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||During the Late Preclassic, the Ancient Maya of the Yucatán Peninsula
began carving out underground storage facilities called Chultuns.
These chambers were carved out of the relatively soft Limestone bedrock,
then often plastered with a thick coating of lime stucco. The exact purpose
of these extremely common storage chambers still eludes archaeologists.
Most were probably used to collect and store rain water. The northern portion
of the Yucatán Peninsula has a marked dry season, and portions have
a quite meager rainy season. What water does fall, sinks into the limestone
bedrock almost immediately and joins with the groundwater in the immense
systems of caves which riddle the peninsula. Consequently, surface water
is scarce, and chultuns were positioned in sculpted plazas and sideyards
which would drain the precious fluid into the narrow openings for storage.
It is also possible that the chultuns were used to store other goods
and seal them away from pests. In many cases this can be ruled out due to
the amount of water which would have collected in these chambers and quickly
rotted any dry food-stuffs.|
||Inside the chultun, one will usually
find a conical mound of trash and sediment. This trash can date from any
time after the termination of the chultun as a storage facility.
Once the plaster has eroded and water is no longer held, or the chultun
becomes too infested or damp to store perishables, the large chamber is
a convenient place to sweep away daily refuse. As you can see in this photo,
the broken cookware and storage vessels that once belonged to an ancient
Maya family were swept into this chultun along with the deerbones
and turtle shells that must have once been dinner. Other chultuns nearer
to current settlements have a nearly continuous deposit of trash, with the
uppermost layer exhibiting Coke bottles and egg shells. Occasionally one
will find human remains in these trash deposits. In a land where the topsoil
is rarely a meter deep, this may have simply been a convenient way of interring
someone in the ground, but in truth we do not know exactly why these individuals
were given burials in chultuns while others were buried under houses
or in courtyards.|
||The chultun that you see here has been
looted for some unknown artifacts. It is not likely that the looter found
anything of value in this mound of ancient household refuse. Most of the
vessels are broken utilitarian jars and bowls, not the beautiful polychrome
vessels that you would find in a tomb or in other elite contexts. These
diggers have succeeded in disturbing the original context of the trash,
which would have allowed archaeologists to better study this feature. Because
of this inevitable result, the market for illegal antiquities should be
stopped by all means possible. On the other hand, since these chambers are
still used by the Maya today for disposing their refuse, who exactly can
blame them for going through their own trash for objects of value today?
I pose this as a moral dilemma, not an excuse for the ever present problem
of archaeological looting.|