Archaeologists dive deep into the lost world of the Maya
Machete chops echo and leaves rustle underfoot when the vines clear, revealing cobalt-blue water in a cliff-sided pool.
Hidden beneath the dry-season forest, these waters, the blue cenotes (cen-NO-tays) of Cara Blanca, represent a mystery for scholars, one left by the ancient Maya. What lies within these sacred wells?
“Cenotes were portals to the underworld, Xibalba, for the Maya,” says archaeologist Lisa Lucero of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on a tour of the pools in May. “Offerings, artifacts — they would have left something there for the gods. We would expect to find something.”
But the gods of Xibalba (shee-BALL-buh) won’t yield their offerings so easily.
The secrets of the ancient Maya, whose Central American population centers were mysteriously abandoned more than a millennium ago, have long intrigued scientists. Why did such a complex culture disappear?
Lucero and her colleagues are among those trying to understand this lost world. They have been searching the 6-mile-long Cara Blanca site for ruins since 1998, working each year primarily in May and June, before the rainy season.
A team of world-class cave divers assembled by Lucero and geologist Patricia Beddows of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., intend to descend into the depths of three of Cara Blanca’s 23 pools next year. Hazards the divers will face include trees, caves and crocodiles, not to mention 160-foot depths.
“Cenotes bell outward underground, like caves. You can’t treat them like there is clear water over your head. The waters are sulfur-rich. Hydrogen sulfide can make divers sick if they push it, which has happened,” Beddows says. “And there is the depth problem.” Dives in very deep waters put divers at risk of serious health problems, especially if they surface too quickly.
Plumbing the blue depths
The ancient Maya lived in Central America’s lowland forests for thousands of years, starting around 300 B.C. to build a culture of widespread centers marked by pyramids and temples and, stone carvings suggest, ruled by a caste of boastful chiefs. The Maya abandoned these centers around A.D. 900, a mysterious “collapse” ascribed by scholars to warfare, drought, overpopulation and environmental degradation, or a combination of each.
Spanish conquistadors met Maya descendants still living near centers in Mexico’s Yucatán in the 1500s, and today some 6 million Maya still live in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and elsewhere. “The Maya didn’t go away, but their rulers did,” Lucero says.
In 1904, Harvard’s Peabody Museum archaeologist Edward Thompson dredged the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá in Mexico’s Yucatán. He found masks, jade, images of the rain god Chak and human bones. Later dives at Guatemalan lakes near Maya ruins found similar offerings.
Cara Blanca (“White Face,” named after the cliffs above the pools) is itself a mystery to Lucero and her colleagues. Despite the cenotes’ year-round water supply, they occupy a no-man’s-land between two ancient Maya settlements, the midsized center called Yalbac and a smaller one that’s called, in scientist-speak, M195. The smaller settlement is dominated by a 36-foot-high pyramid. The simple answer might be that the cenotes’ salty water is undrinkable. Or it might have been sacred. Or both.
In a survey last year led by archaeologist Andrew Kinkella of Moorpark (Calif.) College, field researchers mapped Cara Blanca’s swath of forest encompassing the pools and determined that only a few structures once lined one pool and one large structure existed between two of the cenotes that the explorers think hold the most promise as sources of artifacts.
“We think they were sweat lodges,” Kinkella says, places of purification before offerings were made to the pools. “Sweat lodges are important places in many Native American traditions. Have you ever been in one? It’s not a day at the sauna. It’s an intense experience. You basically come out of them feeling like you are going to die.”
Last year, an archaeological team co-led by Gary Feinman of Chicago’s Field Museum reported that chemical evidence from Chichén Itzá’s sacred well revealed the key ingredient behind the “Maya Blue” coloring beloved by the ancient Maya. The brilliant pigment is seen in many artifacts, such as artwork and pottery.
At Cara Blanca, he says, “finding offerings in the cenote(s) to be investigated would not be surprising at all, since both water and openings underground had great symbolic meaning and importance for the Maya and other Mesoamerican peoples.”
To explore the pools, Beddows has picked world-class divers, including cave explorers Jill Heinerth, Steve Bogaerts and Bil Phillips, documentary veterans familiar with Yucatán caves whose experience adds up to more than a century of “technical” diving experience. “We will treat it as a cave-diving situation,” adds Beddows, who has arranged for British military personnel (who train in Belize) to provide medical support, if needed, for the expedition.
Over three weeks next May, the team plans about five three-day dives in Pools 1, 2 and 16 of Cara Blanca, with two-day breaks to recover between sessions, and to tag and conserve any artifacts turned up during exploration. They will take 12-foot cores of the bottom and map the cenotes, looking for clues to their geology, and the sulfur-rich chemistry that colors the pools an unearthly blue. “The color is striking and would have interested the Maya,” Beddows says.
Her chief worry is the logs and vegetation at the bottom of the cenotes, which can create a spiked wall for heavily equipped divers who can see only a few feet in the depths. “At the bottom, the chemistry leads to a thick bacterial covering and, very quickly, complete darkness,” she says. These oxygen-poor waters at the bottom of the wells should serve to preserve artifacts, but they also preserve trees that have fallen in over the years. “Some of what we will be doing will be essentially gardening to clear the site,” she says.
Artifacts are most likely to appear on the perimeters of the cenotes, which are the deepest waters and closest to the shore. Diving without scuba gear, Kinkella has retrieved pottery shards from Pool 1, which has mound-covered Maya structures on three of its sides. “At the very least, we should find a wealth of pottery,” Beddows says
Crocs and caves
And then there is the crocodile. Kinkella encountered him last summer while floating with a student on an inner-tube at another cenote, dangling a weighted line into the pool to measure its depth. “We thought it was a log,” he says. “And then it dived and headed right toward us.”
The pair beat a hasty retreat, paddling their float to shore. They’ve since determined that the crocodile travels between the cenotes, perhaps by underground river.
“Oh, he’s the least of our worries,” Beddows says. “He’s not a big croc. They don’t bother anyone. If he’s a problem, we’ll trap him and tote him to another pool.”
Beddows doesn’t expect to find underwater caves large enough for a crocodile, or person, at the cenotes. The limestone underneath the region is “dirty” and crumbly, unlike the Yucatán, famous for its underwater caves hundreds of miles long, or Belize’s Maya Mountains farther south, home to dozens of caves explored by researchers from Belize’s Institute of Archaeology. “Caves were very much seen as portals to Xibalba, also,” says archaeologist Jaime Awe, who heads the institute.
The same low-quality limestone was used in the blocks supporting the Maya structures at Cara Blanca and Yalbac, today covered by mounds of earth. The only clue to their contents comes from the ubiquitous looters’ trenches and the way they suddenly emerge from the flat jungle ferns and undergrowth.
The soils at Cara Blanca are also poor for farming, which may have made it easier for the Maya to leave them as sacred sites. “Yalbac and other places nearby were likely covered with small farms, but weren’t anywhere near the pools,” Kinkella says.
“The truth is we don’t really know what was going on at the cenotes, which is why we are exploring them.”