Mapping the Watery Maya Underworld

The Mayapán Taboo Cenote Project will undertake an extensive exploration of the underwater cave, Cenote Sac Uayum, to document 20+ submerged skeletons and artifacts. Team leader and National Geographic Grantee Bradley Russell will also investigate the modern belief that a supernatural power- a feathered serpent- guards the water within.


The Mayapán Taboo Cenote Project under my direction with co-directors Carlos Peraza Lope (INAH Centro Yucatan) and Eunice Uc (INAH Centro Yucatan) with divers Rait Kütt and Lisseth Pedroza has been hard at work documenting the sacred cenote Sac Uayum at the site of Mayapán, Yucatan.

Our team has been mapping the form of Cenote Sac Uayum and the vestiges of human activity found there. The work is as delicate as it is time consuming. Initial exploratory dives at the site revealed 6 human skulls, numerous other bones and a small number of ceramic sherds (very useful for determining when the cenote was in use by the ancient population. Additional work has revealed several more skulls, the majority of which show distinctive cranial deformation, an intentional reshaping of the skull during infancy that was both an aesthetic choice and in some cases a display of status. We have been meticulously mapping the contours of the cenote to create a base map that we can then place all remains onto. At the same time we have been taking photos of the remains and continuing to explore.

Yesterday provided the biggest surprise yet. Working our way through a narrow side passage that we assumed would be a dead end, the team suddenly emerged into an enormous and beautiful second cavern, filled to the ceiling with water. Indications are that it may continue beyond what we have been able to observe so far. It too contains human remains including the best preserved skulls we have seen to date. Its size, depth and general beauty shocked us all. We believe this is the first such connected cavern system found this far away from the coast, where they are fairly common. We will finish work in the first chamber before moving on to document the second. Our job just became much more complicated.

Future posts will provide photos of this newly discovered cavern. In the meantime, please enjoy these images from our ongoing work in the main chamber and visit our website to learn more about the work that we have been doing at this important Postclassic Maya political capital:


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I am an archaeologist studying the ancient Maya culture. Since 2000 I have been working to expand our understanding of the Late Postclassic political capital of Mayapan, The city of thousands of structures was the dominant center of Maya civilization in the northern Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico for more than three hundred years (1100-1450AD) just prior to the arrival of Spaniards in the New World.