In the late 1920s, journalist and avocational archaeologist Gregory Mason traveled to then British Honduras, now Belize, to acquire items to add to the ethnography collections of the Heye Museum in New York. During that trip, he learned of three caves deep in the jungle that were unexplored and filled with Maya artifacts. After conducting only a few days of excavations at the caves, which he called Rio Frio Caves A, B, and C, Mason wrapped up his work there and soon left the country with half of the artifacts he collected. His report of his work at the caves talks of impressively massive entrances, formations modified to look like fanged beasts, and incredibly rich archaeological assemblages.
Unfortunately, it reads more like an adventure journal than a scientific paper with is focus being on the mystery, adventure, and character of the people he encountered with scant details and little analysis of what he found. With one additional nearby cave subject to a short salvage operation in the late 1950ís, Masons work remains the only archaeological investigations conducted in Rio Frio caverns until 90 years later when I obtained permission from the Government of Belize to initiate the Rio Frio Regional Archaeological Project-or RiFRAP-in 2018. Many questions remained from Masonís work. When were the caves used? Who was using them? Why were they being used? Was there a local population, or did the cavesí grandeur mark them as long-distance pilgrimage destinations? Are there caves in the area other than those four recorded decades earlier? In this talk, I will address some of these questions and talk about how a failed attempt to locate the 1950s cave turned into career-defining moment.
Dr. Jon Spenard is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at California State University San Marcos. He has been conducting archaeological research in the Maya area for over 20 years. Since 2018 he has been directing the Rio Frio Regional Archaeological Project, which is investigating an area of central Belize that is poorly known to archaeology. The aims of that project are understanding the interactions past Maya people had with the landscape of that area, including ritually-used caves and sources of important economic stone, and how newly documented settlements there were related to larger Maya society.