Posted by: Johan Normark | August 31, 2009

The exciting lives and fates of sascaberas

During last year’s fieldwork in the ejido of Tabasco one of the workers took me to the sites of Candelaria and Rancho Benito Juarez (RBJ). Before we came to RBJ he told me that the site has plenty of “cuevas” (caves in Spanish). When he later specified the multitude of caves to be 20+ I became slightly more sceptical. That many “natural” caves are not likely to be found at a site, especially not south of the Chicxulub fracture zone. My suspicion was correct. The first “cueva” was obviously a sascabera (a limestone marl [sascab] mine). The other cuevas were the same. First I was slightly disappointed but the decline in cave density south of the Chicxulub fracture zone actually fit my hypothesis.

In any case, manmade “caves” like these are usually associated with caves (“grutas”) in Maya cosmology. Or at least among Mayanists I would say. Cosmological interpretations have become axiomatic in Maya cave studies for reasons explained earlier on this blog. It has gone so far now that every manmade hole in the ground must be a symbolic cave (according to Brady). I am of the opinion that it is far more interesting to understand what people did rather than speculating in possible meanings of various archaeological remains. Most of these sascaberas are the result of construction activities and need not have any cosmological meanings whatsoever. Hence they tend to cluster around large and small buildings of various sorts. For example, sascaberas are frequently found near the causeways at Ichmul and Yo’okop.


A sascabera along Sacbe 2 at Yo'okop

A sascabera along Sacbe 2 at Yo'okop


Limestone hardens when it is exposed to the atmosphere. This means that the surface usually is quite hard and sharp. Sascab is found below the hard limestone surface. It is a nearly pure carbonate material used for construction. There are basically two kinds of sascaberas: (1) the most common are completely open and depression like mines, and (2) the cave like with an intact roof. They have been excavated under the hard limestone and have sometimes created long tunnels. Large sascaberas at Coba sometimes have an unmined stone pillar to uphold the roof. Some of Coba’s sascaberas have wells and in the Cochuah region we have such a case at Rancho San Manuel in Saban. At San Pedro Sacalaca near Sacalaca we find a sascabera attached to a “real” cave. Some argue that small caves may have been expanded to become sascaberas.

In my studies on “material agency” I have argued that a long sascabera below the Ichmul-San Andres causeway affected contemporary people’s decision not to transform the ancient causeway into a modern road. The sascabera once ran east-west for about 60 meters. It has collapsed and the overlaying causeway has collapsed with it, exposing a nice profile of the causeway. Parts of the sascabera are still preserved. Local informants mentioned that a few years ago there was a plan to construct a modern dirt road on top of the causeway (as has been the case with plenty of ancient causeways in the northern lowlands). Once the workers surveying the causeway reached the collapsed area the plans were halted since filling the cut would have required substantial amounts of material not available. A similar collapsed sascabera and causeway has been found along Sacbe 1 at Yo’okop. Shaw believes Sacbe 1 had a bridge-like construction that spanned the hole, maybe by tree trunks. However, since the Ichmul-San Andres sascabera was very large, with no other structures nearby that would have been the target for mining the sascab, I assume that the sascabera collapse post-dates the construction of the causeway. The hole would probably have been filled if it pre-existed. Krochock believes that an abruptly ended causeway near the Temple of the Hieroglyphic Jambs at Chichen Itza was ritually terminated. The Ichmul-San Andres causeway cut is probably unintentional and not related to ritual terminations of roads.


The collapsed sascabera below the Ichmul-San Andres causeway

The collapsed sascabera below the Ichmul-San Andres causeway


Another effect of contemporary sascaberas is that they cause one to drive slightly slower. During the 2008 season the people of Saban maintained the Saban-Yo’okop-Dzoyola road. Using the same construction techniques as in ancient times, they excavated sascaberas right next to the road to extract sascab for filling potholes. This resulted in the presence of some very large sascaberas where the whole car could have fitted if you did not pay attention to the road.

Many sascaberas can contain water and could potentially be used as aguadas. However, the fate of most sascaberas in inhabited areas, once they no longer are used as mines, are to become trash deposits. Thus, the late life of a sascabera contains stuff for future archaeologists and contemporary garbologists.



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