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Cleofo and Ernesto at Pool 1.
Cleofo and Ernesto at Pool 1.

Lisa J. Lucero, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is studying ancient Maya underwater offerings in central Belize.

Saturday, May 5

On Wednesday, my plane touched down near Belize City. What a difference a day makes. Before, I was leaving my university office in the midst of end-of-semester craziness in flatland Illinois. Now, I'm in a hot and humid jungle. There was little time for relaxing in my 23rd trip to Belize. I have the same amount of paperwork and prep to do for a weeklong project as I do for a six-month project. But I would not give it up for anything.

I am lucky to work with a great bunch of people, who include excavation assistants from the Valley of Peace village, the Carrs at Banana Bank Lodge and the archaeologists at the National Institute of Culture and History at the Belize Institute of Archaeology.

Last May, my goal was to explore the 200-foot-deep cenote at Cara Blanca in central Belize to explore for ancient Maya offerings. A cenote is a sinkhole fed by the water table. But several things prevented exploration: The post-hurricane landscape did not help matters, nor did the dry-season conflagration. Cara Blanca was ground zero for both; the jungle was first flattened and then burned to a crisp. I am anxious to see what has changed after a year.

Breakfast with Mrs. Choc in the Valley of Peace village.
Breakfast with Mrs. Choc in the Valley of Peace village.

Another factor that kept the divers from exploring was the array of discoveries the intrepid explorers made in Pool 1. There was the enormous cave that penetrates into the north side of the cenote at least 160 feet. It began at 100 feet below the surface and bottomed out at more than 220 feet. And then there were the fossilized megafauna bones found in a geological bed 100 feet below surface that rings the entire pool, which is 330 feet long and 230 feet across. The researchers recorded the fossil bed and collected a few specimens, one of which turned out to be the upper arm bone or ball joint of an extinct giant sloth called Eremotherium. Since my last post, the find has been radiocarbon dated to anywhere from 9,000 to 39,000 years ago.

It was not possible to date the actual fossil, since it was completely mineralized, so we dated the soils and some wood the divers collected around the fossils. The wood dated to about 9,000 years ago, and the soil, including small shells, dated to about 39,000 years ago. If it turns out that the fossils fall into the more recent end of this time range, then we could be talking about humans being on the scene at the same time. But to be honest, fossils are not my main interest, though I find the implications fascinating.

I am most interested in ancient Maya offerings, particularly those that date to a certain time period (about A.D. 800 to 900) when increasing evidence shows that a series of multiyear droughts, perhaps as many as eight, struck the Maya area. Artifacts found on the surface near several pools and their associated ceremonial buildings predominantly date to this time frame. Before this period, the Maya visited the pools less frequently; the entire area was largely left untouched by the Maya, though it's likely they visited for pilgrimage. We deduced that from what is present and what's absent. Presently, there are ceremonial buildings and a predominance of water jars used in ceremonies relating to rain and water. But there were no signs of dense settlement in an area with good agricultural soils and year-round water.

The Maya were completely rainfall-dependent for everything, from agricultural systems to political systems. And each year brought a six-month rainy season and a six-month dry season, when it doesn't rain a drop for up to four months. Yet the Maya left this area, with its many cenotes, relatively free of settlements other than ceremonial buildings. This is why we think we should be able to find offerings to the rain god Chaak, other water deities and ancestors in the depths of a portal not only to the underworld but to another world altogether.

The road to pool 1 with Ernesto.
The road to Pool 1 with Ernesto.

In short, the three-day diving expedition will be devoted to searching for offerings that I predict should date to a period in Maya history that had significant repercussions. During this time, the Maya kings from the southern Maya lowlands had disappeared, and many farmers left to find areas where they could successfully grow crops to feed their families.

Ernesto, Cleofo and I went to Pool 1 on Saturday to check the road, which was not too bad. The jungle is greener than last season, but there’s now a visible skyline because of the lack of large trees, which were destroyed in the hurricane and subsequent wildfire. That will take some getting used to. When we arrived at Pool 1, Ernesto and Cleofo began preparing the tarp for shade and the parking area for the two trucks we need to haul the dive gear and underwater photography. Now, we are ready to go.


Joined: Oct 1999
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Diving for Underwater Offerings

Monday, May 7

We did not leave for the field until 9:30 a.m. Because our exploration diver Chip Petersen is using trimix (oxygen, nitrogen and helium) gases, double-checking the gas tanks before and after the hour-plus trip to Pool 1 is critical. Using this gas mix will allow him to safely and effectively explore depths beyond traditional scuba diving, and that is where we expect to find Maya offerings.

At Pool 1, as the divers began getting their gear in order, Ernesto, Cleofo, Juan Antonio and Stanley constructed a ladder that the divers need to enter the pool, since the surface is eight feet below ground level.

Placing a homemade ladder off the diving platform.

Our videographer, Marty O'Farrell, noticed last season that the bottom of the pool is roughly half the size of its surface, because of the slope beginning on the south side going down toward the cave opening. Andrew explored the shelf approximately 15 feet below the surface beneath Structure 1, the ceremonial building (likely a water shrine) on the southwest edge of the pool. Why is this significant? Because this underwater topography (bathymetry) determines where divers search for offerings. If the Maya made offerings from this building, they probably would have either landed on the shelf 15 feet below or rolled all the way down, 150 to 200-plus feet. The depth is the first challenge.

The second challenge is negotiating the numerous trees that have collapsed into the cenote over who knows how many centuries. Naturally, the highest density of trees is found immediately under Structure 1.

The third challenge has to do with visibility, as the following film clip of Andrew emerging from hydrogen sulfide clouds shows. These clouds are in the upper regions of the pool; below, it is crystal clear. Even worse is the fine silt that has settled throughout the pool - any slight movement results in thick clouds through which no technology can penetrate.

But it was a productive day. Below the possible water shrine, about 15 feet under water, Chip, who was exploring the side wall by fanning the silt, found a jar neck sherd that dates to around A.D. 800-900.

Chip with jar neck sherd.

This is an exciting find because all test excavations on surface buildings at Pool 1 and other pools yield predominantly wide-mouth jars - that is, water jars. And they all date to this same time period, which as I mentioned in an earlier post is a period with several multiyear droughts. Such jars were used in major water and rain ceremonies (think of all the famous Maya caves with similar jars) at the pool. After all, it was not just a pool to the ancient Maya, but a portal into the underworld (Xibalba), as well as a place where Chaak, the Maya rain god, resided.

Before leaving, the divers discuss the next day's plans, which will consist of taking a five-gallon plastic bucket and shovel 200 feet down to the bottom of the slope to excavate. What will they find?

New York Times

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