Mayans planned obstacle course for after-death excitement.

I like finding out new stuff about Mayans. They’re eternally popular, aren’t they? What group in the world today would interest future archeologists half as much?

In an article posted on AOL it’s reported that some old documents from the days of Spanish conquests and inquisitions have piqued the interest of one archeologist – references to the dangerous world of the afterlife, in particular.

Now a Mexican archaeologist using long-forgotten testimony from the Spanish Inquisition says a series of caves he has explored may be the place where the Maya actually tried to depict this highway through hell.

The network of underground chambers, roads and temples beneath farmland and jungle on the Yucatan peninsula suggests the Maya fashioned them to mimic the journey to the underworld, or Xibalba, described in ancient mythological texts such as the Popol Vuh.

“It was the place of fear, the place of cold, the place of danger, of the abyss,” said University of Yucatan archaeologist Guillermo de Anda.

Searching for the names of sacred sites mentioned by Indian heretics who were put on trial by Inquisition courts, De Anda discovered what appear to be stages of the legendary journey, recreated in a half-dozen caves south of the Yucatan state capital of Merida.

That they used caves for sacred structures is not a new discovery.

There, in the stygian darkness, a scene unfolded that was eerily reminiscent of an “Indiana Jones” movie — tottering ancient temple platforms, slippery staircases and tortuous paths that skirted underground lakes littered with Mayan pottery and ancient skulls.

The group explored walled-off sacred chambers that can only be entered by crawling along a floor populated by spiders, scorpions and toads.

De Anda studied 450 years worth of torture confessions and other documents the Spanish had put together over their long history of picking on the Mayans, killing those they couldn’t convert to Christianity. But that didn’t stop the Mayans from following traditions, and De Anda found a few sinkhole caves, called cenotes, some distance away from current villages that still use theirs for water sources. The team was amazed at what they found down there – many rooms and tunnels depicting the path to Xibalba, the land of the afterlife. Hot caves, chilly ones, bat filled ones, a “room of knives” represented by stalactites so sharp they cut skin. The chamber that might have been for the jaguars was blessedly empty, save for bones.

All in all, they declared it a good find. But why is it all down there?

“Perhaps it was to demonstrate power,” De Anda speculates, or to give the living an idea of the terrors they would meet en route to paradise.

Clifford Brown, a Florida Atlantic University archaeologist who has worked in the region, agrees that the Mayas saw the cenotes as a portal to the underworld.

“Everybody has heard of the cenote of sacrifice at Chichen Itza, but it’s less widely recognized that it was part of a generalized cenote worship that existed at many sites,” Brown said.

It sounds completely fascinating. I’m glad enough people care about this stuff to find out how they lived and why they believed what they did.

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