Dr. Brady

Department of Anthropology


Summary of Naj Tunich Cave Archaeology


Naj Tunich: Entrance to the Maya Underworld
Naj Tunich New Extension
Naj Tunich Vandalism
Multispectral Analysis of Ancient Maya Pigments
Naj Tunich Bibliography


Dr. James E. Brady
Department of Anthropology


     Caves may have been the most sacred places in the ancient Maya landscape, but up until two decades ago, they had been all but ignored by archaeologists. The discovery of Naj Tunich in 1980 and its publication in the August 1981 issue of National Geographic was to change all of that.  Naj Tunich is the preeminent Maya cave site, boasting the most cave architecture ever found, the only elite masonry tombs reported from caves and the largest (and most exceptional) corpus of Maya cave inscriptions and paintings. The investigation of the site throughout the 1980s and the attempt to understand its obvious importance was the catalyst that led to the formation of the field of Maya cave archaeology.

     Naj Tunich is the Mopan Maya term for cave and literally means "stone house", because caves were conceived of as places where the gods lived. But among caves, Naj Tunich must always have been something extraordinary. All the Q'eqchi' Maya in the area agree that it is the largest cave and, shortly after its discovery, one man expressed the opinion that this was where the corn god dwelt.  By 1986, Naj Tunich was drawing regular pilgrimages from local villages of groups making petitions for rain and a good harvest. This is ironic because the hieroglyphic inscriptions suggest that the cave drew visitors from numerous sites and I have proposed that Naj Tunich was an important pilgrimage center on at least a regional scale.

     The site has always produced its share of surprises.  Initially, the large corpus of inscriptions aText Box:  

Monumental architecture inside some chambers enhanced their sacredness.
nd paintings located deep within the tunnel system received the greatest attention. In carrying out the archaeological survey of the cave, I was fortunate that Dr. Andrea Stone agreed to undertake the painstaking task of recording each and every image. While working with Stone in 1988, geologist George Veni found a previously undiscovered passage that dramatically increased the size of the cave and yielded a number of important new paintings. That brought both Stone and myself back in 1989 for more recording. Stone finally completed the illustration and analysis of the entire corpus in 1995 in a wonderful book, Images from the Underworld: Naj Tunich and the Tradition of Maya Cave Painting. But the surprises didn't end there. While recording the paintings with Dr. Gene Ware in 1999 using multispectral imaging, we discovered several totally unexpected cases of over-painting that are now making us suspect that the history of the paintings is far more complex than we had Text Box:  thought.

     In 1989, the cave was vandalized, the pictures defaced and treasures looted. A gate put at the entrance to the cave only partially protected it. Further measures of protection have been put in place. More research of the cave and the painting is projected for future seasons. Naj Tunich cave still has secrets to be discovered.

Dr. James Brady
Department of Anthropology
Tel. 323-343-2024 (office)
Tel. 626-299-0866 (home)
Fax. 323-343-2446
cavearchaeologist@juno.com or  jbrady@calstatela.edu