From the Sacramento Bee Article

Vanished society’s mysterious realm

The surrounding landscape of flat limestone rock on the floor of dense tropical woods is not so remarkable. But a peek into a hole in the stone shows a vast underground basin holding brilliant azure water.

So enticed were they by the view that scientists lowered themselves on ropes 50 feet to the water, then dove another 125 feet to black depths. In this subterranean chamber in the Dominican Republic, they believe they’ve found the spirit realm of a vanished Indian society.

"It’s a little hidden world, and it’s a place where we think it was recognized as a portal to another world altogether," said John W. Foster, a research team member and senior state archaeologist in the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

The evidence is in hundreds of pieces of fancy pottery, gourds and other artifacts that scientists have pulled from the muck- items they think were offered to gods by the Taino people nearly one thousand years ago.

An underwater archaeologist, Foster is part of an international team of researchers exploring the eerie netherworld of a national park on the east coast of the Dominican Republic. Tonight, the Sacramento Archaeological Society is sponsoring a prese ntation by Foster about the scientists’ findings.

He’ll bring 100 slides, replicas of Taino pottery and the wonder of a man who’s been somewhere that was virtually undisturbed for centuries.

"When you are down there... looking around, and there are bats flying around this crystal clear water, you just know you’re in this special place," he said.

The researchers shared their findings this spring at a scientific conference, and have since captured the broader public’s fancy. During a return trip to the Dominican Republic in July, Foster and his colleagues communicated by electronic mail with Sylvan middle school students in Citrus Heights.

They linked by satellite telephone to a Web site with the Discovery Channel Online. Foster said a documentary about the expeditions is slated to come out by the end of the year, to be shown on the Learning Channel.

The American researchers came to the place known as El Manantial de La Aleta (The Sinkhole of Fin) at the invitation of the Dominican government. They had first set out to search for the wrecks of ships from the explorer Christopher Columbus.

Columbus sailed four times to the Caribbean islands before his death in 1508- the first trip, and most famous, in 1492. On his second trip, Foster said, the explorer took as many as 1500 people on 17 ships in order to establish a settlement on th e island of Hispaniola, where the Dominican Republic is today.

The island inhabitants who greeted Columbus were the Tainos.

The American scientists decided to learn more about the Taino people, who within 50 years of Columbus’ arrival had been decimated by war and disease. That’s how the researchers came to the sinkhole, which archaeologists knew of but had not explored . A few looters, Foster added, apparently had.

The scientific expeditions have been a logistical challenge, to say the least. The sinkhole is in an almost impenetrable forest. No roads lead there, only an arduous 17-mail trail. The researchers packed their gear on burros the first time, in 1993 . On subsequent visits, they’ve flown in by helicopter.

That’s just the beginning of their journey. They lower an inflatable raft through the largest of seven cavities in the limestone sinkhole, and follow by rappelling. From the raft, divers drop into the still water, swimming past a yellowed layer of sulfured water, into a black world more than 10 feet down.

At that depth, there is no dissolved oxygen in the water making a fine environment for preserved objects that might otherwise decay. Foster said divers groping through sediment have found more than 300 artifacts so far.

How the objects landed in the muck is a mystery. Carbon dating shows the items ranging in age from 600 years to 1,300 years, which suggests that they were delivered to the site over generations.

It’s not like people came from the Spanish conquest and pitched a bunch of stuff into a hole," said Charles Beeker, underwater science director at Indiana University, the prime expedition sponsor.

The research team has about 30 people from the United States, Dominican Republic, and Italy. Foster takes leave from his state job to participate. He’ll return the 10th time in November.

Some of his slides show unbroken clay pots decorated with animals, their faces alive and expressive. Pointing to an image of a bowl with a frog, Foster said: " What I thought when we brought (that) up ... was that that frog had not seen light for 500 years, We asked the frog, We asked the frog, ‘Why are you here? Who was the last person to hold you?’"

If the frog could speak, it might fill vast gaps in modern knowledge about the Taino.

"This is part of the richness of humanity that we’re trying to record and trying to understand," Foster said, "to bring it back from extinction."