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Naj Tunich, Guatemala

The Maya Cave of Naj Tunich, Guatemala

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Drawing of a human figure performing a bloodletting ritual, Naj Tunich cave, Guatemala

Drawing of a human figure performing a bloodletting ritual, Naj Tunich cave, Guatemala

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The cave of Naj Tunich, meaning “Stone House,” is located on the edge of the Maya Mountains in southeastern Peten, Guatemala. The site lies in the municipality of Poptun approximately 1 km west of the border with Belize and at an elevation about 600 ft above sea level. Archaeological evidence in it suggests that it was a well-known Classic period pilgrimage destination for rulers and other elites in the southeast Peten and adjacent areas of Belize. It is best known today for containing the largest corpus of hieroglyphic texts found in any cave in the Maya area, the large numbers of unique paintings of supernatural figures and fertility images, and as the object of a pioneer study on ancient Maya cave ritual practice. Sadly, much of the art was destroyed soon after it was discovered.

History of Exploration

Naj Tunich first came to light to the Western world in 1979 when Bernabé Pop stumbled upon it while out hunting with his dogs. The first anthropologist to visit the cave was a Yale linguist, Pierre Ventur, who gave the cave its name. The cave was officially reported to the Guatemala Institute of Anthropology and History (IDAEH) by photographer Jacque Van Kirk whose photographs of the cave were published in local newspapers. Coverage of the cave by National Geographic magazine introduced the cave to the rest of the world. Ernie Garza and Karen Witte mapped the cave in February of 1981. James Brady led the full-scale archaeological investigations over the course of two seasons between the months of June 1981 and April 1982. All of the art and hieroglyphs were recorded by Andrea Stone and compiled in the book, “Images of the Underworld.”

Hieroglyphs

The hieroglyphic paintings at Naj Tunich are significant for a number of reasons. The first is that they represent the largest known corpus of hieroglyphs found in any cave in the Maya area. The second largest corpus is found in the Jolja Caves near Palenque, in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The second reason is that the paintings illustrate specific ritual events that took place in the cave, such as period-ending rituals, as well as historical events between several of the largest cities in the area specifically, Scual, Ixcun, Ucanal, Caracol, and "Site Q".

One of the hieroglyphic texts, known as “Drawing 82” discusses the burning of a cave as an act of warfare. Such events were unknown to archaeologists and historians until this cave was discovered, and its texts were translated. These events may represent the legendary destruction of the place of emergence, or Chicomoztoc, for the losing side in a battle.

Iconography

The iconography or art work in the cave can be divided into two main classes, stone carvings or petroglyphs and paintings. The petroglyphs date mostly to the Late Classic period and include geometric designs, a calendar date, a long-billed bird, and a series of profile faces in varying degrees of completeness. The paintings make up the majority of the art in the cave counting for 85 of the 94 drawings. Their subjects include bloodletting, scenes from the ballgame and the Popol Vuh, dancing, ritual decapitation, and possibly palace scenes. The characters include several human and supernatural beings including the Hero Twins Hunaphu and Xblanque, the Sun God, and dwarfs.

References and Further Reading

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Mesoamerica , and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Brady, James E., 1989, An Investigation of Maya Ritual Cave Use with Specific Reference to Naj Tunich, Guatemala, Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles. University Microfilms, Ann Arbor.

Brady, James E., and Andrea J. Stone, 1986, Naj Tunich: Entrance to the Maya Underworld. Archaeology 39:18-25.

Stone, Andrea J., 1982, Recent Discoveries from Naj Tunich. Mexicon 4:93-99.

Stone, Andrea J., 1995, Images from the Underworld: Naj Tunich and the Tradition of Maya Cave Painting. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Stuart, George E., 1981, Maya Art Treasures Discovered in Cave. National Geographic 160:220-235.

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