Extreme archaeology: Divers plumb sacred Maya pools

From University of Illinois - R&D

Steering clear of crocodiles and navigating around massive submerged trees, a team of divers began mapping some of the 25 freshwater pools of Cara Blanca, Belize, which were important to the ancient Maya.

In three weeks this May, the divers found fossilized animal remains, bits of pottery and – in the largest pool explored – an enormous underwater cave.

This project, led by University of Illinois anthropology professor Lisa Lucero and funded by the National Geographic Society and an Arnold O. Beckman Award, was the first of what Lucero hopes will be a series of dives into the pools of the southern Maya lowlands in central Belize.

The divers will return this summer to assess whether archaeological excavation is even possible at the bottom of the pools, some of which are more than 60 meters deep. 

“We don’t know if it’s going to be feasible to conduct archaeology 200 feet below the surface,” Lucero said. “But they are going to try.”

The Maya believed that openings in the earth, including caves and water-filled sinkholes, called cenotes (sen-OH-tays), were portals to the underworld, and often left offerings there. Ceremonial artifacts of the Maya have been found in pools and lakes in Mexico, but not yet in Belize.

Maya structures have been found near two of the eight pools the team surveyed.

“The pools with the most substantial and most obvious settlement at the edge also turn out to be the deepest that we know,” Lucero said. The divers so far have explored eight of the 25 known pools of Cara Blanca.


Belize Cara Blanca freshwater pools ancient Maya University of Illinois Lisa Lucero