A 300-foot measuring tape attached to a rock is really heavy when you are treading water in the middle of a natural freshwater pool, deep in the jungle. Note to self: bring an inner tube next time…
I have spent most of my life in archaeology exploring the realms of the ancient Maya, and since 1997, my focus has been on the 25 Maya cenotes in the Cara Blanca area of west-central Belize. What is a Maya cenote? It is a large pool of water, made when a sinkhole forms (because the bedrock below is weak and collapses) and fills with water. An “average” cenote is approximately 400 feet across and 50 feet deep, but they vary considerably in size and depth.
Unfortunately, you can’t take “Introduction To Cenote Measuring and General Swimming 101” in college, so my approach to recording these pools for my dissertation research was one of trial and error, especially in the beginning. When in doubt, I found that the simplest tools and methods were the way to go – it was much better to swim out into the middle of the pools with a measuring tape attached to a rock to measure depth than it was to try and buy some fancy sonar depth measuring device that would just break anyway in the harsh jungle environment. As I progressed in both method and experience, I found that a three-tiered approach worked best when studying these pools: Step 1 – swim out into the middle of the pool and use the afore-mentioned measuring tape and rock method of getting pool depth. Step 2 – use a mask and snorkel to survey the shallow sides (down to about 15 feet deep), looking for artifacts such as broken pottery. Step 3 – at the pools with the most ancient Maya settlement nearby, bring full dive gear and explore the depths. This last part in my dissertation research garnered a good amount of interest, so much so that in 2010 a National Geographic sponsored dive team came to Cara Blanca to aide in the research.
What have I found underwater? In terms of marine life, I have encountered fish, turtles, crabs, and a crocodile. In terms of artifacts, a few broken pieces of pottery is about it, although we did find a fossilized Giant Sloth (although not strictly archaeological, interesting nonetheless – story to come at a later date). Even after exerting massive effort at the pools over the years and finding relatively few artifacts, I am more proud of my work at the cenotes than any other archaeological work I have undertaken. Why? Because before my research, we knew nothing about the cenotes in the Cara Blanca area of Belize. Now we know all kinds of things. Although I did not find many artifacts in the pools themselves, the bits I did find enabled us to date the ancient Maya use of the pools to the Late Classic period (AD 600-900). I also found plenty of additional artifacts in the many Maya structures located directly beside the pools to support this date. These ancient Maya structures near the pools have now been mapped – I found over 200 structures in the vicinity of the pools, some very small (under 3 feet tall) and others quite large (one was over 30 feet tall). Also, we now know that the cenotes are very different underwater. Some are wide (600 feet or more) but very shallow (only 6 feet deep). Others are narrow (200-300 feet) but very deep (over 200 feet!). With this new information, we can now make much better guesses on how the ancient Maya used these pools, and how the Cara Blanca area of Belize fit into the larger Maya world.
With my dissertation now finished, I can say that the days of treading water, carrying heavy dive equipment deep into the jungle, and accidental crocodile encounters were well worth it. While my research did not turn up mummies and gold bars, it did add to our understanding of the use of cenotes in ancient Maya society, and provided me with a lifetime’s worth of great stories that spice up any dinner table conversation. For a more involved treatment of Maya cenotes (including how they relate to Maya gods and rituals), check out the online article I wrote for the UK website Mexicolore here.