Mesoamerican Cave Archaeology

The Mesoamerican Cave Archaeology Research Program: A Decade of Accomplishment

The Anthropology Department has conducted archaeological research projects in Central America every year since 2001.  Projects have been run in the Lowland Maya area of Guatemala near Poptun (2001, 2002, 2004), on the west coast of Mexico (2003, 2004), in highland Guatemala (2006, 2007), and most recently in Belize (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011).  For the last five years, funding for the project has been provided by a generous grant from Lloyd Cotsen.

Students are an integral part of the project but this is not a field school.  Students generally make up about half the ten-person crew with the other half consisting of archaeologists and cave specialists in charge of mapping and cave safety.  Students are in charge of carrying out various segments of the research, making notes, taking photographs and then writing up their conclusions.

For a decade, participants on the project have used their experience to win awards like the Golden Eagle Award of Excellence. In addition, eight of the participants have gone on to win prestigious Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Fellowships from the CSU system.  Graduates have gone on to Ph.D. programs at schools such as U.C. Riverside, U.C. Santa Barbara, Southern Illinois University, the University of New Mexico, Boston University and Oxford.  Finally, students have been presenting the results of their research each year at the Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, our national organization.

The Mesoamerican Archaeology Laboratory

Located in KH D3069, the Mesoamerican Archaeology Laboratory (MAL) has rapidly developed into an important research facility since its founding in 2010.  It houses a number of noteworthy collections and resources including:

  1. The Naj Tunich Ceramic Type Collection.  On loan of the Instituto de Antropología e History de Guatemala, the collection contains the best sample of Protoclassic ceramics outside of Guatemala.
  2. The Midnight Terror Cave Artifact Collection.  On loan from the Belizean Institute of Archaeology, the collection contains more than 10,000 pieces human skeletal material which are being cataloged and conserved.
  3. The Guatemalan Embassy Ceramic Collection. On loan from the Guatemalan Embassy in Washington, D.C., the collection consists of material confiscated by the U.S. Customs officials and turned over to the embassy for repatriation.
  4. The William Byron Collection of West Mexican Books and Artifacts.  This was a gift of the estate of the former Geography Professor at Cal State L.A.
  5. The H.B. Nicholson Memorial Library.  The lab accepted the donation of 10 shelves of highly specialized books on Mesoamerica.  A memorandum of understanding was negotiated with the Kennedy Library in which books not in the library’s holdings were cataloged as a virtual collection within the library.  Duplicates are noted in the library catalog and shelved in the MAL which acts as a non-circulating reading room.  In addition, the MAL houses material that the library did not wish to accept such as unbound dissertations, photocopies and damaged books.  The MAL also holds long runs of the two most important journals on Mesoamerican archaeology, Ancient Mesoamerica andLatin American Antiquity, which the library does not carry.  The MAL collection now numbers several thousand volumes.
  6. The H.B. Nicholson Article Archive.  A dozen boxes of reprints and photocopied articles were received as part of the Nicholson collection.  These have been sorted and filed and are available on a non-circulating basis in the MAL.  This collection is valuable because it contains papers from George Brainerd, Nicholson’s predecessor at UCLA, and so has considerable time depth. 
  7. The H.B. Nicholson Slide Archive.  The archive, containing more than 10,000 slides, is important for images of archaeological sites taken in the middle of the 20th century.  It also contains images of artifacts in museums around the world.  The collection is slowly being digitized.
  8. The Mesoamerican Map Archive. The archive contains an extensive collection of topographical maps of Central Mexico - from the Nicholson Collection, West Mexico from the Byron Collection, and Yucatan, Belize and Guatemala from Brady’s collection.

Understanding Mesoamerican Caves

Contemporary Maya, much like their ancestors a millennium ago, believe in a sacred, animate Earth that is the paramount power in the universe.  The physical landscape is treated with great reverence because it is part of the sacred Earth.  Some features of the landscape, however, are especially powerful and alive, caves and mountains being the two most important.  Ethnographer Richard Wilson says that “Traditional Q’eqchi’s say that the mountains are living (yo’yo).  They have the quality of wiinqilal, or “personhood,” a concept that applies only to mountains and people.  Those with the quality of wiinqulal have a spirit (xmuhel) - an honor accorded only to people, maize, saints’ images, and, sometimes, houses.”  Caves are the most important part of a mountain.  Edward Fischer explains, “Caves, where one descends toward the k’u’x (heart or center) of a mountain, are especially hot places.  This is due their symbolic proximity to the powers unleashed by cosmic convergence at the axis mundi.”  A Q’eqchi’ Maya ritual specialist told a student on one of our projects, “For us, this cave is sacred and although other people say that church is a sacred place I know that this cave is important because this is the first temple of the world (el primer templo del mundo). My father and grandfather taught me this and all the elders and ancient ones have also taught us this. They say, and I know it, that many things began here. . . . Even the sun and the moon have come out of caves.”

Only since the 1990s have archaeologists come to appreciate the tremendous religious importance of caves in ancient Maya society.  The Mesoamerican Cave Archaeology Research Program, which began in 2001, has been forefront in the investigation of these sacred features.  Cal State L.A. archaeology students have come to recognize that caves contain some of the richest archaeology in the Maya lowlands.  On our expedition at Midnight Terror Cave students recovered nearly 30,000 ceramic sherds and a varied array of artifacts.  To view the individual projects, click on the links below:

Balam Na, Poptun, Peten, Guatemala 2001, 2002, 2004

Ulama, Sinaloa, Mexico – 2003 - 2004

Quen Santo, Huehuetenango, Guatemala – 2006 - 2007

Midnight Terror Cave, Cayo District, Belize 2008 - 2011