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Vol. XIV         Juli 1992         Nr. 4


Explorations in the new branch of Naj Tunich:


  Implications for interpretation



James E. Brady, George Veni,

Andrea Stone, and Allan Cobb









       Operation VIII

       Operation  IX




Paintings and Drawings









                During a photographic project conducted in June 1988 by Dr Andrea Stone and funded by the National Geographic Society, a major new branch was discovered at the Maya cave site of Naj Tunich, Peten, Guatemala (Fig. 1) by geologist George Veni. The preliminary exploration and mapping by Veni disclosed a series of interconnected passages, as well as additional passageways lying beyond a deep pit which he was unable to traverse at that time. Most importantly, Veni noted the complete absence of footprints in the soft powder on the floor of the passages indicating that the area had not been recently visited. In April of 1989, a second expedition, also funded by the National Geographic Society, was organized by the senior author to conduct a detailed archaeological survey of the new passage and to explore the area that Veni had been unable to reach the previous year.

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Fig. 1: Map of Central America showing the location of Naj Tunich.


                Naj Tunich, located in the Maya lowlands of Peten, Guatemala, is one of the larger caves known in Central America, with over three km of passages mapped. The site can be divided into two areas, the entrance and the tunnel system. The entrance is approximately 150 m long and contains a natural rise in the eastern portion of the chamber which was modified by the Maya into a two-tiered balcony. This structure represents the largest quantity of construction ever reported for a Maya cave. Much of the balcony receives at least small amounts of light from the entrance while the tunnel system is completely dark. The tunnel system, reached from the upper level of the balcony, consists of a central passage which splits into a western and a northern branch. The newly discovered section is entered through either of two passages located near the end of the northern branch, some six to eight meters above its floor (Fig. 2).




                Naj Tunich is formed in the Cretaceous Coban Formation, a limestone that was brecciated and recemented after its initial deposition. Overlying the Coban is the Cojaj Formation, a Cretaceous suite of silts, clays and marls. With the Tertiary age uplift of the Maya Mountains, 40 km to the northeast, the bedrock of the Naj Tunich area was uplifted and tilted so that the Cojaj Formation was eroded off the Coban.


                As the Coban' s limestone became exposed at the surface, the process of karstification began whereby sinkholes and caves developed to transmit water as subsurface streams. Naj Tunich was one such stream conduit and developed in three distinct stages: a phreatic stage, a sulfate stage and the modern stage (Veni 1989). During the phreatic stage that Naj Tunich's main passages were formed. The passages were completely filled with water and transmitted an average 1.14 m3/sec of flow by the time they achieved their present size (Veni 1990). Erosion of the land surface resulted in a sudden drop in the area's water table and the draining of water from the cave.


                During the second stage, the surface above Naj Tunich was still largely covered by the Cojaj Formation which prevented the rapid movement of surface water into the cave, but some water carried sulfate ions from minerals within the Cojaj which were deposited as sulfate mineral crusts on the now dry cave walls. Gypsum was initially deposited and was later dehydrated to bassanite or anhydrite.


                In certain locations where the Cojaj had been eroded, rapid sinkhole development ensued and intersected the cave at the southern end forming an entrance, and at the Silent Well at the northern end of the cave. At the Silent Well the main passage filled with sediment and flows tone to form two segments, the northern branch of the main passage and the large passage of Operation IX. Water entering Operation IX could no longer drain towards the cave entrance so the accumulating water created a series of overflow routes resulting in the passages of Operation VIII. Eventually, the deep pit series of Operation IX was created to drain the water directly down to the water table (Veni n.d.).


                The modem stage of Naj Tunich's development is characterized by the complete removal of the Cojaj Formation from above the cave. Sulfate minerals are no longer being deposited on the cave walls, but are slowly spalling off. It is on these surfaces that many of the Maya paintings are found. Currently, water enters and flows through Naj Tunich at only two limited locations. Overall, the cave remains very dry. Removal or disruption of the vegetation overlying the cave could significantly increase the amount of water entering Naj Tunich and could adversely impact its paintings and other archaeological materials.

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Fig. 2: Map of Naj Tunich, Peten, Guatemala (by A. Cobb, A. Stone, and G. Veni 1989)



                Before discussing the interpretation of the material recovered from the expedition, it must be emphasized that the Maya did not live in caves. It has been noted in all areas of the world that when caves are used for habitation, they tend to be either rock shelters or the mouths of caves where there is light and fresh air (Butzer 1971:204-14; Straus 1990:257). When the "dark zone" of a cave is used, it is reserved in all cultures as a place for religious ritual (Hole and Heizer 1965:372). Thus, the location of this new branch deep within Naj Tunich clearly associates the artifacts found there with a ceremonial function. While the presence of altars should make this obvious, the point is so often overlooked that it bears repeating once again.


                For purposes of recording the archaeological remains, the newly discovered portion of the tunnel system has been divided into two areas. The maze of passageways located between the northern branch and the deep pit where exploration stopped in 1988 has been designated Operation VIII. Several lower levels reached by descending into the pit and explored for the first time in 1989 have been separated as Operation IX.


Operation VIII


                Since the new branch is the only area of the cave that has not been subjected to recent looting, one of the primary objectives of the survey was to determine if the artifact distribution in this area was similar to that found in the rest of the tunnel system. Our earlier exploration of the tunnel system found large numbers of broken, unslipped and monochrome slipped jars in alcoves along the cave wall. Did the breakage reflect a pattern of ceremonial destruction as is reported at other caves (Pendergast 1971:112; Graham et al. 1980:168; Carot 1989:26) and known to occur in modern ceremonies (Lothrop 1929: 17-8; Ries 1943), or was this pattern the result of thorough looting in which the polychromes and whole vessels had been removed prior to our survey?


                The survey of Operation VIII recovered 26 lots of artifactual material, 23 of which contained ceramics. Almost all of these lots were found in alcoves along the cave wall as was the case elsewhere in the tunnel system. No intact vessels were found in Operation VIII and the distribution of ceramics appears to be essentially identical to that found in the rest of the tunnel system. This suggests that ceremonial breakage of vessels did occur and was a standard part of rituals practiced at Naj Tunich. As in other parts of the tunnel system, large portions of particular vessels were found lying in restricted areas. While considerable effort was given to reconstruction, a polychrome plate found around an altar was the only vessel restorable to a nearly complete condition. This may indicate that part of each vessel was removed to be deposited elsewhere at the conclusion of the ceremony, a practice noted in modern Maya ritual (Tedlock 1982: 66).


                Over 80 per cent of the ceramics recovered belonged to either unslipped types or to a crude monochrome slipped type. This pattern is similar, once again, to that found during our previous work and suggests that large quantities of polychrome and fine slipped ceramics were never used in the tunnel system. While the bulk of the ceramics belong to what would normally be described as "utilitarian" types, the patterns discovered this season have a number of important implications for the interpretation of cave material. First, the new branch has produced at least seven shoe-shaped vessels of unslipped, striated pottery, making a total of thirty shoe- pots from Naj Tunich -the largest collection from a lowland Maya site. This supports the argument made elsewhere (Brady 1987, 1989) that these vessels, more than three- quarters of which are found in caves, are a ceremonial rather than a culinary form.


                Several archaeologists (Pendergast 1971: 114-5; Pope and Sibberensen 1981 :53-4; Walters 1988) working in caves have proposed that habitation did occur based on the presence of what they called "domestic" pottery, while they see the ceremonial function of the cave reflected in polychrome and fine paste ceramics. The recovery of predominantly "domestic" pottery from the obviously ceremonial new branch of Naj Tunich suggests that this is far too simplistic a model. Within the tunnel system, artifacts tend to be found in small alcoves which, for lack of space, would have limited ceremonies to one or a few participants. It has been argued that this reflects a pattern of private ritual (Brady 1989). The majority of the polychrome ceramics is found in the entrance of the cave on the balcony, which has ample space on each level for hundreds of spectators. The labor necessary for the construction of the balcony required recruitment on a large scale, such as one finds with public structures. Because of its size and the nature of the construction, the balcony appears to be associated with public display. Thus, polychrome ceramics, at least at Naj Tunich, appear to be related to public ceremonies while the "domestic" pottery is associated with private ritual. This should not be taken too far, however, because large quantities of "domestic" ceramics were also recovered from the balcony.


                While polychrome ceramics are rare in the tunnel system, those present tend to be concentrated in areas containing special features where larger, more formal ceremonies might have occurred. During our previous work, the greatest quantity of fine ceramics was associated with a small earthen platform which is the only such architectural feature in the tunnel system. In the new branch most of the fine ceramics were associated with an altar at the entrance to Operation VIII where the tunnel is wider than most other areas. The fragments of two plates recovered from around the altar represent 78 per cent of all polychrome pottery found. Eighty-seven per cent of the fine ceramic types including Aguila Orange and the only fragments of an elaborate gouged- incised cylindrical vase were also recovered in this area. Thus, the high concentration of polychrome and fine paste ceramics around the altar supports the idea that polychrome pottery at Naj Tunich seems to be associated with formal, more public ritual, rather than being reflective of a domestic versus a ceremonial function.


                During the analysis of the Naj Tunich ceramics from the 1988 season, it was found that many of the sherds gave off the unmistakable aroma of copal incense if heated in an oven (Escobedo 1989) and it was also found that almost every lot produced the aroma to a greater or lesser degree. In 1989, this technique was refined by presorting the ceramics and heating types individually. All of the unslipped and crude monochrome types -in other words, all the "domestic" or "utilitarian" types -produced the aroma. This is not to say that all vessels in those types were used for burning copal, but at least some portion of each of these types was used in this manner. The frequent evidence of fire blackening on the interior of sherds indicates that burning was occurring inside vessels and suggests once again their use as incense burners rather than for cooking where one would expect to find fire blackening on the exterior. In modem Maya ceremonies at Naj Tunich large quantities of incense were burned in plain ceramic vessels and produced the same pattern of burning observed on the ancient ceramics. The frequency with which interior burning was encountered suggests that this was a major function of ceramics in the cave. This is hardly surprising in that Cook (1986: 139) states that the use of fire is so prevalent in modern Maya ritual that ceremonies are referred to as "burnings." The results of our experiment clearly demonstrate that "domestic" pottery often had a ceremonial use, so that one cannot imply vessel function, in most cases, based solely on surface finish or vessel form.


Operation IX


                In 1988, Veni was forced to stop his exploration of the new branch at the edge of a 20 m deep pit at the end of Operation VIII. At the time it was noted that there was a ledge half way down the pit on the opposite side where a large passage appeared to continue. During the 1989 season, the authors descended into the pit and found that the passage did indeed continue to both the east and west. The eastern portion of this passage contains the remains of an ancient path with portions of footprints preserved in places. Small pieces of charcoal from torches were also noted and a shell pendant was found. The western portion produced no evidence of utilization, other than charcoal fragments, until near the end of the passage where several drawings and an altar were encountered. These will be described in later sections. It was also found that the passage continued at the bottom of the 20 m deep pit. Because of the difficulty of the descent, the exploration of this segment was conducted exclusively by speleologists Veni and Cobb. In this passage the fragmentary skeleton of a small child was found.


                Operation IX contained few artifacts. The upper level's pendant and altar, with its associated ceramic vessel, and the skeleton on the lower level represent the only artifacts recovered. The significance of these finds, however, lies in their location beyond the deep pit and their implications about Maya caving ability. Little has been written about the nature of Maya cave exploration, but speleologists feel that the Maya generally avoided deep drops. The descent of over 100 m in a series of drops described by Stephens (1963, 2: 87-98) at Bolonchen with the use of ladders is a notable exception to 'this. To reach any of the passages in Operation IX at Naj Tunich, a deep and difficult descent and ascent had to be made. Because of the narrowness of the passages in Operation VIII, it is unlikely that the Maya could have brought a pole long enough to use as a ladder, making it more likely that ropes were employed. The evidence in this case, that the Maya were able to negotiate deep and difficult drops, clearly indicates the need for a more formal study of Maya caving patterns.




                Among the noteworthy features of the new branch is the presence of two of the most elaborate altars yet reported for a Maya cave. The first, described by Stone (1989a), is located at the entrance to the new branch in Operation VIII. The altar consists of a pile of rough stones, approximately one meter high, set against the cave wall. The top stone has a vertical projection that turns at a 45º angle and reaches a height of 1.7 m above the ground. The necks of two ceramic vessels had been set on the projecting stone.


                Scattered around the base and inside the altar were sherds from two Late Classic, Saxche Orange Polychrome plates, one of which is the only completely restorable vessel from Operation VIII. The less complete plate contains a single readable glyph, the 'hel' glyph (T573), connected with dynastic succession (Riese 1984). It has a 'ben-ich' superfix read as ahau, a royal title and the highest ranking political office held at any given Maya site. The two graphemes might be translated "ahau (lord) of the succession."


                The second altar is located in a circular chamber near the western end of the upper passage in Operation IX. The chamber is entered by means of a low opening at the top of a steep rise and the floor drops precipitously as one leaves he far side of the chamber. Thus, the chamber is set at a higher level than the passage on either side. This, along with the restricted entrance and a line of stalagmites running along the border of the chamber as one exits, define the chamber as a individual entity, separate from the rest of the passage. The rear portion of the room contains a raised flowstone formation. At the base of the formation is the altar, set directly in line with the entrance so that one is confronted with the construction on entering. A line of seven broken, inverted stalactites set up along the back of the altar makes the first encounter all the more dramatic (Fig. 3). The open space south of the altar is dominated by a large stalagmite, 1.82 m in height. An inverted gadrooned vessel was found against the west wall of the chamber. The vessel was intact except for a single "kill" hole in the shoulder. Not only was this the only intact vessel found in the entire new branch, it was the only artifact found in this section of the passage. The considerable attention devoted to the description of the chamber is given because one cannot fully understand the role of caves in Maya ritual without appreciating the often dramatic settings in which these rituals took place.


                In analyzing the first altar, Stone (1989b) observes that prominent vertical projections are a common feature of Maya cave altars. Ethnographer William Hanks (personal communication, cited in Stone 1989b) observes that piles of stones as well as other phenomena given marked vertical emphasis are associated with the sacred among the Yucatec Maya of Oxkutzcab. The inverted stalactites set in the back of this second altar agree with Stone's observations. Beyond the altar, the presence of the large stalagmite in the center of the floor and the line of stalagmites along the exit may have also been considered vertical stones which signaled the ancient Maya that this chamber was a place of special sacredness.


Paintings and Drawings


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Fig. 4: Drawing 89 (Drawing by Andrea Stone)

                Five new graphic images were recorded at Naj Tunich during the 1989 field season, Drawings 89, 90, 91, 92, and 94. Drawings 89,91, and 92 are all crude faces. Drawing 89 (Fig. 4) is located in Operation VIII on a stalactite. It consists of a row of loops drawn with charcoal and a series of lightly incised lines which appear to form a face. Drawings 91 and 92 are both located in Operation IX at the end of the tunnel just beyond the altar. Drawing 91, painted on a flat stalactite, utilizes the edge of the rock as the profile. A series of rapid, curvilinear strokes is suggestive of long flowing hair and a beard. Two meters away, Drawing 92 appears to be a frontal face with dots representing the eyes and nose and a larger area of charcoal for a mouth. As with Drawing 91, the boundaries of the face are formed by the shape of the flat triangular stalactite. .


                Drawing 90 (Fig. 5) is the most important new painting found during the 1989 field season. It is a two-glyph text, 8.5 cm high by 5 cm wide, painted on a 2.4 m high stalagmite. The top of the painting is 1.53 m above the ground, that is, about eye level. In view of its location deep within Operation IX, Drawing 90 is truly extraordinary and must be counted as one of the most remotely sequestered hieroglyphic inscriptions ever made by the Maya.


                The two glyphic compounds - T671:24 T37.1016 - are fine examples of Late Classic writing which have known phonetic values. The T671-fist, which appears in the chik' in or 'west' collocation, has a widely accepted phonetic value of chi. T24, which seems to represent a mirror, is generally read as il or li. A phonetic reading of chil or chi-il for the first compound seems probable. Chiil and chi' have a number of meanings in Yucatec and Cholan languages which makes it difficult to pin down the meaning of the first compound. In the Cordemex Dictionary (Barrera Vásquez 1980: 99), for example, chiil is glossed as both a type of insect and as a manatee. In Ch'ol, as well as other Maya languages, chil means 'cricket' (Aulie and Aulie 1978: 48). If T671 chi is seen as the root and T24 as a suffix, new possibilities arise. As noted by Barrera Rubio and Taube (1987: 13), chi in Cholan and Tzeltalan languages means 'maguey' or 'pulque,' the alcoholic drink made from it (the Yucatecan word for pulque is ki'). In fact, they cite several textual examples in which the T671-fist may refer to such an alcoholic beverage. In Yucatec chi' means 'mouth,' 'edge,' or 'door' (Barrera Vásquez 1980: 91). It is not clear how the -il suffix would function, though in Yucatec it could be a relational suffix, in which case the first noun would be possessed by the second, as in wahil k'ol, 'the bread of the milpa' (William Hanks, personal communication, 1989). Barbara MacLeod (personal communication, 1989) has pointed out, however, that nouns marked by relational suffixes are usually prefixed by a possessive pronoun, such as u-, which is lacking here.


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Fig. 5: Drawing 90 (Photo by Andrea Stone)

                The second collocation presents a water group-God C compound, T37.1016. Stuart (1989) has argued for an iconographic interpretation of both graphemes as 'blood.' Ringle (1988), reviving an earlier suggestion by Barthel, posits that both T1016 and the water group (here the T37 variant) represent k'u in Yucatec and ch'u in Cholan. In light of this argument, might read chiil k'u/ch'u (the latter depending on whether Yucatec or Cholan is the relevant language). The meaning of k'u/ch'u encompasses a range of things sacred and can refer to a temple, a deity, or describe something as holy. If T24 is a relational suffix, chi' il k' u could be glossed in Yucatec as 'mouth/door/edge of the deity/ temple/sacred thing.' This reading is interesting in light of the fact that the stalagmite and the text lie at the base of a slope which leads directly to the circular chamber where the elaborate altar is found. Thus, a translation of Drawing 90 which suggests the entryway to a sacred room fits well with the physical setting.


                One significant point in considering Drawings 90, 91, and 92, all located in close proximity in Operation IX where access is very restricted, is the mixture of Classic (D. 90) and schematic (D. 91 and 92) art styles. Drawing 90 and the ceramic vessel associated with the altar are both Late Classic (550-900 A.D.) in date as are all of the ceramics in Operation VIII which suggests that the utilization of the new branch was restricted to this period. Thus, these three images most likely represent an instance in which folkart and Classic style art are contemporaneous and in fact could have all been drawn on the same trip by different members of the group.


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Fig. 6: Drawing 94 (Drawing by Andrea Stone)
                The last image, Drawing 94 (Fig. 6), is located on the Balcony in the entrance chamber and was reported during archaeological excavations in 1988 but not recorded until 1989. Drawing 94 is a poorly preserved three-glyph hieroglyphic text painted on a flowstone curtain. Though certain graphemes can be distinguished in the first glyph block, most of the text consists of mere fragments which are impossible to read. Nevertheless, the text is important in providing the first concrete evidence that painting did occur in the lighted areas of Naj Tunich.




                Naj Tunich has been divided into three ecologic zones: transition zone, twilight zone and dark zone. The transition zone, located in the entrance chamber, is exposed to indirect daylight and experiences wide fluctuations in temperature and humidity. Most of the energy within this zone is derived from leaf litter and sediments washed in by rain. Many surface organisms use this zone for foraging, hunting and/or shelter including insects, amphibians, reptiles and mammals.


                Much of the balcony structure in the entrance chamber falls within the twilight zone, characterized by low levels of light during daylight hours. This is a zone of moderate energy, primarily derived from small amounts of organic material brought in by animals or man and has a narrower temperature and humidity variation than the transition zone. Biologically it overlaps the transition zone and the dark zone, and contains troglobites, troglophiles, trogloxenes and accidentals. While this zone is not suited for all of these organisms, all will occasionally enter the zone to find food.


                The dark zone encompasses the entire tunnel system. This zone is a low energy system characterized by constant temperature and humidity, and by a total lack of light. While water does find its way into the dark zone, little organic material enters with the water. As a result of the low energy input the population of cave fauna is sparse with organisms widely dispersed to maximize food utilization. The major food sources are fungus, detritus and predation.


                Three sources of organic matter add energy to the cave system: rain run-off, small animals and bats. Currently, rain run-off adds most of the energy to the system but is only an important factor in the entrance chamber. Small animals bring organic matter into the system by a variety of methods. Their droppings are probably the most important energy source. Small rodents carry leaves and grass into all three zones to construct nests. Observations in other caves indicate that rodent nests are common but usually occur in confined, overlooked spaces. Small predators leave the carcasses of their prey in caves which forms another important food supply.


                Bats are listed as a group separate from small animals because their input is often the single most important energy source within a cave system. The guano supports a complex and diverse faunal community. Since the initial investigations of Naj Tunich in 1981 the bat population has markedly decreased so that in April 1989 only a few bats were observed. Within the cave, evidence of previously large populations is indicated by staining of the walls and ceiling but little fresh guano was observed in the dark zone. This may be the result of frequent human visitations and the 1982 construction of a gate restricting the bats' access to the dark zone. The reduction of the bat population has probably also reduced the population of other cave species.


                Biological collections were made primarily within the dark zone during the survey of the cave. None of the fauna has been fully identified as yet. The following families were collected in 1989 (James Reddell, personal Communication): scorpions [Scorpionida (small eyes and depigmented body)], pseudoscorpions [Pseudoscorpionida] , whipless whip- scorpions [Amblypygida (Pararhynus sp.)] , spiders [Araneae] , millipedes [Diplopoda], silverfish [Nicoletiideae], crickets [Gryllidea], assassin bug [Reduviidea], and flies [Diptera].


                Although a large number of families were not encountered, the collection is significant since little is known of the cave fauna in this region in Guatemala and upon full identification it is expected that many of these specimens will be new





                The investigation of the new branch of the cave produced a number of significant results. First, the investigation of artifacts in an undisturbed setting has allowed us to confirm that the Maya practiced ceremonial destruction of ceramic vessels as part of their rituals. Second, the analysis of the ceramics from the new branch revealed that the majority of the material consisted of what is normally described as domestic pottery. Analysis shows that at least some of these vessels were used to bum copal. Because of this analysis and the location of the material deep within the cave, it is clear that one cannot assume that domestic activities occurred based solely on the presence of such ceramic types. Third, the disco- very of two elaborate altars in the cave has added a new architectural form to the inventory of construction at Naj Tunich. Fourth, the investigations have produced a number of new drawings. One inscription appears to signal that the nearby chamber and altar is a sacred place. Fifth, prior to our investigation of Operation IX located beyond the pit at the end of Operation VIII, we had no evidence that the Maya descended into any of the pits at Naj Tunich. The exploration of Operation IX clearly demonstrates that the Maya were not stopped by such features. Sixth, the cave was found to have undergone three primary stages of development, each of which impacts the cave's ecosystem and the context of the cultural materials. Preservation of the cave in its current condition is dependent on maintaining the overlying tropical flora. Seventh, the biological survey has discovered a diverse but limited fauna which may include a number of new species. The decline in bat population may have precipitated a drastic reduction or limination of species of invertebrate cave fauna.




The authors would like to thank the National Geographic Society for its generous support of the Naj Tunich Project. Special thanks is also due Lic. Leopoldo Colom Molina, Director General del Patrimonio Cultural y Natural of the Instituto de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala for granting us permission to undertake the project and to Miguel Valencia, then head of the Department of Prehispanic and Colonial Monuments for his help and collaboration. A great deal of help was provided in the field by other members of the expedition, particularly Sandra Villagran de Brady, Romulo Sánchez, Ray Allard, and the Instituto guards at the site. Finally, Dr. James Reddell has been a great help in processing the faunal samples.


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