Naj Tunich:

 

Entrance to the Maya Underworld

 

 

 

by JAMES E. BRADY and ANDREA STONE

 

 

 

Naj Tunich main page

 

Naj Tunich New Branch

 

Vandalism at Naj Tunich

 

Spectrographic analysis of Naj Tunich pictographs

 

Archaeology at Talgua Cave

 

                The recently discovered Naj Tunich Cave promises to provide valuable information on Maya art and writing. More than 500 hieroglyphs were found here, along with paintings, artifacts and petroglyphs. (Detail, far left) A typical view of a passage and (next detail) the lighted chamber at the floor level, one of six interconnected rooms before the balcony, give some idea of what the cave looked like. The ceiling in the entrance (next detail) is covered with stalactites and petroglyphs of human faces were found on the walls (detail, far right). Perhaps the most beautiful hieroglyphic text in the cave (background, detail of text), this inscription contains two dates corresponding to August 25, A.D. 744 and August 20, A.D. 772 but it is not certain what these dates refer to.

 

                Caves, the world over, are physically and psychologically powerful places. They move us to deep and primordial responses, and constitute the archetypal place of transition between the upper world and the underworld. From time immemorial they have been important in humanity's religious evolution as we well know from the Paleolithic cave art at such famous sites as Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain.

 

                For the ancient Maya, too, caves were considered sacred sites, ones that functioned as the all-important juncture between the ordinary world and the underworld. They were the abode of the underworld gods, especially the vital deities controlling rain and fertility. Even today among contemporary Maya, the rich traditions that surrounded caves in ancient times are intact in such countries as Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, where traditional Maya folkways still flourish. The modern Tzotzil Maya, for instance, who live in Highland Chiapas, Mexico, still believe that rain gods live in caves and cause it to rain by driving the clouds and lightning out of the caves and into the sky. They also believe that caves constitute the abode of their village ancestors and provide the pathways used by the souls of the dead when they make their journey into the underworld.

 

                Now, in the Maya lowlands of Guatemala near Belize, a major new Maya cave is being studied. This cave is so rich in artwork, artifacts, tombs, and monumental architecture that it effectively revolutionizes our picture of caves as an element of Maya social and religious life, particularly among the elite. The site possesses unique features, and gives evidence of child sacrifice, ritual bloodletting, and intercourse - sacred activates which may have been accompanied by alerted states of consciousness induced by alcoholic or hallucinogenic substances. Members of Maya royalty may be included among those who were buried there. A sacred site from as early as the late Preclassic period, around 100 B.C., this cave continued in use until the Late Classic era (A.D. 550-900), although its greatest use occurred during the Early Classic phase from A.D. 250-550.

 

                Known as Naj Tunich - pronounced Nah Too-Neech - this cave has caused especially great excitement because of the large number of Late Classic inscriptions and figures of the highest aesthetic quality painted on the walls of the cave - 500 paintings all told, a surprisingly large number given the extreme rarity of paintings in Maya caves. Until the discovery of Naj Tunich no single Maya cave was known to contain more than 85 glyphs and a few figurative images, and caves with any Classic-style paintings could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Indeed, the magnitude of this find might be likened to the discovery of a new Maya codex, of which only four are now known. Even more important, the many inscriptions and scenes evident at Naj Tunich provide a new context for the interpretation of Maya art and writing.

 

                Naj Tunich lies in the foothills of the Maya Mountains, which rise in the southeastern corner of the department of El Peten, Guatemala, five kilometers from the Belizean border. The cave was discovered early in 1980 by a Kekchi Maya Indian, Bernabe Pop, while he was hunting: Bernabe's dogs chased a peccary down a dark train, and his pursuit led him into the enormous entrance chamber of one of the greatest discoveries of Maya archaeology.

 

                Pop and his father, Emilio, explored the cave on a number of subsequent visits and discovered the inscriptions. The Pops revealed the existence of the cave to Mike De Vine, an American living in Poptun, who acted as a guide to tourists interested in visiting the site. The first visitor to the cave with an anthropological background was Yale linguist Pierre Ventur, Text Box:  

Andrea Stone by Structure number 1.
who made the trip in June of 1980 and gave the site its name, "Naj Tunich," which means "stone house" or "cave" in the local Mopan Maya language.

 

                Photographer Jacque VanKirk, whom De Vine took to Naj Tunich to photograph the drawings, reported the cave to the Instituto de Antropologia e Historia de Guatemala and provided the photo- graphs for a story that appeared in Prensa Libre at the end of August 1980. In January of 1981 a National Geographic film crew spent several days at the cave to gather material for an article that appeared in their August issue. Two spelunkers, Ernie Garza and Karen Witte, mapped the cave in February 1981 and published a short description of the cave in the July 1981 National Speleological Society News. Later they produced versions of their map for both National Geographic and author James Brady, then director of the Asociacion de Cultura Maya, a non-profit archaeological research foundation. During a visit in February 1981 by Brady and photographer VanKirk, all of the inscriptions were photographically recorded and plans were made for a more extensive survey, permission for which was granted by Francis Polo Sifontes, Director of the Instituto de Antropologia. The work was undertaken in late June and early July 1981 with a five- member crew that included co- author Andrea Stone. With the map supplied by spelunker Garza, the cave was surveyed, artifacts were located, counted and mapped, and detailed maps were made of several areas, including a very complicated one of the balcony. Stone, at the time a University of Texas graduate student doing doctoral research in Guatemala, volunteered to draw, measure and record all of the cave's artwork. She plans to finish the catalog of drawings during the 1986-87 academic year while holding a Dumbarton Oaks fellowship.

 

                A second season of work approved by the director of the Instituto de Antropologia was carried out in March and April 1982. During this time all surface artifacts were removed from the cave, several additional maps were made, excavations on the upper level of the balcony were undertaken, and one of the looted tombs was cleared. In addition, an iron grate was installed across the entrance of the tunnel to protect the drawings.

 

                In April 1984, the Instituto de Antropologia approved the loan of the Naj Tunich artifacts for study at UCLA and later approved a short field season in April 1986, during which several test pits were excavated in front of the mouth of the cave. The 1981 and 1982 fieldwork was supported by the Asociacion Tikal and the Asociacion de Cultura Maya. More recently the UCLA Graduate Division and the UCLA Friends of Archaeology have supported the fieldwork and also provided generous grants to support technical analyses. What follows here is a preliminary report on the significant features and artwork of Naj Tunich.

 

                The entrance hall into which Bernabe first made his way proved to be an enormous chamber, 30 meters deep and running 150 meters east to west. Running off this entrance chamber was a tunnel system, generally 15 meters in diameter, that extended for nearly 300 meters before branching off into two forks, one leading east, the other leading northwest. A standing pool, and another that no longer holds water, were discovered in the cave as well- both having functioned as ceremonial centers for the early Maya.

                .It turns out that even before one enters the cave, the site has unique features. The entrance to the cave lies at the end of a ravine, 50 meters in front of which stand a pair of low mounds which effectively span the ravine; these mounds appear to constitute a kind of gateway to the sacred precinct, and are possibly the remnants of platforms that restricted access to the cave. These mounds have yet to be excavated, but if they do prove to be the remnants of a gateway type of construction, they will be the first such among the known corpus of Maya caves. (Of perhaps 100 caves discovered, about two dozen have been reported in some detail. )

 

                Before we look at the specific features of the cave, it is important to establish why the fact of its use by members of the Maya elite is so important archaeologically. The reason for the paucity of caves with elite associations lies in the highly stratified nature of ancient Maya society, in which rituals, religious beliefs and even places of worship might differ between the priestly elite and the common peasant. With few exceptions-Naj Tunich is now the chief one-lowland Maya caves were devoted to use by more common folk. That Naj Tunich was a place of worship among the elite is reasonably established by the massive architectural construction, the presence of elite burials, the abundant artifact assemblage, which includes jade and polychrome pottery, and finally, and most decisively, by the impressive paintings it contains.

 

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A Maya figure wearing special headgear is identified as a ball player: He is standing in front of the ball court with a ball and is in the process of playing the Maya ritual ball game. (Inset) The Maya are known for being prudish in depicting sexual activity in their art, so it was especially surprising to uncover this erotic scene. Thought to represent the Moon Goddess with a consort, this is probably one of the most sexually explicit scenes in Maya art.

                Three major areas in the cave have been identified as centers of Maya ceremonial activity. One of these falls within the main entrance hall; the other two fall within the tunnel system, one 40 meters into the main tunnel, the other at the very end of the east branch, which is as far inside the cave as it is possible to get. These three areas, combined, are characterized by impressive modifications to the natural contours of the cave, particularly in the entrance hall, and by tombs, alcoves and the like. It is worth pointing out here that the paintings and these centers of ceremonial activity are separate from one another; the Maya chose large, prominent panels of flat stone for their paintings, but tended to make their offerings in small alcoves or under outcroppings in the cave wall. The central tunnel at Naj Tunich before the bifurcation contains only two paintings; the remainder of the artwork, the petroglyphs and paintings, occurs in the two branches. Although almost no artifacts were found in the west branch, 60 of the 87 paintings were there. The main entrance hall contains no artwork whatsoever.

 

                The massive entrance hall is filled with semi-daylight making its way in from outside, and it is a truly impressive space. Its stalactite-covered ceiling rises 30 meters above the level mud floor. A natural rise occurs in the eastern third of this hall which the Maya modified with an elaborate system of retaining walls; the areas behind these walls were filled and leveled to create a balcony which rises 14 meters, in two broad tiers, from the entrance floor. The sheer scale of construction here exceeds anything yet reported for a Maya cave anywhere.

 

                Of the three locations especially sacred to the Maya inside the cave, the first is the two-tiered balcony. The lower level of the balcony contains fewer artifacts than the upper, so the lower level was probably less intensively used. On the other hand, a shaft leading down from the lower level contained six small chambers, where the remains of at least two children were found, possibly sacrificial victims. These same chambers also contained numerous ceremonial objects including miniature vessels, incense burners and bone needles, whose ceremonial role we shall return to later. Several other passages led off of the lower level of the balcony, but none were as large or as elaborate as the shaft. These other passages, too, contained evidence of human activity, but it is clear that none of them could have held more than one or two persons at a time. Even diminutive Maya workers taking part in the excavating had a hard time squeezing down them.

 

                The question of child sacrifice is a problematic one, but we believe that the evidence at Naj Tunich points in that direction. Of the 20 individuals so far recovered from the cave, four were small children and four others were juveniles. The best preserved skeleton is that of a small child, five to six years old, whose skull bears three holes that show no signs of healing. This child is buried in a shallow grave in the rear of the central tunnel, and may have been put to death for ritual purposes as a sacrifice to one of the Maya gods, particularly the rain god. David Pendergast of the Royal Ontario Museum has discovered an analogous child's skull at Eduardo Quiroz Cave in Belize which also bears several unhealed holes. Pendergast speculates that this child, three to five years old, had been a sacrificial victim; and the child killed at Naj Tunich may have been one as well, given the lack of grave goods and the haphazard nature of the grave. The skeletons of the other children in the cave were too fragmentary or too disturbed to allow us to say a great deal about their function in the cave or the cause of death; but it is known that the Maya practiced ritual sacrifice of children to the rain god, who was widely seen as residing in a cave.

 

                The upper level of the balcony in the entrance hall was the site of six structures which we believe to have been tombs. All six had been looted, and may have been looted in ancient times, to judge from a large stalagmite that has formed on top of one partially destroyed wall. So far, only one–Structure 2–has been thoroughly excavated; three are particularly important because they were masonry structures. The other three were simpler and consisted of adaptations of natural features in the cave. Two were alcoves which had been sealed with a stone wall, whereas the other contained a doorway – a feature indicating that it may have had another function before it served as a tomb. Probably, at the time the body was laid on the floor, the doorway was blocked with stones and a second wall was constructed in front of the first to hide all traces of the sealed door.

 

                The three tombs that were actually built as tombs are the first of this kind ever reported from a Maya cave, and they clearly point to the elite status of their occupants. The floor of Structure 2, the only one scientifically explored so far, lies entirely above the ground and was leveled by cutting the protruding stalagmites and then paving the area with flat stones. The walls of this tomb are nearly a meter thick. They were constructed of limestone blocks facing the inner and outer surfaces of a rubble core. Since this tomb was filled with several inches of ash and partially burned beams, we can surmise that it originally had a wooden ceiling or roof; but the early looting and subsequent toppling of the walls have left few of the original contents intact.

 

                Fragments of human skeletal material were found on the floor, and several jade beads and a small plain jade plaque were found in the rubble in front of the tomb. An incomplete rim of a vessel found here bears a text with two glyphs associated from Maya kingship, which loosely translated might read "lord of the office, lord of succession;" so it is virtually certain that this was the burial place of a member of the elite, and possibly of Maya royalty. It is a shame that this tomb's state of poor preservation deprives us of more knowledge about an important individual.

 

                The upper portion of the balcony has yet another interesting feature, a room that contained a shallow pool artificially dammed by the ancient Maya. This room is somewhat lower than the rest of the upper level, and in former times water drained through it to the floor of the entrance hall, until at some time the water created a new exit or drainage for itself. The pool no longer holds water. Bodies of standing water were considered sacred in Maya religion and are often filled with offerings. But to have a body of standing water inside a cave would intensify its sacred nature, so one can easily appreciate the importance of this pool on the balcony with its spectacular location. Offerings were thrown into the pool from a ledge above; some of the ceramics can still be seen cemented to the floor by calcite.

 

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The rim of this Late Classic polychrome bowl was found in association with an elite burial (left). Jade offerings, like this jade mask found in the alcove next to the Silent Well (right), were often burned before being offered.
                The second area of ceremonial importance at Naj Tunich is the one located 40 meters into the tunnel system, and centers around yet another pool of water, the second of three within the cave. This section of the cave is a quite elaborate one: just north of the pool is a small earthen platform with three steps cut into its southern end. These steps, and the leveled top of the platform, constitute the only architectural feature in the tunnel system, and were undoubtedly located here for their proximity to the pool. The top of the platform contained the heaviest concentration of artifacts in the whole tunnel system. In the center of the tunnel, moreover, in front of the platform, is an altar-like calcite formation built up by ceiling .dripwater; pottery vessels left here, including an Early Classic polychrome bowl, have also been cemented to the stone by the buildup of calcite: And finally, a series of three small alcoves stands against the cave wall opposite the platform.

 

                The artifacts found in this complex part of the cave were both abundant and important. On the ledge overlooking the pool, to begin with, large quantities of Preclassic pottery (100 B.C.-A.D. 250) were found. The quantity of artifacts here indicates that this area of the cave was one of the most significant from the earliest times. The heavy concentration of artifacts on top of the platform included not only ceramics, but an obsidian blade, several shell pendants, and a pottery pendant. While most of the ceramics were Early Classic in date, as we said, we also recovered and restored a highly polished Late Classic bowl with faces modeled on two sides. The three small alcoves against the cave wall opposite the platform also contained evidence of a great deal of use. Mixed in with charcoal and broken pottery were several obsidian blades, a shell pendant and a small corn cob.

 

                The final area of intense ceremonial activity in Naj Tunich was discovered at the end of the east branch of the tunnel system at the farthest point from the cave entrance-a deep shaft five meters wide at its mouth, dubbed the "Silent Well" by an earlier team of explorers, Ernie Garza and Karen Witte of the National Speleological Society. The approach to this well slopes dramatically downward and the floor of the tunnel turns into a deep layer of mud. Bare footprints in clay along the cave walls skirting this mud remind us of ancient Maya pilgrims making their way to this site. The well has yet to be explored, but we surmise that it, too, was very likely the receptacle of ceremonial offerings.

 

                The evidence for intense activity occurs near this well, under a projecting portion of the cave wall. Here we encountered a deep midden of broken pottery, charcoal and burnt stone. Once again we found Preclassic pottery, but the use of the well was not limited to the Preclassic period. Found in the debris. was a Late Classic jade head indicating that the Silent Well remained ritually important throughout the cave's long period of continuous use. Preclassic ceramics in the cave as a whole, however, are restricted to the three major areas of ceremonial use.

 

                Again, the period of greatest activity within the cave seems to have occurred during the Early Classic period (A.D. 250-550), which is when the balcony platform was built. What caused this florescence is uncertain, but it seems to have been heralded by the appearance of large amounts of Protoclassic (A.D. 50-250) pottery. While Late Classic artifacts are rarer, it is from the Late Classic that the inscriptions and paintings date, and several of the tombs may date from this period as well. Quite clearly, Naj Tunich was an important religious shrine for centuries before the paintings were executed: and indeed, it is quite probable that the cave was chosen to house this impressive corpus of paintings precisely because of its established position of ceremonial importance.

 

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A number of bone needles have been found in the cave, and they are thought to have been used in the bloodletting rites. The largest (broken) measures 4.1 centimeters.
                When we contrast the artwork of Naj Tunich with that of most other Maya caves, its sophistication becomes immediately apparent. Most Maya cave art is carved into flowstone formations, the most common being petroglyphs forming geometrical patterns and modifications of stalagmites to resemble human faces or figures. Petroglyphs in the form of step frets, cloud symbols and a design resembling an akbal glyph – all  of which have been found at Petroglyph Cave, Belize – constitute another important category. In general, this art is not readily datable. It is crudely rendered and does not resemble the art found in the administrative/ceremonial centers of Maya civilization, even though some of it is surely contemporary with the Classic period. In other words, most Maya non-portable cave art simply does not reflect the artistry or formal vocabulary of elite art. Considered in this light, the art at Naj Tunich becomes all the more remarkable since the artist or artists who executed these works had to be brought to the site, a matter of inconvenience, to say the least, when the artist lives in a distant population center. In the case of Naj Tunich this may have been over 25 kilometers away.

 

                Such considerations, however, leave us with this interesting question: If caves were supposed to represent sacred spaces in Maya cosmology, why are the elite associations with caves so visibly few in number? The answer remains uncertain, but we can propose the following. Throughout Mesoamerica from the time of the Olmec (ca. 1200 B.C.) to the time of the Conquest, we find caves symbolically portrayed as the open mouth of the jaguar, serpent or earth monster. This motif, adorning temple door- ways, drew on the sacredness of .caves by symbolically creating a cave in the urban center. The sanctification of such centers, moreover, was one of the powerful ways in which Mesoamerican rulers helped to legitimize their divine authority, and hence their political control. The elite class, then, would have little interest in patronizing any cave – real or otherwise – other than the symbolic temple/caves which buttressed their own authority. The peasants, meanwhile, continued to make offerings in their caves as they had done before the elite controlled the Maya lowlands, and as they have continued to do long after the elites disappeared.

 

                Whether this explanation is entirely correct or not, we have the unique advantage in Naj Tunich of being able to look at the paintings themselves for assistance in interpreting the cave's importance. To begin with, we should note the variety of motifs which appear in these paintings, which range in size from four centimeters to 1.7 meters. One group depicts men either next to or drinking from a bowl; another group depicts the act of autosacrifice by males, which most often involved piercing the penis with a sharp instrument and dripping the blood on paper to be burned. Yet another group relates to the cave as the abode of the underworld gods. The cave also contains a surprisingly large number of human profiles, 18 in all, and, quite significantly, the most explicit portrayal of sexual intercourse in Maya art. The many inscriptions in the cave provide a new context for the interpretation of Maya writing as well.

 

                The painting of a man associated with a bowl may well reflect a ritual, as we said at the outset, in which men sought to achieve altered states of consciousness by ingesting mind-altering substances. The scene in question may depict men consuming balche, an alcoholic drink made of fermented honey, water and the bark of the balche tree, or perhaps some other mind-altering substance – a possibility we derive from an important paper by Barbara MacLeod of the University of Texas and the late Dennis Puleston of the University of Minnesota, according to which a major focus of ritual activity in Maya caves was to achieve altered states of consciousness. In the painting, the bowl is held by a figure wearing a deer headdress and facing a dwarf, identified by his stocky build and pinched facial features. In the murals at Bonampak, it is clear that music was an integral part of elite ceremonial life. At Naj Tunich there are two .scenes depicting groups of musicians playing drums and wind instruments. A portion of what appears to be a bone flute as well as a number of broken whistles have been recovered in excavation.

 

                The artwork depicting the act of bloodletting is of particular importance, since although blood- letting is often shown in Maya art it is rarely so graphic as in the paintings at Naj Tunich. In conservative depictions, a male figure, often richly garbed, holds an object, symbolically representing the bloodletting instrument, near or below his waist. In contrast, at Naj Tunich we see a nude squatting figure with his penis prominently represented, and a standing figure who appears to be looking away as he holds a bloodletter near his groin. A third such figure stands with his eyes turned heavenward while he holds his hands near his groin, a clear signal of his intentions.

 

                It is in the context of these paintings that the obsidian blades and bone needles found in the cave become important, for these are the instruments that probably served as bloodletters. Further support for bloodletting comes from a fragment of a cylindrical polychrome vase found in the chambers below the first level of the balcony, which shows a seated figure with liquid falling from his hand. This posture is generally thought to depict the ceremonial scattering of blood following autosacrifice.

 

                What accounts for the graphic nature of the bloodletting scenes in the art and ritual of Naj Tunich. We must remember how the interior of a cave can affect us: the fantastic terrain, the unsettling effect of darkness, and unexplained noises make caves superb settings for extraordinary experiences, at once more profound and more private than experiences in the daylight world. The presumably restricted access to Naj Tunich, in combination with these factors, may well have loosened the restraints of formality seen in Maya public art. Such changes in the normal patterns of things might also help to account for the depiction of intercourse. The scene in question shows a man and woman locked in embrace, accompanied by a fragmentary hieroglyphic text. The male figure is nude and sexually aroused, while the elegant female figure – identifiable from the long queue of hair trailing down her back – is clothed in a triangular garment hugging her hips. This vivid but nonetheless enigmatic scene may be related in its meaning to the bloodletting scenes already considered. The work of Linda Schele, of the University of Texas, on the inscriptions and scenes of the Palenque Cross Group has revealed that the male bloodletting rite emulated the female procreative and nurturing role. Schele's work has also established that the male ruler of the Maya also used the bloodletting act to nourish the gods. In a more general sense, then, bloodletting was possibly connected to the broader idea of fecundity; and significantly, the scene of blatant sexual intercourse at Naj Tunich is flanked by bloodletting scenes on either side. The amorous couple then may be a restatement, couched in more literal terms, of the desire for fecundity and fertility.

 

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(Above) In this scene a seated figure with a deer head- dress accepts a bowl offered by a kneeling dwarf. (Middle) Naj Tunich is one of only a half a dozen sites to produce large amounts of Protoclassic pottery. (Below) This two-faced Late Classic bowl was recovered on the earthen platform near the pool of water indicating that it may have been ceremonially destroyed in a cave ritual.

                The theme of sexual union has other associations in Maya art that warrant mentioning, particularly with regard to agriculture. The female figure involved in intercourse may represent the archetypal female or, more likely, the moon goddess, who was a kind of ancestral goddess often referred to as "grand- mother" among the Maya. According to some Maya legends, the moon goddess was the first woman to engage in sexual intercourse. It is interesting to note that the moon goddess was also the patroness of the month called Ch'en by the Yucatec Maya- "ch'en" referring to a hole in the ground such as a cave or cenote. In addition, the connection between cave art and themes of procreation is also manifest in an Olmec painting from Oxtotitlan Cave in Guerrero, Mexico. Here, a male with a large erection is shown in union with a jaguar, an animal associated with caves, the night and the underworld- as is the moon goddess. David Grove of the University of Illinois suggests that in the Olmec system of beliefs, the underworld, caves and pro- creation were interrelated; and as we see at Naj Tunich, a set of similar associations persisted among the Maya.

 

                Several paintings suggest that the cave is the abode of the underworld gods. One painting near the Silent Well depicts a pair of figures whom Michael Coe of Yale University has likened to Hunahpu and Xblanque, heroes of the Papal Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiche Maya, whose drama is acted out in an underworld setting called Xibalba. This connecting of the cave to underworld mytho-drama may also be reflected in four paintings that depict ball- players. The Papal Vuh reveals that a ritual ballgame took place in the underworld. Moreover, Maya ball- court markers are often framed with a quatrefoil, a symbol of the entrance into caves or the earth's interior. At Naj Tunich, three of the depicted ball- players face a large rubber ball and the profile of a stepped ballcourt structure, similar to ballcourt architecture portrayed on polychrome pottery. The fourth painting shows a scene in which several human figures appear to be paying obeisance to a ballplayer.

 

                The final category of paintings comprises the human profiles – again, 18 in all. The majority of them measure between four and seven centimeters in height; but the largest is an elegant petroglyph 18 centimeters high, located near the ground in a narrow flowstone passage. A similar profile has been found in the Olmec cave of Oxtotitlan. We do not know what these sketchy profiles signify, but their striking continuity over a 1,500- year period argues, at the very least, for their importance in cave symbolism.

 

                Finally, we come to the hieroglyphic texts, whose repetitive structure holds out the promise that they might eventually be deciphered. Some are clear enough: 17 are "Calendar Round" dates – cyclical dates resulting from the permutation of the ancient Maya 260-day and 365-day calendars – spanning a thirty-three-and-a-half-year period from A.D. 737 to 771. Dates tend to cluster near the summer and winter solstices, a potentially significant pattern inasmuch as the summer dates fall close to the onset of the rainy season, a time when rain-god propitiation might have been practiced at Naj Tunich. Moreover, most of these same summer dates are also found among the hieroglyphs accompanying the blood- letting scenes and the scene of copulation.

                A picture emerges of agricultural-fertility rites that are associated both with this area of the cave and with the rainy season. Indeed, during our 1982 field season, a group of Kekchi Maya inquired about our cave because they believed it to be the abode of the corn god, and they wanted to make offerings in the cave for a bountiful harvest. Three small corn cobs recovered from Naj Tunich reinforce these connections. Both at Naj Tunich and at other caves, moreover, manos and metates – stones for grinding maize – have been found as offerings, possibly in keeping with the important function of Maya caves as sites of rain and agricultural fertility rites.

                What of the dead? It is not surprising that we find references in ethnographic, enthnohistoric and archaeological sources to Maya burials in caves. Analysis of the skeletal material at Naj Tunich, however, as we have already seen, indicates that the cave was more than a cemetery. The skeletons of the children who may have been sacrificial victims give poignant testimony to the profound and some- times grisly need the ancient Maya had to propitiate their deities.

                Since their discovery, the Naj Tunich paintings. have been in constant peril. The paintings were done with a pigment which, unlike paint, never "set" and therefore smears when touched. Great damage has already been done by visitors who couldn't resist touching the artwork. About two weeks after our first visit a looter attempted to steal one of the paintings by sawing through the column on which it was painted. Fortunately, the crystalline structure of the column was too tough for his saw, but the at. tempt left the painting covered with a fine white dust. Immediately after the incident, the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History posted guards, and through the cooperation of a number of parties further precautions were taken. The Tikal Association, a group of concerned Guatemalans, paid for the construction of an iron gate at the entrance to the tunnel. The Institute supplied the workers; our project supported the workers and paid for the mules to haul their supplies to the site so that the gate could be installed. Despite these measures, one night early in 1986 looters cut the lock on the gate and dug a number of pits in the hopes of finding artifacts. The Institute has doubled the number of guards as a result.

                We hope to return to Naj Tunich in the Spring of 1987 to complete the scientific exploration of the cave and to see if something can be done to protect the paintings. It would be a tragedy if this fragile treasure which passed more than a millennium in obscurity does not survive a decade of celebrity.

 

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