I've commented before on the incredible pace of discovery in the Maya world. Archaeologists, epigraphers, and other scientists have been producing breakthroughs in our understanding of the Maya for many decades. Well, that does not happen without research on the ground. Lisa J. Lucero, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, just posted a "Notes from the Field" update in The New York Times, "A Year Later, Ready to Dive Again," about her studies of ancient Maya underwater offerings in central Belize.
She has been working in a 200-foot-deep cenote at Cara Blanca, near Valley of Peace village. The dig is in the vicinity of the remarkable Banana Bank Lodge. Her team had discovered bones of an extinct giant sloth called Eremotherium, radiocarbon dated to "anywhere from 9,000 to 39,000 years ago." But, she writes, "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."
Watch Marty O'Farrell's video of Chip Petersen excavating 200 feet deep in underwater Cenotes in Cara Blanca, Belize.
Tuesday, May 8, and Wednesday, May 9
Five-gallon buckets are so very useful. Little did I think we would use them to explore ancient Maya offerings underwater. While dive gear consists of high technology like trimix gases and the underwater camera, archaeology gear consists of low technology, like the bucket and shovel. During excavations, archaeologists usually fill the buckets with dirt, which is then sifted through half-inch or quarter-inch mesh screens for artifacts. But here, Chip would be using the buckets underwater — at a depth of nearly 200 feet.
The plan was to begin excavations downslope from the ceremonial building on the southwest edge of Pool 1, where we think anything the Maya threw in would roll down. But first we had to find empty pigtail buckets at the local gas station. John Carr at the Banana Bank Lodge offered us the use of a broken shovel. Now we were ready to go.
Ernesto handing off bucket and shovel to Chip.
While I was waiting an hour and a half for Chip to surface from his dive, I could not help but wonder what he would find. Meanwhile, Marty captured everything on film. The yellow lift bag, when filled with air from Chip’s tank, helped raise the heavy bucket, which was full of whatever was on the pool bottom. The water made it even heavier than just the usual bucket of dirt. When the lift bag hit the surface, Andrew swam out to get a GPS reading of the exact location Chip excavated relative to the water shrine.
Water jar sherd from 67 feet.
The next challenge was getting the bucket out of the water. The guys devised a “sophisticated” pulley system using rope and a fallen tree overhanging Structure 1, the water shrine. With help from Ernesto, Juan Antonio and Stanley, we painstakingly went though every square inch of what was in the bucket, looking for entities that had not seen the light of day for who knows how long.
Items from the depths of Pool 1. A bone fragment is at the center, and it’s not from any aquatic life.
While we did not find any obvious offerings from the small area Chip excavated, the divers had better luck halfway up the slope toward the water shrine, at a depth of about 70 feet. They found several more water jar sherds there, and also at 15 feet and 5 feet upslope toward the ceremonial building. I think we are on to something.
There are 25 pools at Cara Blanca, and we have only just begun plumbing their depths. In 2010, divers explored eight pools and, in addition to gauging their size and depth, extracted 10-foot-long sediment cores using four-inch-diameter PVC pipe from two pools: Pool 2 (16 feet deep) and Pool 6 (60-feet deep). The history of changing climate and landscape is slowly emerging from the cores via pollen and soil analyses. Radiocarbon dating shows that the Pool 6 core covers a period before and after the Classic period (around A.D. 550-850), the time when the Maya population was at its peak and kings were at their most powerful.
Then kings disappear from history in the southern Maya lowlands. I have told this story before. But now results from several field seasons increasingly demonstrate that something was going on between A.D. 800 and 900. That something is drought. Several multiyear droughts occurred, and all of the water jars date to this 100-year period. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Incredibly, Maya farmers persevered.
A wall from Structure 1 prior to looting in 2010.
Now, I will apply for grants to cover the next several seasons of underwater and above-ground explorations at Cara Blanca. Surface excavations will begin at Structure 1, the ceremonial building and possible water shrine. Looting, which continues to be a problem throughout the Maya area, has left it structurally compromised. Three of the six rooms have been destroyed and emptied of their contents. The untouched rooms we plan to excavate will reveal another side to the ceremonial story and tie in to what we find in the cenote.
After looting in 2010, the Structure 1 wall is mostly gone.
Archaeology is not just about human history. It is about the setting where humans live and its role in the history people create. For the Maya, this means the tropical environment, the annual wet and dry seasons, and how both the tropical setting and seasons affected social, political, economic and religious decision-making. These topics are important, especially when archaeologists cull lessons from the past. And with the world facing the increasing effects of global climate change, it’s worth looking at ancient societies whose farmers continue to survive. Sustainable farming practices got the Maya through the climate instability that perhaps brought an end to the Maya kings.
Marty with limb and ball joint fossils he collected; they were about to fall out of the sidewall 70 feet underwater.
With this in mind, my plan is to bring in many different types of experts. A tropical tree specialist could help date and identify some of the hundreds of trees at pool bottoms to assess landscape change. A paleontologist would also be useful to help identify not only the varied megafauna species, but also to learn how these huge beasts lived and died. A paleobotanist could help conduct a botanical survey of the surrounding landscape to assess ancient forest management. This multipronged approach will bring us closer to understanding the Maya world and how they lived in it.
The 2012 team, from left: Marty, Lisa, Cleofo, Chip, Andrew, Juan Antonio, Stanley.
Until next year, we bid you farewell.
P.S. The world will not end on Dec. 21 or 23, 2012. The Maya calendar just starts at zero again.