Naj Tunich (Mopan Maya: /nah tunit͡ʃ/) is a natural cave which was used by the Maya as a ritual pilgrimage site during the Classic period. Artifacts show that the cave was accessed primarily during the Early Classic period with deposits becoming rarer during the Late Classic period. 
|Naj Tunich Cave|
A wall drawing of a man in rare 3/4 profile, performing ritual genital bloodletting
The name “Naj Tunich” was adopted from Mopan Maya and means “stone house” or “cave." The cave was given the name Naj Tunich by Pierre Ventur, a linguist from Yale University. The association between caves and houses is likely due to their significance as “containers” which hold “people or objects." This is also reflected in the numerical classifier aktun or “cave” which the Maya used for “boats, houses, lots...towns, and milpas. The Maya name which has been proposed for Naj Tunich is ik’-?-kab which has been translated as “black-?-earth,” a possible reference to the clays contained within the cave. As well as ik’-way-nal or “world of dreams and death."
The rediscovery of Naj Tunich cave occured in 1980 by Bernabe Pop, a Q'eqchi' Maya Native. Bernabe Pop found the site by chance while hunting peccary with his dogs. The first academic visitation to the site was made by Pierre Ventur in 1980. Since discovery, Naj Tunich has been thoroughly mapped and photographed in order to preserve as much of the paintings and hieroglyphs as possible.
The cave is located on a “sheer limestone cliff face more than 200m above” the surrounding valley, making access difficult. The cave mouth itself is located “at the end of a ravine." This accessway also includes two mounds which form a “gateway” to the entrance of the cave.Archaeologists note that while Naj Tunich cave was difficult to reach, the Maya altered the cave significantly through the use of architectural modifications. These modifications included the construction of steps, walls, and the infilling of the cave floor. Studies have shown that the materials required for these alterations were carefully chosen and carried from long distances.
Naj Tunich cave is described as having a north-south orientation and includes two chambers, Chamber 1 and Chamber 2. The entrance to Naj Tunich is large enough to allow for natural light to enter into Chamber 1. The length of the cave is reported as 19m and the widest portion measuring 2.5m. The width of the cave tunnels would have limited access to individual persons in some portions. The cave had also featured “crystalline” stalagmites and stalactites of a yellowish, transparent hue. But nearly all have been destroyed through either environmental or human causes.
Naj Tunich cave is also associated with many artifacts relating to possible ritual activity. Maya artifacts at Naj Tunich include offerings of ceramics, lithics, bowls, precious minerals, copal incense, and human sacrifices.
Chamber 1 includes wooden posts which are suspected to have created 2-3 smaller rooms within the chamber. An elaborate, 14 meter high balcony was also constructed in Chamber 1. This balcony is noted as including what would have been a shallow pool of water. This pool was altered by the Maya through damming. Chamber 1 also includes an altar or shrine area that includes a basin possibly associated with cosmological rituals. Both the balcony and shrine located in Chamber 1 were also likely used in water rituals which may have deepened associations between the caverns, water, power, and natural order.
Along with the features of Chamber 1, two other areas of Naj Tunich cave were associated with access and control of water. One of these is a natural pool of water “located 40 meters into the tunnel system." The Maya had built a “small earthen platform” to the north of the pool. The presence of a large artifact assemblage in the vicinity of the pool suggests that the area was heavily used.
The second section of Chamber 1 that was associated with water is the “Silent Well,” located at the tunnel section furthest from the cave entrance. The well is described as having a diameter of five meters and a long, muddy shaft. Traces of ancient Maya foot prints have been found around the well. Small amounts of clay are said to have been extracted from the Silent Well by pilgrims as mementos. The Maya may have preferred the clay from the Silent Well because of its location deep within the cave.
Chamber 2 is noted as being the smaller of the two chambers. It is described as roughly circular and includes a natural window which could be covered in order to block sunlight. Unfortunately, much of the architectural alterations made to Chamber 2 have been destroyed by looters.
Archaeologists believe that Naj Tunich was associated with the Maya city of Uxbenká, as it is located 2.3km south of the Stela Plaza. In fact, it is believed that the Stela Plaza construction coincides with alterations made within Naj Tunich cave. Archaeologists have also noted that individuals at the Stela Plaza in Uxbenká were capable of looking out to Naj Tunich and vice versa. Which may be evidence of the importance of the relationship between the two sites.
Naj Tunich and Sacred GeographyEdit
Many studies have focused on Naj Tunich as being imbued with sacred, ritual power within Maya cosmology. Primarily, it has been interpreted as having what the Maya refer to as “suhuy." This word has been applied to things which are “unsullied by the human presence." For the Maya, deep cave systems such as Naj Tunich may have represented the most untouched earthly domains.
Naj Tunich is also unique in that it included cosmograms referred to as mesa which “defines the cosmic center and the four quarters” which originate from it. Often, these four quarters were marked with “sacred stones” which would be of a similar size and spherical. The center stone would represent the largest of the five stones. Archaeologists have explained that for the Maya, Naj Tunich may have represented the house of a divine being or entrance to the underworld, Xibalba.
Studies have shown that Naj Tunich also served as a pilgrimage site. Researchers have noted that Naj Tunich may have represented access to economic, political, and material power. As well as a magical source of fertility and “pure” or suhuy water. Hieroglyphs at Naj Tunich have recorded the names of Maya elite who are said to have visited the site. The sites associated with having visited Naj Tunich included “Caracol, Ixkun, Ixtutz, Calakmul, Dos Pilas, and possibly Xultun."
Cave Art and WritingEdit
Naj Tunich also featured a great number of petroglyphs and paintings; as well as 500 hieroglyphs. Naj Tunich is one of five caves which have been discovered to have Maya hieroglyphs. Naj Tunich features the highest number of hieroglyphs of any Maya cave and the total number of hieroglyphs identified exceeds the number of all other Maya cave writing combined. Archaeologists have also argued that the artistic style at Naj Tunich is more refined than that of other Maya caves.
The art of Naj Tunich cave varies greatly with subjects including mythological stories, deities, rituals, and performances. Naj Tunich is also one of twenty two Maya sites to include “explicit sexual imagery." These explicit depictions of male figures with erect genitalia may relate to all-male performances of sex and gender. As well as a representation of homosexual desire and relationships.
Multispectral imaging has been used to study pigments at Naj Tunich cave. These studies show that at least three different pigments were used to create the images within the cave. Multispectral imaging also showed that the images show signs of “over-painting, repainting or touching up” by the artists.
Modern Impact on the SiteEdit
Since its rediscovery, Naj Tunich cave has been heavily impacted by looters. Looters have subsequently destroyed much of the architecture of the caves. The looters ejected “artifacts, rocks, and architecture” from the cave mouth, destroying parts of the cave. Conservation efforts lead by the Uxbenká Cave Project (UCP) have assisted in salvage operations at Naj Tunich.
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- Andrea Stone—Regional Variation in Maya Cave Art. Journal of Cave and Karst Studies 59(1): 33-42.