Las Cuevas Archaeological Reconnaissance Project
Las Cuevas is an ancient Maya mid-sized site located in the Chiquibul Forest Reserve in western Belize that dates to the later part of the 9th century AD. On the surface it seems to be typical of many Late Classic Maya centers, but this site has something that others do not—a large cave system that runs directly beneath the main plaza. Las Cuevas consists of two plazas that are situated around a dry cenote (sinkhole). The cave is accessed from the base of the cenote and the entrance is located directly below the eastern pyramid of Plaza A. The cave entrance is massive and cathedral-like. It is unarguably the best-elaborated, architecturally modified cave in the Maya lowlands containing terraces, retaining walls, stairways, and platforms surfaced with thick plaster. At center of the cavernous room is a sinkhole lined with cut stone block retaining walls where an underground river surfaces. The water level rises and falls in rhythm to the amount of local rainfall.
To understand the importance of the layout of Las Cuevas, one must appreciate that the landscape is at the heart of ancient Maya cosmology. The sacred landscape consists of a mountain/cave/water complex that is animate and must be acknowledged and honored. Many, if not most, Maya temples refer to and replicate the sacred landscape by representing sacred mountains and the rooms at their summits--caves. Natural caves are one of the most salient of cosmological features, particularly those that contain life-giving water. They are considered to be entrances to the Underworld and the home of deities associated with fertility, rain, and the sacred earth. So, we can appreciate the cosmological symbolism inherent in the Las Cuevas site layout with its sacred mountain/temple perched above a natural cave containing a perennial water source. This creates a backdrop for rituals and ceremonies conducted in the massive elaborated Entrance Chamber, demonstrating the site’s importance in the Late Classic ritual life of ancient Maya people. Our research at Cuevas suggests that it was an elite pilgrimage center that was erected during the stressful Late Classic period when droughts were beginning to affect the political structure and kingly power was waning.