Archaeology of Barton Creek

E-mail Print PDF

Introduction

Like all subterranean sites, Barton Creek Cave is a very fragile and sensitive environment, easily disrupted by human intrusion.  It is the responsibility of all archaeologists, tour guides and visitors to preserve the site and ensure that it may be enjoyed by future generations.  We ask all visitors to the site to help us preserve the past for the future.

Site Description

Barton Creek Cave is part of a large riverine system and one of the longest subterranean sites in the country of Belize.  Cultural remains, however, have only been found within the first kilometer from the downstream entrance.  This kilometer long space contains ten ledges above the river with evidence of ancient Maya activity.  The first ledge is located on the left just inside the entrance to the cave, and continues to roughly 30 meters beyond the Maya Bridge that straddles the river.

It is important to note that the so-called Maya Bridge was not constructed or modified in any way by the Maya.  The Abridge@ is a natural flowstone formation left straddling the main passage when the level of the river dropped due to riverbed erosion.  Indeed, all the ledges are the result of natural cave formation processes and were formed during the gradual dissolution of calcium carbonate deposits forming flowstone, stalactites, stalagmites and other formations.  Holes in the flowstone, which some have suggested to be footholds carved by the Maya, are also predominantly natural features caused by either dripping water or bat feces that dissolves calcium carbonate. 

Approximately 1800 years ago the Maya began utilizing the cave ledges for ritual activity.  The ceramics that have been found suggest that the Maya were using Barton Creek Cave from the Early Classic (A.D 200 to 600) to the Late Classic Period (A.D. 600 to 900). This is typical of caves in this area, however at this site Early Classic material is found farther into the cave than at other sites.  The reason for this may simply be that the Maya moved into the Barton Creek Valley earlier than into other areas such as the Roaring Creek Valley.

Hearths

A large number of hearths were discovered throughout Barton Creek cave.  These features are identified by a light-gray ash lens with flecks or fragments of charcoal.  Typically these features were found against the walls or near the drop to the river.  Little evidence of cooking has been found associated with these hearths suggesting that the predominant function of the hearths was to provide light, or for the burning of copal incense and other offerings. 

One hearth contained the remains of between 6 and 10 burnt corncobs and quantities of corn stems and leaves.  Other plant remains include pine needles that may have been spread over the floor of the ledge.  A similar practice continues in Chiapas and Highland Guatemala where the contemporary Maya spread a bed of pine needles and flowers over the floor of ritual areas.  A small jar (olla), a laurel leaf chert biface (projectile point) and a crude chert adze (or hoe) was also associated with this hearth.  It is possible that these remains represent objects used in agricultural fertility rituals associated with the first fruiting of the corn.  This assessment is based on the fact that the small size of the cobs (C. Morehart, personal communication 2000) represent corn that were likely harvested before maturity.

Human Remains

Osteological analysis of the human remains has revealed that at least 28 individuals were interred within Barton Creek Cave.  These individuals range in age from young children to older adults.  One of the biggest questions regarding these human remains is whether or not they represent victims of sacrifice.  At this point, this question cannot be answered conclusively.  The number of children’s remains supports the argument for sacrifice.  It is known that the Maya often sacrificed children to the rain god Chac, who the Maya believed to have resided in caves.  Other individuals found, such as an older adult female, who suffered from disease, seem unlikely candidates for sacrificial offering.  This suggests that perhaps some individuals were placed in the cave as a form of ancestor worship.

Most of the individuals in the cave were found placed in dry rimstone pools or depressions in the floor over a blanket of ash and charcoal.  The burning of these organic materials may have been a form of purification associated with placing the dead or sacrificial victims within.

Further investigations of the skeletal remains have much to reveal regarding the health and well being of this population.   The teeth and bones of deceased individuals can provide us with insights on ancient Maya diet and diseases, as well as cultural practices (e.g. skeletal modifications).

Modified Cave Features

Some areas of the cave exhibit broken natural formations. These appear to have been purposely modified by the Maya to improve access to locations otherwise difficult to reach.  The best example of this is in the upper reaches of a ledge.  Three successive draperies of flowstone are broken to provide access to a rimstone pool.  Within this pool the remains of a small child were placed along with a jar (olla). This modification facilitated access to this rimstone pool where the sacrifice of the child appears to have taken place as part of a fertility ritual.

Other areas of modification are less dramatic, but similar in that formations were broken to provide access to chambers. Some biconically-drilled holes are also found in flowstone. These holes may have been used to attach climbing ropes or as hand holds.  A total of two, and possibly three, drilled holes have been discovered to date.

Artifacts

The most common artifact types found in caves are ceramic vessels.  This is also true of Barton Creek cave where archaeologists have discovered thousands of pot sherds representing fragments of a wide range of vessel forms.  The most predominant type of vessel, however, are large jars commonly known as “ollas”.  One of the most interesting discoveries at the site was a necklace composed of perforated animal finger bones and a carved bone.  The carving depicts a seated figure with his hands across his waist and legs out forward.  In another area a small green stone pebble with a polished side and an incised circle was located in close proximity to a cluster of limestone rocks.  From a small niche in the wall we discovered a carved sandstone spindle whorl.  Spindle whorls were used in weaving and it may have been placed in the cave as an offering to Ix Chel the Moon Goddess who is know to be associated with healing, fertility and weaving.  Interestingly, among some contemporary Maya communities, cottton is often associated with rain clouds and the making of cloth with procreation.

On one of the ledges a complete laurel-leaf blade was found at the base of a large alcove in association with a fragmented incense burner (incensario) and other vessels.  It is possible that this alcove was a focal point of important Maya ritual and that this blade was cast aside at the end of a ceremony.  Other stone tools found in the cave include several grinding stones, called manos and metates, which were used for processing corn.  The manos were all found cached in small niches in the wall and a partial in situ (in original deposition) metate was discovered in the middle of a chamber next to an inverted complete olla.  The explanation of these artifacts may be related to Maya creation myths, or in particular, the Maya belief that humans were created from corn in a cave.  They may have also been used to make ceremonial (corn) bread that was used during important agricultural fertility rituals in the cave.

Epilogue

Ancient Maya activity in Barton Creek Cave generally conforms to patterns of ancient Maya cave use in the region.  The placement of individuals in rim stone pools or near formations and dripping water suggests that these individuals may have been interred or offered in sacrifice to the rain god Chac in the Late Classic Period.  Overpopulation, depletion of soils and drought were affecting the survival of Maya culture.  These desperate times may have led to the intensification of cave ritual activity including the presentation of human offerings in exchange for rain. It does not appear, however, that the cave was used exclusively for this purpose.  It is possible that ancestor worship may have also played an important role in early Maya cave use.

The artifacts discovered in the cave also help determine the nature of ancient cave use.  Large globular jars (ollas) were sometimes placed under dripping water, considered sacred by the Maya, much like holy water in Catholic churches today. Other large jars (ollas), sometimes containing corn or fruit, served as offerings to the gods.  Areas of broken potsherds (some 20 to 40 cm thick) may be indicative of period-ending events (katuns, baktuns, etc.) where old ritual vessels were ceremonially discarded.  Alternatively they may represent the accumulated debris of vessels that were ritually terminated following their use in cave rituals.  Whatever the case, we do know that caves represented very sacred landscapes to the ancient Maya; they were portals to their underworld, dwelling place of their rain god and ancestral spirits, a place of human origin and a source of good and evil.

As archaeologists continue to look at cave materials, we may get a clearer picture of how, why and when the Maya utilized these places.  This is only possible, however, if caves are maintained through responsible custodianship.  Tour guides, visitors, and archaeologists must be partners in this endeavor and must make every effort to protect these fragile, beautiful and inspiring locations. Help us preserve these unique places so that we may all learn about our earlier human ancestors.