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Cave Full of Untouched Maya Artifacts Found at Chichén Itzá

The intact offerings will allow researchers to understand changes over time at the site

(INAH)
smithsonian.com

Experts have long been studying and exploring Chichén Itzá, a major set of Maya ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico that includes the impressive pyramid El Castillo. But, as The Associated Press reports, it took a tip—or, more accurately, two tips—from local residents to point them toward an unexplored cave at the site, which contains dozens of artifacts, bones and burnt offerings to the gods.

The cave, about 1.7 miles east of El Castillo was first discovered by locals about 50 years ago. At the time, they alerted archaeologist Víctor Segovia Pinto to the find. He ordered the cavern sealed and issued a brief report, which was soon forgotten. Last year, locals once again pointed out the location to archaeologists, who began investigating anew.

Out of respect for local customs, the team—led by archaeologist Guillermo de Anda—performed a six-hour purification ritual before entering the cave system, known as Balamkú or the Jaguar God, Agence France-Presse reports. Once inside, they belly crawled to reach the seven chambers where the Maya would go to leave offerings, mainly to the central Mexican god of rain, Tlaloc.

To date, researchers have uncovered 155 ceramic incense burners as well as clay boxes and other vessels in the site. They plan to leave the artifacts in situ.

According to Gena Steffens at National Geographic, those associated with the cave rediscovery are all investigators with the Great Maya Aquifer Project, which is working to map the vast network of underground caves, rivers and other water features underneath Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Last year, the Aquifer project mapped part of an unexplored cave system that turned out to link up with existing system, creating the world’s largest underwater cave system.

It’s a stroke of luck that Pinto decided not to remove the artifacts from the cave all those years ago. The untouched state of the cave system gives researchers a chance to investigate how much cultural exchange took place between the Maya civilization and other Central American cultures, and perhaps learn more about the Maya before Chichén Itzá went into decline. Cutting edge 3-D mapping, paleobotany and other recent techniques will all aid in the research effort.

"Balamkú will help rewrite the story of Chichen Itzá, in Yucatán,” de Anda predicted during a press conference held in Mexico City this week.

This is not the only recent discovery at Chichén Itzá.

Archaeologists are hypothesizing that many of the buildings in the archaeological site were built on top of cenotes, or underground lakes. Researchers are attempting to find and map this subterranean world as part of the Chichén Itzá Underground Project, part of the broader Great Maya Aquifer Project. In fact, a few years ago, researchers discovered that the El Castillo pyramid itself is built on top of an ancient cenote, and archaeologists have been searching for tunnels that may lead to the hidden, watery lair below the temple.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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