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  Field Notes From
Maya Underworld

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Maya Underworld On AssignmentArrows

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From Author

David Roberts

Maya Underworld On Assignment

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From Photographer

Stephen L. Alvarez

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs courtesy David Roberts (top) and Stephen L. Alvarez


Maya Underworld On Assignment Author Maya Underworld On Assignment Author
Maya Underworld

Field Notes From Author
David Roberts

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    Jaime Awe, a Belizean archaeologist, had guided photographer Stephen Alvarez and me through Actun Tunichil Muknal, the astounding cave holding the remains of 14 human sacrifices and scores of ninth-century pots still in situ. The next day I asked Awe whether there were other such grottoes waiting to be rediscovered in the trackless rain forest. His answer floored me. "I think we've found only about one-fifth of all the caves in Belize with ancient Maya remains and artifacts inside," he said.
    Throughout the following week as I drove the rutted dirt roads of the highlands, I stared at many a dark hole gaping from some distant hillside. The itch to explore coursed through my veins, tempered by the knowledge that—without a machete-wielding guide—I would get hopelessly lost in the forest before getting anywhere near each of those potentially virgin caves.

    Stephen and I were the only two gringos in a crowd of perhaps 10,000 pilgrims celebrating the Feast of Corpus Christi at Tila in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Everything was fine as we joined the procession of barefoot children, women in their finest dresses and shoes, and old men in sandals wielding staffs as they hiked up a nearby mountain where the miracle-working Black Christ of Tila—to my untutored eye a mere gray stalagmite—resides inside a small cave passage near the summit. But the trail we walked was made up of boulders embedded in a rich brown mud—possibly the gooiest mud I've ever trod. As Stephen said, "It was like walking through peanut butter." I grew pretty tired of it after falling on my rear end three times during the descent. Several pilgrims offered us cubes of the mud. Eating it, they insisted, could cure all kinds of ailments, from gout to pneumonia. I declined. That was as bad as it got on this assignment.

    In the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, archaeologist Dominique Rissolo, Stephen, and I rappelled into a small dome-shaped cave with but a single narrow opening in its roof. For 40 feet (12 meters) we spiraled free in space down to the floor of the cave. Inside we found pottery and rock art ranging back to the time of Christ.
    Meanwhile, a crowd of giddy youngsters crept near the edge of the dangerous orifice, yelling at each other and occasionally dislodging the odd stone that landed near us in the dark.
    Done with my note taking, I climbed back up the rope, leaving Dominique and Stephen to finish their photography while I hiked back to the nearby town from which we had set out. I was carrying a spare rope over my shoulder. In the town plaza, a 15-year-old boy eyed me suspiciously, then said, "¿Qué pasó en la cueva?—What happened in the cave?" It dawned on me that he thought I had abandoned my two colleagues to spend eternity in a subterranean prison. All kinds of nefarious doings, after all, take place in a Maya cave.


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