Until the discovery of Tipan Chen Uitz in 2009, Deep Valley was the largest known surface site in the Caves Branch River Valley. We have not yet determined the full extent of the site though 5 distinct groups of monumental architecture have been located. The site was first identified in 1978 by the Petroglyph Cave Archaeological Project. At that time, archaeologists were only aware of Groups 4 and 5. These two groups consist of monumental architecture connected by a sacbe, or ancient Maya road. Since that time, three more groups have been identified and their locations documented with GPS coordinates. In 2006, local guides brought us to a large site that we named Baateelek, which means ‘chief spear star’ in Yucatec Mayan. Baateelek is the largest of the plaza groupings at Deep Valley, encompassing approximately 2.56 hectares and consisting of at least 24 structures surrounding 4 nucleated plazas. The site configuration is consistent with many Lowland Maya sites but particularly those in the Belize Valley. The architecture at the site appears to contain residential, administrative and ritual (both public and private) spaces as well as a ballcourt and likely functioned as the epicenter of Deep Valley. Test excavations were also conducted in the two main plazas and looters’ trenches were cleared. Excavations revealed that the site was built rapidly. The structures were built using large limestone boulders as architectural core with a cut limestone façade. The ceramic assemblage dates to the Spanish Lookout Phase (700-900AD) or the Late/Terminal Classic Period in the Maya Lowlands. The construction of Baateelek, and likely all of the groups at Deep Valley, coincides with a period of decentralization in the Maya Lowlands in which secondary lords were accruing power and establishing centers in peripheral regions. Current research suggests surface sites in the Caves Branch River Valley did not predate the Late/Terminal Classic and settlement in this region may have been the result of the decentralization in core Maya regions, such as the Peten, Guatemala or the Belize River Valley. During the 2009 fieldseason, the CBAS project cleared and mapped the largest of the known peripheral groups, and excavated within an extensive looter’s trench on the site’s tallest pyramid.
Actun Lubul Ha (aka, Waterfall Cave)
Actun Lubul Ha (Yucatec Maya for “Cave of the Waterfalls”) was re-discovered more than 30 years ago by geologist and avid caver Tom Miller. Miller was subsequently joined in his explorations by Logan McNatt, Bernie de Chatelet, and Jaime Awe (the current Director of Belize’s Institute of Archaeology). As the name suggests, Actun Lubul Ha is a wet cave with a steady stream flowing between entrances separated by nearly two kilometres of passage and divided by a series of eight cascades, some nearly five meters high (a relative rarity in Belize). The cave is beautifully decorated with draperies, stalagmites/stalactites, and columns of dense white, yellow, pink and red flowstone.
Archaeological materials are found nearly half a kilometre into the cave. In a large collapse chamber, its ceiling reaching seventy metres above the downstream entrance, one encounters the first evidence of human activity in Lubul Ha. Scattered liberally throughout this chamber, dubbed Cantzicnal Caan (the “Four Corners of the Sky”) for the four large columns seemingly supporting its vast ceiling, are discrete deposits of ceramics and bone, charcoal and stone, and architecture. Similar deposits are found a little deeper (and a lot higher) in the cave, in the remnants of a large fossil passage, its ceiling reaching the staggering height of some 120 meters above the downstream entrance (a depth record in Belize at the time of its discovery). Discrete surface deposits, likely the result of ritual activity, in these chambers contain materials that range in time from the Late Preclassic period to the Late Classic (nearly a millennium!). It is this quality of context that has drawn CBAS to work in this cave; through careful survey of these deposits, and of those in similar caves, it is hoped that we can identify the spatial templates guiding the ancient Maya in these environments: Do ritual practitioners prefer light or dark zones? Do specific temperatures, humidity, or gusting air affect burial placement? Are ritual spaces acoustically resonant or muted? Are different rituals performed in wet caves or dry caves, in short caves or deep caves? Is seasonal use a consideration? And, do preferences change over time?
The Overlook Rockshelter is a small overhang located on a sheer limestone cliff face high above the Caves Branch Valley. A brief reconnaissance by Gabriel Wrobel in the summer of 2008 revealed a crude retaining wall, numerous ceramic sherds, and the partial remains of a single adult female secondary burial. During the 2009 season, a detailed map of the site was created and the excavations within the rockshelter revealed several thousand ceramic sherds, almost all of which were from different vessels. The burial was secondary, and only part of the skeleton had been deposited. This pattern of deposition is consistent with a pattern of ritual circuits, in which pilgrims would have deposited offerings at many sites across a landscape.
Actun Neko was first brought to the attention of the Institute of Archaeology early in the 2007 field season. During initial reconnaissance by Cameron Griffith and guides from the nearby ‘Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Adventure Co. & Jungle Lodge,’ an inlaid shell pendant was found in the deepest part of the cave. The discovery that the pendant lay in an acoustically unique context – auditory contact was made through a small opening with a nearby utilized rockshelter – was the catalyst for the experiential study of deep cave ritual to be undertaken by CBAS this season. The cave was investigated during the height of the rainy season and contains numerous active flowstone formations. The floors are generally wet and consist largely of concentrations of alluvial matrices, decayed limestone, and guano. The cave has two entrances, connected by approximately 95m of passage. Archaeological materials (heavily fragmented ceramics) were found in the vicinity of both entrances. The pendant was found in a side passage extending approximately 19m southwest, roughly halfway between the two entrances.
Deep Valley Rockshelter
The Deep Valley Rockshelter (DVR1) was discovered during reconnaissance in 2005 by members of the BVAR project. It was mapped and excavated during the 2006 summer field season. The site is characterized by an amazing density of subsurface artifacts. Diagnostic ceramics indicate site use spanning the Late Preclassic through the Late-Terminal Classic, though the majority of the collection represents the Protoclassic and Early Classic periods. There is no evidence that Deep Valley Rockshelter was used for mortuary purposes, however the site was clearly used extensively for the ritual deposition of several artifact types. Pottery sherds represent a large percentage of the artifact assemblage from Deep Valley Rockshelter. Most of these are unslipped, utilitarian wares, though several diagnostic types were identified as well as examples of decorated and painted pottery. Utilitarian tools such as mano fragments, spindle whorls, and fishing weights were also collected. Several jadeite fragments, beads, and obsidian bladelets were found as well. The artifact class best represented at Deep Valley Rockshelter was Pachychilus shell; over 50,000 shells were recovered during excavations. These freshwater snails, known locally as “jute,” were likely eaten as part of ritual meals and the empty shells were then transported to the rockshelter as a ritual offering. The diverse nature of the artifact assemblage at Deep Valley Rockshelter indicates unilateral access to the site by the prehistoric population. There is no evidence of restriction placed on individuals utilizing this site. In fact, most artifacts recovered were common types, furthering the conclusion that the site was open to all segments of the population. Artifact distributions also lend themselves to this interpretation. Within the rockshelter proper, artifacts were found in great numbers; however, excavations were also conducted in a small dark-zone cave attached to the site. Almost no artifacts were found during excavations within the cave, starkly contrasted to the dense and diverse assemblage found in excavations of the main rockshelter. This disparity clearly indicates a preference for the open, more accessible portion of the site, and could signify the importance of publicly available spaces. When compared to other caves and rockshelters in the region, Deep Valley Rockshelter is an important indicator of the diverse and individualized treatment of sacred landmarks by the ancient Maya.
Je’reftheel (aka, Frans Harder Cave)
Originally reported to the Belize Institute of Archaeology by local Mennonites from Springfield Village, Je’reftheel (meaning “Skeleton Cave” in Plautdietsch) is a long narrow cave containing bones representing approximately 25 individuals. As a result of water activity, many of the interments are covered in a dense clay, while others are exposed but partially cemented in place by flowstone. An initial analysis of the remains revealed that while at first glance most of the bones appear disarticulated, some joint articulations are evident, suggesting that at least some of the individuals were placed in the cave around the time of death (i.e., before they fully decomposed). They may have been mixed together deliberately once these had skeletonized, or as a result of later disturbances from visitors and from water activity. The shuffling of bones is frequently seen in Maya tombs that are re-entered (cf. Caracol), as well as in other culture areas. For instance, in Neolithic shaft tombs from Europe, the mixing of skeletons is seen as a cultural practice that helps to merge the ancestors into a collective being, from which the present community stems. Christophe Helmke of the University of Copenhagen originally investigated the site and his analysis of ceramics dates the context to the Late-Terminal Classic period. During the 2009 and 2010 seasons, members of the CBAS project created a detailed map of the remains, calculating the number of individuals and trying to determine the placement of the individuals prior to their disturbance. Lab analysis will seek signs of trauma or post-mortem processing, determine sex and age distributions, and search for unusual body treatments, all of which will help test hypotheses related to the nature of the ritual context and whether the cave was a setting for human sacrifice or was a mausoleum for a corporate group (a community or family).
The Caves Branch Rockshelter
The Caves Branch Rockshelter was discovered in 1994 and was investigated by Juan Luis Bonor of the Belize Department of Archaeology. After his preliminary investigations (1994 and 1995), he characterized the site as a cemetery used by local farming populations. Our recent Caves Branch project, working with the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance (BVAR) fieldschool, reinitiated excavations in 2005 to further investigate this very unusual mortuary context. Based on the size of the rockshelter and the density of burials, we estimate that the site contains around 300-400 individuals. Most pre-Hispanic Maya burials at other sites are found in residential or ceremonial architecture, and the Maya are thought not to have used cemeteries until they began to adopt Christian practices after the arrival of the Spanish. During our three seasons of work at the Caves Branch Rockshelter, we have gained an excellent understanding of the site’s ceremonial importance. The primary use of the site was for burial, and based on the general lack of exotic and imported items, those using the rockshelter were not rich. However, many of the individuals were buried with cooking and storage vessels, likely once containing food, and with small offerings like carved shell and bone ornaments. The mortuary importance of the site was maintained over a period of around 800 years (0 – 800 AD). Later burials intruded through earlier ones, and the disturbed bones were often piled neatly in the new graves. The individuals were of all ages and both males and females were placed there, suggesting that this was an area used by everyone in a small community or an extended family. The importance of the Caves Branch Rockshelter is that it demonstrates a previously undocumented facet of mortuary ritual practiced by rural commoners, which contrasts with the better known and vastly more complicated elite funerary ceremonies.