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:

Lago Petén Itzá (Guatemala)

Discovery of several hundred artefacts in the holy lake of the Maya

Ancient Origins, 11 February, 2019 – by Ed Whelan

Divers Find Hundreds of Ritual Offerings in Lake Sacred to the Maya

Drivers from the ‘Underwater Archaeological Expedition to Guatemala’ project.          

Source: Magdalena Krzemień & Mateusz Popek .

The civilization of the Maya is one of the most fascinating of the many that flourished in ancient Mesoamerica and it has just been announced that a joint Polish and Guatemalan team have retrieved a stack of objects from this culture’s golden age from a lake. Their finds are offering new insights into the great Classical Maya era.

The discoveries were made in the remote Petén Itzá lake, in north-central Guatemala, which surrounds an island called Flores that was once the site of the great Maya city of Nojpeten. The artifacts were recovered by a team of Polish divers from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, who examined the bed of the body of water. The team made the finds some 480 feet (160 meters) beneath the surface. Their discoveries were made over the summer but they were not initially publicized so that looters would not be attracted to the lake.

500 objects found at the bottom of the lake

The leader of the archaeologist team, Magdalena Krzemień, told a news agency that “we have discovered more than half a thousand relics, including objects sunk during religious rituals,” reports the Science in Poland website. The divers had expected to find remains from a great battle that took place between the Spanish and the Maya. Instead they found items that date from an earlier historical period.

They found a treasure trove littered on the bed of the lake. The divers found grisly skull-shaped incense burners, shells, and ceremonial bowls. It is believed that the shells that were found, which were imported from the Caribbean, were used as ritual musical instrument. One important discovery was that of an obsidian knife and such blades were often used in human sacrifices in ancient Mesoamerica. According to First News they also found “various monuments detailing ritual ceremonies that took place in the ancient Mayan capital, Nojpeten.”

The group was hoping to find evidence of the ‘great battle’ between the Maya and their Spanish conquerors. However, these relics are around 1000 years older. ( Magdalena Krzemień & Mateusz Popek )

Knives used in sacrifices

Some of the ceremonial bowls were set on top of each other and there were fragments of obsidian and charcoal in them. It was in one of these stacks of bowls that the knife made from volcanic rock was found. It was deliberately left in the bowl and this indicates that it was used in some form of sacrifice, possibly even a human sacrifice. The Maya often used these knives to cut the heart out of living victims in a way very reminiscent of the Aztecs.

The archaeologists found an obsidian blade measuring almost 20 cm which they believe was 'clearly associated with ritual and sacrifice.' ( Magdalena Krzemień & Mateusz Popek )

Experts are not surprised at finding so many important relics discarded at the bottom of a lake. Bodies of water held a great religious significance for the Maya as they considered them gateways to the underworld. Moreover, water was also associated with the powerful God of Rain, Chaak , who was the deity of fertility. The artifacts could have been sacrificial gifts to this god who was very important in the Maya pantheon.

Earthenware effigy urn (an incense burner) of Chaac, 12th-14th century. ( Public Domain )

All of the relics and sacrificial items were in good condition. This was initially a mystery to the team, and they were baffled as to how these fragile artifacts were not broken. It is believed that the items were deliberately placed on the bed of the lake in some way. They reasoned that it was unlikely that they were deposited there by divers and were probably lowered onto the bed by means of nets.

According to the First News website the finds all date back to the Classical Maya period from “150 BC - 250 AD to 600 - 800 AD.” This era is often seen as the zenith of the Maya before their civilization collapsed in around 1000 AD. However, they did enjoy a renaissance before and even after the coming of the Spanish Conquistadors .

Water had a special symbolic meaning for the Mayan people, as they believed it was the medium through which the dead journeyed to the underworld. ( Magdalena Krzemień & Mateusz Popek )

The fall of Nojpeten

The treasure trove was found near the island-city of Nojpeten, which for many centuries was very important in the region. It was the last bastion of the Maya with its inhabitants defying the Conquistadors for almost two-hundred years and it did not fall to the Spanish until the 1690s. It was only taken by the Europeans after a brutal battle on the lake. The Spanish used ships armed with cannons to destroy the city and this effectively ended the last independent Maya state.

The recovered items offer new insights into the religious and cultural beliefs of the Maya during their heyday. The divers are continuing their investigations and they hope to find more sacrificial items from other periods. In particular they hope to find more artifacts from the battle on the lake that resulted in the conquest of the last independent Maya in Central America.

The drivers are excited at their discoveries and believe there are more treasures waiting to be discovered deeper in the lake bed. ( Magdalena Krzemień & Mateusz Popek )

PAP - Science in Poland, Febr. 1, 2019, by Szymon Zdziebłowski

Guatemala/ Polish archaeologists discovered several hundred artefacts in the holy lake of the Maya

Fragment of a face-shaped ceramic censer, evidence of religious rituals in the form of ceramic vessels - in total, Polish archaeologists discovered several hundred artefacts during underwater research in the lake Petén Itzá near the ancient Mayan capital Nojpetén in Guatemala.

Nojpetén was the capital city of the last of the ancient Maya groups that resisted the attacks of European conquerors for almost 200 years after their arrival in Central America. It was located on today`s Flores Island in the southern part of the vast Petén Itza Lake in Guatemala. This area was one of the places where Polish underwater archaeologists carried out research in August and September 2018. They reported their results in January.

"We have discovered more than 500 artefacts near the ancient Mayan capital, including objects sunk during religious rituals" - says the Polish team leader, archaeologist from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Magdalena Krzemień.

The place where the rituals took place was located north of the island, as evidenced by numerous finds. In one place, scientists saw three bowls placed one inside another. The top bowl contained fragments of burned wood and obsidian - glassy volcanic rock. The bowls rested on larger three-leg vessels. In one of them, archaeologists discovered an almost 20 cm long obsidian blade. "Its presence is clearly associated with ritual and sacrifice" - the researcher emphasises.

Krzemień believes that the discovery was made exactly in the place where the vessels had been originally deposited. They were partially buried under the bottom, so even the currents could not move them.

"It is a mystery how the Mayans were able to deposit the offering so that the vessels did not scatter over a larger surface. We suspect that they were dropped to the bottom in a net" - says underwater archaeologist Mateusz Popek from the Institute of Archeology, Nicolaus Copernicus University.

A bit further was a partly destroyed fragment of a censer shaped like a human head. The project leader says that very similar items have been discovered in onshore Maya temples.

"During some of the ceremonies the censers were deliberately broken. That was probably the case here" - she adds.

The researcher says that the lakes were an important element of the Maya`s holy landscape, because water had a special symbolic meaning for the members of this civilization - it was perceived as a medium, through which the dead would pass to the underworld.

Water reservoirs were also perceived as places closely related to Chaak - a rain god, responsible for rainfall, and consequently also crops. "That is why a large number of various kinds of sacrificial gifts ended up in water reservoirs over the centuries" - adds the project leader.

Archaeologists have determined the age of finds. They believe that the studied area was a place of worship from the Proto-Classic period (150 BC - 250 BC) to the late Classic period (600 - 800 BC).

The Maya resisted the conquistadors for a very long time. Nojpetén - the last independent fortress of the Maya - was captured in 1697 after a great battle. The Spaniards attacked the island on ships, from which they shot their weapons at the Maya.

Archaeologists also hoped to discover numerous items associated with this crucial moment during their research. The final battle between the residents of the capital city and the Spaniards took place on the west side of the island. While diving in this area, the Polish archaeologists only found a part of a mace, blunt weapon consisting of a heavy head on the end of a handle. They recovered a well-preserved stone head.

A little further north, in the area of the El Hospital island, archaeologists discovered of a large shell from the Caribbean Sea on the bottom, which indicates that the Maya had contacts with the inhabitants of the Caribbean Coast. "Such a shell could be used as a music instrument. It could also be connected to the elites or the symbolic sphere, because objects of this type were associated with births, rituals of maturation, sacrificial offerings, war, the underworld and death" - Krzemień says.

The project leader emphasizes that all artefacts were located on the surface of the lake bed - they did not even have to be excavated. "Considering the number of objects we discovered on the surface, we would probably find even more during excavations. Therefore, we plan to continue our research" - informs Krzemień.

 Archaeology, Febr. 1, 2019

Maya Artifacts Recovered from Guatemala’s Lake Petén Itzá

KRAKÓW, POLAND—Science in Poland reports that teams of Guatemalan and Polish researchers recovered several hundred Maya artifacts from Lake Petén Itzá, where the Classic period Maya capital of Nojpetén was located on Flores Island. Polish team leader Magdalena Krzemień of Jagiellonian University suggested some of the artifacts had been used in religious rituals to the north of the island, perhaps to honor Chaak, a rain god. For example, divers found three stacked bowls that had been placed on larger three-legged vessels, one of which held a nearly eight-inch-long obsidian blade. “Its presence is clearly associated with ritual and sacrifice,” Krzemień said. The top bowl in the stack held fragments of burned wood and obsidian. “It is a mystery how the Mayans were able to deposit the offering so that the vessels did not scatter over a larger surface,” added underwater archaeologist Mateusz Popek of Nicolaus Copernicus University. “We suspect that they were dropped to the bottom in a net.” The main sponsors of the expedition are Sebastian Lambert and Iga Snopek.