- Stone Houses and Earth Lords: Maya Religion in the Cave Context
Only 15 years ago Maya cave studies was in its infancy. With the publication of Stone Houses and Earth Lords: Maya Religion in the Cave Context the discipline comes-of-age and makes a solid contribution to the archaeological study of ancient religion. The edited volume contains 19 chapters sorted into three broad categories: 1) Sacred Landscapes and Artificial Caves; 2) Reconstructing Ritual and Cosmology, and; 3) Interpretations of Human Skeletal Materials in Caves. While the placement of some chapters in the first versus second section seems arbitrary, this does not underscore that most make solid contributions. Given the number of chapters, I will not comment on each. Instead I hope to convey a sense of the diversity of topics broached.
Twenty years ago the decipherment of the Maya hieroglyph for pyramid—witz or mountain—confirmed what some scholars had expected. Elite rulers deliberately replicated the sacred landscape in elaborate stone-mountain temples, a labor-intensive practice with profound social consequences. Far less attention has been placed on the artificial caves excavated under these stone-mountains. Several authors focus on these long neglected features. Pugh examines artificial caves, as well as natural caves and cenotes (sink holes), at Post-Classic sites and finds rulers employed a standard "architectural [End Page 769] grammar." Caves and cenotes—artificial or not—were located the northwest quadrant of ceremonial groups, seemingly providing an important grounding point for surface architecture. The construction of artificial caves is not limited to Post-Classic period as demonstrated by research at the Late Classic site of Muklebal Tzul, Belize, where an artificial tunnel under a small private plaza led to a functioning spring (Prufer and Kindon). As noted by these authors, the incorporation of caves under pyramids indicates that they too were potent aspects of the sacred geography and worthy of elite appropriation. Further it demonstrates the significance the ancient Maya placed on the conceptual pairing of cave with mountain. Yet not all temple complexes have caves, constructed or natural. In reading this section I found myself wondering why only certain sites should have such features.
A possible answer is provided elsewhere. Brady et al. recorded stalactite breakage patterns in Balam Na Cave, Guatemala, a place that underwent extensive modification as evident in the percentage of broken stalactites. Interestingly the majority of stalactites were removed from the cave, harvested to be used elsewhere. While we do not know how material removed from this cave was used, Peterson et al. provide important evidence of speleothem reuse at surface sites in the Sibun Valley, Belize. Intriguingly they find that most speleothems were associated with construction debris from elite shrines and monumental architecture perhaps replicating mountain/cave association in constructed landscapes. I was left wondering whether the incorporation of speleothems in elite architecture was a viable alternative to constructing artificial caves.
Elite appropriation of caves is a common thread woven throughout much of the book. One of the things I found interesting was the various ways such appropriation was given material form. A plaster covered sacbe, or raised road, leads from an elite architectural group to a nearby cave, physically and symbolically linking one to the other (Halperin). Iconography on portable artifacts and stone sculptures link elite scribes with caves, while pictographs and written glyphic messages inside actual caves suggest scribes made cave pilgrimages for ceremonies that reaffirmed their sacred status (Stone). In a fascinating chapter, Brady and Colas argue that association of elite ruler and cave was so complete that caves too became the target of indigenous warfare. Various caves show physical evidence of ancient destruction in the form of blocked passages and looted tombs. Yet such evidence could represent a termination rite or an act of sacrilege. In attempting to sort through these alternatives, the authors turn to epigraphy. They propose that both text and archaeology indicate [End Page 770] warfare was waged against caves, resulting in their physical desecrated and burning. Interestingly when hieroglyphic texts record...