Journal of Cave and Karst Studies - ISSN 0146-9517
Volume 59 Number 1: 15-21 - April 1997

A publication of the National Speleological Society

Excavations in Buried Cave Deposits: Implications for Interpretation
James E. Brady and Ann Scott


As conduits for transporting ground water, caves are frequently wet and may be seasonally flooded. Cultural deposits in Maya caves are often buried under layers of mud that tend to be so plastic they are difficult to excavate and impossible to screen. There has been a tendency for archaeologists to ignore such areas. Yet ethnohistorical sources suggest that wet or watery places were sought in Prehispanic times for rituals directed to rain deities. Since caves are strongly associated with rain, it would not be surprising if these water-logged areas were precisely those selected for the performance of rituals. It is important to assess the extent to which archaeological bias against such areas has skewed data and interpretations.

The Petexbatun Regional Cave Survey, the largest and most intensive cave project mounted in the Maya area, has attempted to develop new field methods to address basic problems in cave archaeology. In 1993-94, several techniques for exploring water-logged contexts were tried, including the use of chemical deflocculants to dissolve cave mud. Field testing of the method in areas where the project had conducted completed surface collection recovered a large amount of ceramic indicating that sherd density was several orders of magnitude greater than previously reported. In addition, the percentage of Preclassic sherds in the test units indicate far more early utilization then suspected. More importantly, there is little overlap between the artifact assemblages recovered by the use of deflocculants with those recovered from surface collection, a fact that has important ramifications for the reconstruction of cave ritual. In general, the new techniques have revealed greater intensity of utilization in water-logged areas, and have produced an array of small artifacts that reflect a broader range of activities than suggested by surface survey alone.

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