Midnight Terror Cave
Cayo District, Belize – 2008 - 2011
Dr. Jaime Awe, director of the Belizean Institute of Archaeology, offered Cal State L.A. the Midnight Terror Cave Project to study the huge deposit of human skeletal material in the cave. The scope of the investigation quickly expanded when large scale modifications to the cave were encountered. The logistic were difficult because the road to the site was impassible because of rain during our second and third seasons. Everything had to be carried into and out of the cave, including 60’ of ladders used to descend into the entrance each day. The three field seasons became a race to complete a survey and surface collection of one of the most complex caves yet reported in the Maya area. After the cave was featured in an episode of the Discovery Channel’s Bone Detective, looting became a major problem as well.
Figure 1: Map of the interior of Midnight Terror Cave. The cave was named by the Mennonites in the nearby community of Springfield who called in the middle of the night to rescue a looter who had fallen from the ledge at the entrance.
The project completed a three year investigation of Midnight Terror Cave in the summer of 2010. Anthropology students, Jennifer Coats, Jeremy Coltman, Hector Cordova and Mario Giron, finished the survey and artifact collection during a five week season in Belize. The season will be remembered for the weather - when the heat index hit 130º even local people were complaining and the rain made our muddy road impassible. The rain washed out several days of work and forced the project to extend the season by an extra week.
Figure 2: Although the does not have great length, its one large chamber is immense (note the person for scale).
Even with the extra time, project members worked long hours to complete the survey. Hundreds of human bones had to be recorded, carefully wrapped in aluminum foil, and packed in plastic boxes to protect them on the trip back to the laboratory. Looting by people in a nearby village often left bones broken and fragmented, further complicating our job.
Figure 3: Safety lines were rigged at the entrance to prevent accidents while descending to the floor of the cave.
The team was elated to complete the survey on the last day and haul all the equipment out of the cave. There was also a sense of sadness for the veterans because our camp had become our second home after three years.
Figure 4: The project purchased a 24’ and a 36’ ladder to descend into the cave each day.
The California budget crisis impacted the Midnighter Terror Cave Project when the university cut the state supported summer school in 2010. Brady had taught in the summer in order to have the Spring Quarter free for fieldwork. Knowing that there would be no field project in the Spring of 2011, Brady chose to devote the project for the 2010-2011 academic year to laboratory analysis and to run it in the Summer of 2010. Six members of the project spent a month at the Programme for Belize field camp analyzing all of the artifacts and more than 29,000 pottery sherds. The project members will come together again in the winter to write the final report which will be published by the Association for Mexican Cave Studies.
Figure 5: The ladders allowed the crew of 10 – 12 people enter and leave without a single mishap during the three seasons of work.
The Midnight Terror Cave Project offered field opportunities to five students each year and only one student, Mario Giron, participated in all three field seasons. Students were expected to present professional papers at the Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology and, so far, only one has not done so. The experience has already helped Juan Landeros win a Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Fellowship and former CSULA student, Crystal Kieffer, did her dissertation research on the project. Not all the students, however, become Maya cave archaeologists. Juan Landeros and Eden Chavez went on to form an ethnographic project in Oaxaca; Idi Okilo worked in Africa and Mel Saldaña is working in the Great Basin.
Figure 6: a) Once on the floor of the cave, students began to record cultural features
6b & c) such as this retaining wall.
Figure 7: a & b) Thousands of pottery sherds had to be collected
c) some of which included polychrome vessels with hieroglyphic inscriptions.
d & e) In some cases enough pieces were recovered to restore the vessel.
Figure 8: a – c) Human bone is concentrated is several places in the cave.
The most spectacular is this deposit in a low muddy area called “Bone Soup.”
A minimum of 40 individuals have been identified and this number is expected to reach about 100 before the analysis is complete.
Figure 9: a & b) The lab was a central feature of our camp where artifacts were brought, cleaned, processed and then stored.
The two largest sets of artifacts were:
Ceramic, (Figure 9 c & d)
And bone (Figure 9e – 9h)