By Jaime Awe, Vanessa Owen and Michael Mirro
Western Belize Regional Cave Project
Belize Department of Archaeology
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.