History and museums
The Sacred Cenote (Spanish: cenote sagrado, American Spanish: ˌsenote saˈɣɾaðo, "sacred well"; alternatively known as the "Well of Sacrifice") refers to a noted cenote at the pre-Columbian Maya archaeological site of Chichen Itza, in the northern Yucatán Peninsula. It is located to the north of Chichen Itza's civic precinct, to which it is connected by a 300-metre (980 ft) sacbe, or raised and paved pathway.
According to post-Conquest sources (Maya and Spanish), pre-Columbian Maya sacrificed objects and human beings into the cenote as a form of worship to the Maya rain god Chaac. Edward Herbert Thompson dredged the Cenote Sagrado from 1904 to 1910, and recovered artifacts of gold, jade, pottery, and incense, as well as human remains. A study of human remains taken from the Cenote Sagrado found that they had wounds consistent with human sacrifice.
While commonly known as the “Sacred Cenote,” there are several other names used. It has been referred to as “The Well of Sacrifices” and “Chen Ku”, Chen Ku being the original name that the Mayans used for the cenote. Chen is the ancient Mayan word meaning “well” or “pool,” and “ku” means relating to or in the possession of God. Thus, Chen Ku literally means “The well of God.”
The Yucatán peninsula is a limestone plain and does not have any streams or rivers, so cenotes provide the only access to underground rivers. Cenotes are scattered across the peninsula, but the sacred cenote of Chichén Itzá was by far the most important to the Maya. In fact, Chichén Itzá translates to “At the mouth of the well of the Itza.”
The Mayans believed there were three entryways to Xibalbá. The bottom of the sacred cenote was one entryway. The other methods of entry were through caves or through competition in the Mayan ball game. They believed they could communicate with the Gods and ancestors by offering sacrifices into the cenote. The rain god Chaac was thought to live at the bottom of the sacred cenote, and many humans were sacrificed to appease him.
A “cenote cult” eventually formed as people sacrificed objects to worship the gods. The Mayans would pray for bountiful harvests, good rains, and fortune. Many priests would also collect water from the cenote, which they thought to be sacred, to perform rituals at temples.
Cenotes were so important and central to Mayan culture that they were often represented in art. Many depictions of gods such as Chaac, the Water Lily Serpent, and Chaac Chel show the gods pouring water into a cenote or creating storms. Water lilies growing on the edges of the cenote also symbolized the cleanliness of the water.
Many perishable objects were preserved by the cenote. Wooden objects which normally would have rotted were preserved in the water. A great variety of wooden objects have been found including weapons, scepters, idols, tools, and jewelry. Jade was the largest category of objects found followed by textiles. The presence of jade, gold, and copper in the cenote offers proof of the importance of Chichén Itzá as a cultural city center.
None of these raw materials are native to the Yucatán, so people travelled to Chichén Itzá from other places in Central America in order to worship the gods. Pottery, stone, bone, and shells were also found in the cenote. Archaeologists have found that many objects show evidence of being intentionally damaged before being thrown into the cenote. Some speculate that this intentional damage is meant to be like “killing” the objects as sacrifice to the gods.
During the exploration of the cenote, many bones of human bodies were found, including males, females, and children. According to archaeologist Guillermo de Anda of the University of Yucatán, evidence from Mayan mythology suggests that many young victims whose gender is indeterminate were male.
Most of the major findings in the cenote were made under the supervision of Edward Herbert Thompson, who began dredging in 1904. Much of what is known about the dredging process is derived from Thompson’s personal notes. Thompson received money from Stephen Salisbury III to help him buy the Chichén Itzá excavation site and explore the cenote. Much of Thompson’s findings and research can be found at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.
A bucket attached to a pulley system was used to dredge the cenote. Much of the beginning work consisted of clearing debris and fallen trees on the top of the water. Leon Cole, a colleague of Thompson, once recorded in his journal, “they made ten hauls in the morning and six or eight in the afternoon.” People would search through the buckets of water looking for artifacts and categorizing them accordingly. Unfortunately, there were several reports of stolen artifacts that could never be found.
Thompson decided to take a break from dredging after Salisbury died. A host of problems including the Mexican Revolution and financial problems began to hinder the work effort and damage the morale of the workers. Thompson’s house in Mexico was also burned down, and one of the chests in which he kept his notes and data was engulfed in the fire. By 1923, Thompson was officially done working on the cenote.
In 1909, Thompson decided to dive in the cenote to explore the floors, assisted by two Greek divers from the Bahamas. He reported limited visibility due to the murky water, and many shifting rocks and trees made the dive hazardous. Thompson found a layer about 5 metres (16 ft) thick of blue pigment that had settled on the ground of the cenote. He described the bottom as, “full of long narrow cracks, radiating from centers as if the glass bottom of a dish had been broken by a pointed instrument. We found down in the cracks and holes a grayish mud in which were imbedded the heavier gold objects, jades, and copper bells in numbers.” He later proudly proclaimed, “I have at last personally trod the bottom of the Cenote.”
In 1961, William Folan, a field director for the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH), helped launch another expedition into the cenote. Some of their notable discoveries included an inscribed, gold-sheathed bone, a large chert knife with a gold-sheathed wooden handle, and wooden ear flares with jade and turquoise mosaic.
In 1967-1968, Norman Scott and Román Piña Chán led another expedition. They tried two new methods that many people had suggested for a long time: emptying the water out of the cenote and clarifying the water. Both of these methods were only partially successful. Only about 4 metres (13 ft) of water could be removed, and the water was only clarified for a short amount of time.