Wildlife & Wild Places

Video: Praying to the Maya Gods for Safe Passage Through an Underwater Cave

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.

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Earlier in this series, I posted an account of  a traditional Maya shaman or h’men, Teodormio San Sores who performed a ceremony known as a Jeets’ Lu’um (calming of the earth) in advance of our dive research of sacred cenote Sac Uayum. Local residents asked us to perform the ritual before we began underwater archaeological investigation of the cenote and we were pleased to have an opportunity to gather more ethnographic information about it and the modern beliefs surrounding the feature.  Among those beliefs is the notion that the cenote and its water are “alive” and guarded by a horse-headed, feathered serpent. But, that the cenote and its serpent guardian can be placated by various offerings and prayers.

Since that time, I have been able to edit the video that we recorded of the event.  I think it gives a far more complete picture of the ritual than anything I have space to write up and post here.  I hope you find it as interesting and compelling as I do.

For more information about our ongoing research at the site of ancient Maya city of Mayapán (1100-1450AD) in Mexico’s northern Yucatan Peninsula, please see our project website and this short documentary about the site.

Read the entire blog series

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.
  • kimberly

    Hello, my name is Kimberly, i’m 16 years old and I am studying anthropology. Currently we are focusing on archeology, me being interested in underwater archeology I came upon the caves of Sac Uayum. If you have the time please answer these few questions for me (it would be very helpful!).

    1.) Do you ever get scared when going on a dive in tight places?
    2.) What was your initial reaction to finding the bones?
    3.) Why do you believe there was a group placed to rest there when they are typically placed near their homes?
    – How were they placed in the cave?
    4.) Did any local students work alongside with you or was it just your team, and why?
    5.) What type of tools did you use to date the bones?
    6.) How did you figure that this was a good place to explore?

    Thank you for your time, I really hope to get a response! If you do not know much, please help me find someone who does.
    – Kimberly

    • Hello Kimberley,
      I am glad to hear that your are interested in this work and anthropology more generally. I would be happy to answer your questions.

      1.) Do you ever get scared when going on a dive in tight places?
      The work is certainly not without risk. However, my team and I are highly trained with years of experience. That experience certainly helps overcome any fear. When I began training, I did experience some fear about being underwater in a cave setting. But, I have overcome most of that in the interest of answering the questions that I have about these poorly documented contexts. A little fear breeds respect for safety procedures that keep you from having potentially serious accidents. So, it is useful on some level. I doubt that I will ever fully lose that. What you must never do is let that fear become panic, which is very dangerous underwater.

      2.) What was your initial reaction to finding the bones?
      I was mostly just pleased that all the work leading up to the initial dives produced useful information. Bones are not uncommon in the submerged caves of the region. However, there was only one other context at our site, Mayapán, that is known to have a large deposit like the one we found at Sac Uayum. It also made me extremely curious. Confirming a second mass burial context at the site raised many questions, most of which we are still working to answer.

      3.) Why do you believe there was a group placed to rest there when they are typically placed near their homes?
      – How were they placed in the cave?
      My current theory is that these burials that were related to a period of violence that apparently took place in the 1300’s. The dates that we got from our initial sample matched those for the mass burial in Cenote San Jose which was previously documented by my collaborator Eunice Uc in the late 1990’s as well as surface mass burial deposits from the site’s ceremonial center and another important temple/cenote group called Itzmal Chen. The Itzmal Chen deposit was one that I excavated with my colleague Elizabeth Paris. It contained many projectile points indicating a massacre had taken place at the spot. Excavation have shown that some buildings were burned and destroyed at the same time. If the site was involved in some form of warfare or internal revolt and there were many bodies to be disposed of quickly, a cenote would be a convenient place to put them. There are also no indications that these people were placed in the cenote with any offerings or grave goods which would be typical of most normal burials. It is like they were simply dumped there with little or no ceremony.

      4.) Did any local students work alongside with you or was it just your team, and why?
      Our dive team was limited to just a handful of highly trained professionals. However, we do employ locals from the community of Telchaquillo where we are based to help us in the lab. Some of them are students.

      5.) What type of tools did you use to date the bones?
      The remains that we sampled were dated using a technique known as Atomic Mass Spectrometry or AMS for short. It is a type of radiocarbon dating which relies on the decay of a radioactive isotope of carbon (carbon 14) found in all organic matter. As long as a person is alive, they absorb this type of carbon in the foods they eat so the levels stay stable. But, after death, the radiocarbon begins to give off its extra electrons and revert to the more stable carbon 12. Since it is not being replaced, the levels of radiocarbon drop over time. The longer it has been since the person died, the less carbon 14 they will have in their bones. Since the decay happens as a known rate, we can use that to calculate how old a sample is.

      6.) How did you figure that this was a good place to explore?
      I was particularly interested in Cenote Sac Uayum because it appears that when the ancient inhabitants of Mayapán built a large defensive wall around the site, they made sure to block access to this location. It was cut off from the main city by the wall. That is unusual since the cenote is a good source of fresh drinking water. That suggested that there was some specific reason that the folks who planned the wall would want to make sure no one was drinking from it. Modern residents of the area still avoid it, saying that it is home to a massive, flying, feathered snake with the head of a horse. They did not have any memory of the location containing human burials. So, the superstition must be very old. For those reasons, I became extremely interested in exploring it and understanding why it was taboo to access the location when other cenotes are visited regularly.

      I hope those answers help. Good luck to you.
      Bradley W. Russell Ph.D.

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