CONTEXT, OBJECTIVES, AND PROBLEM ORIENTATION
Jaime J. Awe Ph.D.
Born in San Ignacio, Dr. Jaime Awe is a Belizean archaeologist who is director of both the Belize Institute of Archaeology and the Western Belize Regional Cave Project (WBRCP). Dr. Awe conducts intensive field research in several caves in western Belize and compares the information gathered from this region with that recorded in other areas of the Maya lowlands. Preliminary reconnaissance expeditions indicate that many of these caves contain substantial cultural remains. In addition to a variety of artifacts, architecture and burials, three of the caverns investigated by the project contain freestanding monuments, and another has a corpus of petroglyphic and pictographic artwork. Dr. Awe's intensive investigations of these sites, including mapping, excavation, photography, illustration, and comparative analysis, allowed him to determine the temporal and spatial use of these caverns, and to ascertain the types of activities that occurred within them. Besides producing unique and important archaeological information on a topic traditionally ignored in the study of Maya prehistory, the WBRCP provides training and thesis data for several graduate students. Additionally the project assists the Belize Government with the recording of important cultural materials before they are irretrievably lost to vandals and collectors, and helps to educate Belizean Tour Operators of the need to conserve cultural resources in a fragile cave environment. Notably, the project organized a seminar on cave tourism that brought together the majority of Tour Operators who tour cave sites.
During the last century, numerous caves have been discovered in the karstic limestone regions of Central America. In many of these caverns explorers and archaeologists reported considerable cultural artifacts, architectural construction, human remains, plus epigraphic and iconographic data indicative of extensive use of these underground sites by the ancient Maya. Despite their rich cultural remains, however, caves rarely have been the focus of intensive scientific research and their study has lagged far behind that of large and impressive surface sites. Several reasons account for this limited archaeological attention. First, many caves are difficult to access and their exploration is costly and physically demanding. Second, because prehistoric remains were generally deposited on the surface of cave passages and chambers, artifacts are often looted from caves that are not investigated following their discovery. Finally, few Maya archaeologists are trained spelunkers and their inexperience with cave exploration, coupled with the challenging conditions of subterranean caverns, often deters most from conducting cave research. As a result of these constraints few caves in the Maya area have been intensively studied and many of the rituals and ceremonies conducted within them have not been identified in the archaeological record.
On the basis of limited archaeological information, previous researchers have suggested that caves were used by the Maya as sources of water, for ossuaries, burials and cremations, as places of refuge, dumps for pottery, and for ceremonies. The ethnographic and ethnohistoric literature report that they represented portals into the Maya underworld and that they were primarily sacred places used for important ritual events. Unfortunately, few archaeologists attempted to test these hypotheses and even fewer have investigated whether there are temporal, social and regional differences in the use of caves in the Maya lowlands. The purpose of the Western Belize Regional Cave Project is to investigate these very questions.
The Western Belize Regional Cave Project addresses a number of questions:
|What is the time span of cave use in western Belize and what is the period of heaviest usage?|
|If there are temporal differences in the use of caves are they related to contemporary changes in the social, political and economic structure of Maya society?|
Do all caves contain similar cultural remains?
|Is there evidence suggesting that some caves may have been specifically for elite use while others were for public use?|
|Were there different activities or rituals conducted in different parts of a cave?|
|Do cultural remains within caves suggest that use/function differed from one cave to the other and from region to region?|
|Were caves primarily sacred spaces reserved for important rituals and what was the nature of these rituals?|
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