National Geographic : 1961 Oct
Treasure Hunt in the Deep Past In some ceremonies the living victim's heart was cut out with a sacrificial knife and offered to the gods. De Landa reports that priests hurled other victims into the cenote while still alive, "be lieving... they would come out on the third day, although they never appeared again." Victims were to intercede with the gods, and the priests instructed them concerning the requests. They were to ask for rain, good crops, knowledge of the future, and, on oc casion, for relief from hurricanes. But at least one candidate refused to obey orders. When L6pez visited Chichen Itza in 1552, he heard of a preconquest incident: "Holding a virgin for the sacrifice in the said way and the priest telling her... to ask their gods... to send them good times, she replied that she would not say any such thing... since they were going to kill her. And the boldness and assurance of that vir gin in her speech had so great an effect that they left her and sacrificed another in her place." In addition to humans, the Maya offered animals to their gods (we found more bones of animals than of men). Jaguars, pumas, al ligators, deer, game birds-all were deemed worthy of Chac. Often our work was slow and disappoint ing. The air lift sucked up a large stone, a part of the fallen temple; the plugged pipe collapsed, and repairs were tedious. Witch Lurks in Depths of Well During such delays, I enjoyed talking with Avelino Canul, an extraordinary person (page 552). Though his native tongue is Maya, his self-taught Spanish is good. He is sophisticat ed about Maya superstitions, but well versed in Yucatan folklore. "People here do not swim in the sacred cenote," he told me. "But I am not afraid. When I was a boy 7 years old, I climbed down this cliff on vines. I swam here-and no evil came to me." And what do the local Maya fear in this well of sacrifice? Some believe in Hechicera, a monstrous witch. "Hechicera was a prin cess who could not marry the man she loved," Avelino explained. "If people come too close to the cenote, Hechicera is supposed to take them into her cave and turn them into alux." Aluxob are the little people, comparable to Ireland's leprechauns. I had noticed small huts built in the cornfields, where the season's first ears of corn are left to feed the alux. "For such favors," Avelino said, "the alux will rock your hammock and push up your corn plants." We could have used some alux ourselves. For exhausting days the divers worked on the underwater rock pile, the ruins of the fallen temple. Moving heavy stones in the murk, they often narrowly missed injury. When time and funds permit, these build ing blocks may be raised into a restored tem ple. Our diagrams should be useful. Studies Point to Future Treasures Taking stock of the expedition, we could write a long list of achievement. The air lift and divers had, in less than four months, helped provide the Government of Mexico with more than 4,000 artifacts. Scholars will study these specimens for years to come. Furthermore, we had tested new techniques of archeology. We had completed some basic studies of the cenote itself. Hydraulic engi neers may now find a way to pump this sink hole dry-all of it, or part of it. We are cer tain that in the future- perhaps quite soon the sacred cenote will yield an even more dazzling array of treasures. In the closing days the men made some of the most exciting finds: a wooden doll wrapped in bits of fragile cloth-extremely rare for Mexico; small rubber figurines; wooden spools with black mosaic decorations (probably jewelry for the ears); two beads of solid gold (page 555). In the last week the men brought up a fine bone-blade knife; its handle, elaborately in scribed with glyphs, was covered with gold foil (page 552). Some day we may determine the meaning of all the glyphs. If we still lacked a set of Spanish armor, a skeleton, or complete Maya codices, we at least had Salazar's "something that Thomp son did not find." As a final feat, we divers taught the faith ful Avelino how to use an Aqua-Lung. He took superbly to diving. On the last day of our operations, he made a solo dive-care fully picking his spot in the cenote. When he surfaced a few moments later, he proudly carried a trophy: the same Rolex watch that Fernando Euan had lost early in the expedi tion! So, after long years of watching out siders seek and find Maya handiwork, he treated us to the spectacle of a modern Maya discovering a 20th-century treasure.