A team of archaeologists recently stumbled across nearly 200 Maya artifacts beneath the ancient city of Chichén Itzá in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, deep in the cave of Balamkú. (Balamkú is the Maya word for Jaguar God.) National Geographic, who helped fund the excursion, first reported on the discovery of the artifacts — a collection of incense burners, containers for hot coals, and various other vessels — dating back to sometime between 700 to 1000 A.D.
Guillermo de Anda, the lead archaeologist, described the findings to the New York Times as the “most significant discovery in the area since the nearby cave of Balamkanché was found in the 1950s.” Tlaloc, the rain god of a pre-Hispanic culture in Mexico, was featured on some of these artifacts, suggesting that the findings could shed light on how much interaction the Maya had with other cultures in the region.
One of the project’s co-directors added, “We are just moving very slowly as we approach this, to make sure everything is done correctly.” They do not intend to remove the artifacts from the cave, and are hoping to focus on learning more about the Maya civilization rather than commodifying the findings into a tourist attraction, as happened to Balamkanché. They also intend to produce a virtual reality model replica of the cave.
The discovery of the artifacts was an accident, of sorts, as the team had been in the cave to look for the aquifer beneath Chichén Itzá. The Maya city is surrounded by cenotes, sinkholes in the earth that the civilization considered sacred portals into the underworld. The cave itself had been described as “forgotten,” though locals had long known of the cave’s existence, leading the crew to its entrance.
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Balamkú consists of hundreds of feet of caverns and narrow passages that require one to crawl through at times. On the first journey into the cave, de Anda went alone. He told National Geographic that he was overcome with emotion upon encountering the artifacts. “I couldn’t speak, I started to cry. I’ve analyzed human remains in [Chichén Itzá’s] Sacred Cenote, but nothing compares to the sensation I had entering, alone, for the first time in that cave.” Over the weekend, he told NPR, “I realized I was in a very very very sacred place.” The next journey into the cave with his team, they met with a Maya priest and went through a six-hour long purification ritual.