The Belize Cave Research Project (BCRP) is a regional study of ancient Maya ritual caves located throughout northern, central, and western Belize. This project, funded by the Alphawood Foundation, was co-founded in 2012 with Jaime J. Awe of the University of Northern Arizona. Together, Jaime and I have been investigating ritual caves in Belize for the past 20 years. Our interest is in the role of religion and ideology in complex society and how it affects decision-making and political processes. Nowhere can we better study underpinning ideologies and the consequent changes in ritual practices than in ritual caves. To understand Maya religion we have to appreciate how their cosmology differs from our own. For both ancient and modern indigenous peoples, the earth is considered a powerful creative and destructive force that is both sacred and animate. Life-giving gifts from the earth such as agricultural fertility as well as diseases and death are thought to originate in the earth itself. In Maya cosmology, rain is not thought of as a celestial phenomenon, but is considered to be terrestrial; therefore clouds, lightning, wind, and rain are believed to spring from within the earth—from caves. Caves do in fact do literally “breath,” and in tropical environments, mist or clouds can be seen emanating from cave mouths following rains. Caves can also be watery places and this did not go unnoticed among the Maya who believed that rain deities lived in these stone houses. This makes sense when we consider that water from deep springs within the earth is often observed flowing from cave entrances. In Maya religion water emerging from the earth came to symbolize fertility and rain, an all-important concern of agrarian people. In this project we examine how Maya ritual has developed historically so that we may correlate changes in ritual practices with evolving socio/political structures both in the development of social complexity and its subsequent decline, so that we better understand the role that ritual may have played in these processes.
Consequently, the aim of the BCRP is to collect data from caves on a regional scale that will address the chronology of the cave use, changes in ritual practices, and architectural elaborations made to these sites. Our collection methods involve locating, photographing, mapping, creating an inventory of artifacts and features such as architecture, and excavating the sites when it is appropriate. We have a very efficient and well-organized team that can thoroughly and quickly record these sites. There are many benefits to our work and one of the most important contributions is in heritage management and preservation. Sadly, most of the caves that we record have already been looted to some degree. While we cannot preserve all of these sites physically, we can document them as they are today for future generations.