Balamku near Chichén Itzá (Mexico)

Archaeologists discover cave in Mexico filled with 1,000-year-old Mayan ceramics in near-perfect condition

Mexican archaeologists have discovered a cave at the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza containing around 200 ceramic vessels in nearly perfect condition.

The items appear to date to around AD 1000 and contain bone fragments and burnt offering materials, according to the National Institute of Anthropology and History.

Exploration of the cave began last year after indigenous people living in the area told experts about it, said archaeologist Guillermo de Anda.

The 155 ceramic braziers – containers used for burning – and incense pots found by the experts bear the likeness of Tlaloc, the rain god of central Mexico. Small clay boxes were among the other vessels found.

Mr De Anda said the objects were “completely untouched”.

The team of explorers had been searching for an underground water system before finding the sacred cave.

The ancient Mayans had their own rain god, Chaac, and may have imported Tlaloc from other pre-Hispanic cultures.

Mr De Anda said the Mayans would have had to crawl on their bellies through the extremely narrow cave to deposit the offerings inside a few larger, higher chambers. The offerings were meant to ask for rain, the experts believe. 

It emerged that the cave had been discovered, but not fully explored, by local people around 50 years ago.

They told an archaeologist about the cave but he ordered it sealed – possibly to protect it – and only issued a brief report that was forgotten in Mexican government archives.

The archaeologists studying the objects plan to leave them all in the cave after their analysis.

Known as Balamku, the cave is about 1.7 miles east of the main pyramid of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo or “The Castle”.

Mr De Anda and his team have been exploring Chichen Itza to establish the routes and sites of the Mayan underground water system.

 A series of sinkhole lakes known as cenotes are visible on the surface of the site, but there are other, undiscovered water sites beneath the labyrinth of pyramids, patios and temples.

Water was always central to Chichen Itza, whose name means “at the mouth of the well of the water wizards” in the Maya language.

Mr De Anda said experts had crawled a few hundred metres into the cave, which in places is just 40cm high, in hopes of finding the connection to a cenote believed to lie under the pyramid of Kukulkan.

“Let’s hope this leads us there. That is part of the reason why we are entering these sites, to find a connection to the cenote under the Castillo,” he said.

National Geographic, Published March 4, 2019, By Gena Steffens

Maya ritual cave ‘untouched’ for 1,000 years stuns archaeologists

Exploration of Balamku (Cave of the Jaguar God) reveals ancient religious practices—and may hold clues to the rise and fall of the Maya empire.

Archaeologists hunting for a sacred well beneath the ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula have accidentally discovered a trove of more than 150 ritual objects—untouched for more than a thousand years—in a series of cave chambers that may hold clues to the rise and fall of the ancient Maya. The discovery of the cave system, known as Balamku or “Jaguar God,” was announced by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in a press conference held today in Mexico City.

After its initial discovery by farmers in 1966, Balamku was visited by archaeologist Víctor Segovia Pinto, who wrote up a report noting the presence of an extensive amount of archaeological material. But instead of excavating the site, Segovia then directed the farmers to seal up the entrance, and all records of the discovery of the cave seemed to vanish.

Exclusive video: Inside the cave of the ancient Jaguar God Archaeologists crawl for hours through tight underground passageways of Balamku to reach artifacts untouched for 1,000 years.

Balamku remained sealed for more than 50 years, until it was reopened in 2018 by National Geographic Explorer Guillermo de Anda and his team of investigators from the Great Maya Aquifer Project during their search for the water table beneath Chichén Itzá. Exploration of the system was funded in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society.

De Anda recalls pulling himself on his stomach through the tight tunnels of Balamku for hours before his headlamp illuminated something entirely unexpected: A cascade of offerings left by the ancient residents of Chichén Itzá, so perfectly preserved and untouched that stalagmites had formed around the incense burners, vases, decorated plates, and other objects in the cavern.

[Photos: see at the end ...]

“I couldn’t speak, I started to cry. I’ve analyzed human remains in [Chichén Itzá’s] Sacred Cenote, but nothing compares to the sensation I had entering, alone, for the first time in that cave,” says de Anda, who is an investigator with INAH and director of the Great Maya Aquifer Project, which seeks to explore, understand, and protect the aquifer of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

 “You almost feel the presence of the Maya who deposited these things in there,” he adds.

An unprecedented second chance

To access just the first of seven ritual offering chambers identified so far within Balamku, archaeologists must crawl flat on their stomachs through hundreds of feet of tortuously narrow passages. In the original report on the cave (recently located by archaeologist and GAM investigator James Brady of California State University, Los Angeles), Segovia identified 155 artifacts, some with faces of Toltec rain god Tláloc, and others with markings of the sacred ceiba tree, a potent representation of the Maya universe. In comparison, the nearby cave of Balankanché, a ritual site excavated in 1959, contains just 70 of these objects.

“Balamku appears to be the ‘mother’ of Balankanché,” says de Anda. “I don’t want to say that quantity is more important than information, but when you see that there are many, many offerings in a cave that is also much more difficult to access, this tells us something.”

Why Segovia would decide to seal up such a phenomenal discovery is still a matter of debate. But in doing so, he inadvertently provided researchers with an unprecedented “second chance” to answer some of the most perplexing questions that continue to stir controversy among Mayanists today, such as such as the level of contact and influence exchanged between different Mesoamerican cultures, and what was going on in the Maya world prior to the fall of Chichén Itzá.

Entrances to the Underworld

 “For the ancient Maya, caves and cenotes [sinkoles] were considered openings to the underworld,” says Holley Moyes, a University of California, Merced expert on the archaeology and religious use of Maya caves who was not a part of the project. “They represent some of the most sacred spaces for the Maya, ones that also influenced site planning and social organization. They are fundamental, hugely important, to the Maya experience.”

But until the concept of cave archaeology began to take shape in the 1980s, archaeologists were more interested in monumental architecture and intact artifacts than they were in analyzing the residues and materials found in and around objects. When Balankanché was excavated in 1959, caves were still mapped by hand in the dark and artifacts were routinely removed from their sites, cleaned, and later put back. Of all the incense burners found in Balankanché that were filled with material that could have provided definitive evidence related to the chronology of the site, for instance, only one was ever analyzed.

Explore the world's largest underwater cave system in Yucatán, Mexico.

Investigators of the Great Maya Aquifer Project see the (re)discovery of Balamku as a chance to implement a totally new model of cave archaeology, one that employs cutting-edge technology and specialized fields such as 3-D mapping and paleobotany. These new insights could give us a much more detailed idea of what was actually occurring in Maya cave rituals, as well as the history of the great city of Chichén Itzá, which declined for unknown reasons in the 13th century.

“Balamku can tell us not only the moment of collapse of Chichén Itzá,” says de Anda. “It can also probably tell us the moment of its beginning. Now, we have a sealed context, with a great quantity of information, including useable organic matter, that we can use to understand the development of Chichén Itzá.”

Further study of the site will also shed light on the intimate details of the catastrophic droughts that likely provoked the collapse of the Maya civilization. While this area has always been prone to drastic cycles of climate variability, some researchers have suggested that excessive deforestation in the Maya lowlands, which was once home to some 10-15 million people, could have exacerbated the problem and made the entire region uninhabitable.

Understanding these past cycles can have an added benefit for modern life as well, says National Geographic archaeologist-in-residence Fredrik Hiebert. “By studying these caves and cenotes, it’s possible to learn some lessons for how to best use the environment today, in terms of sustainability for the future.”

In this sense, de Anda believes archaeology has the potential to become a much more “useful” science.

“It’s always been considered the opposite—a beautiful and interesting field of science, but without a great deal of utility,” he says. “I think that here, we will be able to demonstrate the contrary, because when we begin to understand these marvelous contexts, we can understand the footprints of humankind’s past, and what was happening on Earth during one of the most dramatic moments in history.”

Further video from the internet:

(video in Spanish)

Several photos from the internet: