, Mark Welch, Carlos, and all of the tour guides for both your patience and assistance.


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#439034 - 05/28/12 01:46 PM Re: Barton Creek Cave gets some exposure [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

Skulls between stalactites


So in the evening we met this nice Canadian girl and she told us that Barton Creek on the north of Belize should be a small paradise. She didn’t have tell us more, next morning we left San Ignacio, with her.

Hot, wet, bumpy road and full car – that was a bit more than hour-long drive. But with a friendly company time was passing by very fast. Until the moment our path was crossed by.. a river. The second part of the road was on the other side of the river, so that was obviously way to go. The glint in Tom’s eyes meant: let’s face the challenge! After checking the depth our dear Dodge Caravan had a small car wash of the underbody. Went fine, and after meeting our first Mennonites, we reached the Barton Creek Outpost, lovely base for many adventures in the jungle.

An American family with couple of kids moved in to this lonely corner some years ago and started the lodging and camping possibilities at the river. There are hammocks, amazing home made food, small library, very homely atmosphere. Right there you can jump into the river like a Tarzan (like Tom), eat oranges from the tree or watch parrots or toucans on the trees.

Just some metres away there is a cave (Barton Creek Cave), which you can visit by kayak and check out 8km of passages. It is known both: as a touristic destination but also as a archaeological site. In cave there were found remains of at least 28 humans and many pottery shards, which makes scientist believe there was a life already at the beginning of 1st century. The strong evidence exist already in the first kilometre of kayaking, where on the left ledge one can see human bones and skulls. In the dark as hell cave, between stalactites and flying bats, it makes a strong impression.

Especially that we made the trip just with a security guy, after the opening hours (during day the entrance costs something like 60 US dollars a person!), in the late evening. We were all sitting in a moving kayak. I was holding Hanna on the front with one hand, and holding a lamp in the other hand. Tom was holding Mila and the camera. The guy was paddling. All the bats were flying into my face and turning just centimetres in front of me, Hanna was holding my hand much stronger then usual. It was all a very exiting experience but was also very good to leave this cave.

Night in Barton Creek is a truly special thing. All those glow warms appearing around our car, all the voices of nature, which sounded like a whisper and rustle, the humid smells. First time in this wet, dark jungle I had a goose pimples.

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