Nohoch Batsó

The Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve is one of the few areas of the Maya Lowlands that remains relatively unstudied by archaeologists. At the end of our 2019 field season, we made an unsuccessful trip to relocate Rio Frio Cave E. Though we never made it to the cavern, on our way home, we walked into a Maya settlement that was unknown to archaeology. When new sites are discovered in Belize, the archaeology team gets to name them. We named the site Nohoch Batsó, meaning Big Monkeys in Yucatec Mayan. Because of COVID, we had to wait to start our research here until June 2022. Being the first investigations of a Maya settlement in an relatively understudied region of the pre-Columbian Maya world, we set out to answer basic research questions about it. When did people live there? When was it first settled, and when was it abandoned? What was its relationship with other sites in bordering regions like Minanha, Pacbitun, and Calendonia? What about sites further away like Caracol, Cahal Pech, Baking Pot, and Xunantunich? Being the closest-known site to the granite outcrops that were the favorite source of rock for sites throughout Belize and adjacent regions of Mexico and Guatemala, did the rulers from Nohoch Batsó exert control over the resource and its distribution? These are just a few of some of the many questions we have about this site as we start out research there. More are certainly to arise as we continue our work there.

People standing in cave entrance

Rio Frio Cave A (AKA Twin Caves)

Although excavated originally in 1928, little was published about the work. We have recently located part of the artifact collection at the Smithsonian Institution, and are trying to learn where the remainder is located. The cave is full of architecture and artifacts are still scattered all over the floors. Our aim is to learn when this cave was used, who was using it, and for what purposes? In the Summer of 2019, we began excavations in this cave to address those questions. Our studies revealed the cave was used throughout the Classic period (approximately C.E 250-900), although some earlier and later use is likely. Several small, charred corn cobs suggest agricultural rituals were performed in the entrance. Unfortunately, the cave has been severely damaged by modern graffiti. One of the ways we are studying this cave and aim to preserve it in its current state for future generations to enjoy is through the creation of digital models and virtual tours.

Silhouttes of two people in a cave passage

Domingo Ruiz Cave

This cave first came to our attention in December 2018, soon after it had been opened for tourism. We began our investigations of the cavern a year later in December 2019. Like our work in Rio Frio Cave A, our research is focused on basic questions about the site; when was it used, who was using it and for what purposes. Our aim in studying this cavern in conjunction with Rio Frio Cave A is to begin understand the regional pattern of cave use. One pattern that has become increasingly clear is that the caves of this region are filled with architecture, both large and small scale. In the case of Domingo Ruiz cave,  much of the architecture at the entrance seems to be designed to limit the amount of sunlight reaching the interior chambers. Walls, terraces, and stone alignments abound.  To date our investigations include only a few test units for chronology. Unfortunately, the current pandemic has prevented any analysis of the recovered materials.


Ancient Maya Resource Extraction in the Mountain Pine Ridge

Archaeologists have long known that the Mountain Pine Ridge was a primary source of vital resources necessary for Ancient Maya daily life. Resources such as granite and other igneous and metamorphic rocks, and pine wood in particular are found there. The Mountain Pine Ridge is one of the few places in the Maya lowlands where these important resources were found. Although the artifacts the materials were used to make are familiar to archaeologists–manos and metates, mirror backs, stela, incense, and more–we know very little about how these raw materials were harvested. Was control over them centralized or decentralized? In the case of the minerals, were they gathered from bedrock quarries or secondary sources such as rivers and streams? We also know that many Maya people today consider resources in the wildlands as being owned by an Earth Lord. Whenever someone wants to use some of the Earth Lord’s possessions, they must make a petition to him and a ritual of thanks afterwords. Were similar rituals being performed in the past?

A waterfall surrounded by trees and boulders

Waterfalls and pools

Anthropological studies of cultures world wide report that waterfalls are nearly universally revered as powerful places. The Mountain Pine Ridge is home to many waterfalls and pools, such as the Rio On pools, Big Rock Falls, Pinol Falls, and Thousand Foot Falls. With many cave sites and important rock outcrops near them, the ancient Maya were undoubtedly aware of these beautiful spots. Yet, such places are few in the Maya world and we will be investigating these well known tourist places to search for shrines and other evidence for how the Maya may have used them.

Gregory Mason and the FIrst Investigations of the RIo Frio caves

Though the COVID pandemic has prevented us from getting into the field, we have been continuing our research of the Rio Frio Caves.  We have been making a close reading of Gregory Mason’s 1928 “Pottery and Other Artifacts from Caves in British Honduras and Guatemala.” That publication marks the first scientific documentation of the Rio Frio Caves. Mason excavated and made extensive collections in all three, but his publication lacked maps and the photographs were largely limited to the whole vessels he recovered. Luckily, he provided decent descriptions of the areas where he worked, and we have been using our virtual walking tours of the caverns to piece he work back together. Check out our recent talk given to the Institute of Maya Studies in the “Publications and Presentations” section of the website to learn more about this part of our project.

Mason’s trip to the Rio Frio Caves was made as part of the Mason-Blodgett expedition out of the Heye Foundation – Museum of the American Indian in New York, which is now part of the Smithsonian Institution. We have been working with the Smithsonian Institution to track down Mason’s collections from the caves. We have been able to verify that at least half is in the Smithsonian, and the other half was likely shipped to the British Museum in 1929. We hope to make a study of the collection in the Smithsonian in early 2023.