Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Not Crystal Clear

Magnet # 70: Dolphins in the Waters of Belize

Material:  Copper

Purchased By:  Mary

You know, I had never thought of Belize as a particularly scary spot.  There's sand and surf, waterfalls, a barrier reef, and luscious jungles.  It's a paradise for travelers that come from all over the world.  And then Andrew Zimmern took a trip there on Bizarre World and changed my opinion completely.

The original inhabitants of this land were the Maya, who practiced human sacrifice.  And they often preferred to offer up the young to the gods because they believed them to be pure.  And the shameful practice was brought back into the limelight about twenty years ago when an archaeologist discovered Actun Tunichil Muknal, or the "Cave of the Crystal Sepulcher."  But when Zimmern visited the place, he called it the "Cave of the Crystal Maiden," referring to what lay in wait there for him.  For this is a place of altars where the natives sacrificed their own to the rain god in times of drought, and the evidence of their dark deeds remains.

It's a kind of creepy cave to get into.  First, visitors must swim or wade deep into a pool that surrounds the opening, leaving them wet for a good duration of their visit.  Once inside, they walk through a set of chambers for about an hour and a half until they find themselves at a place dubbed "The Cathedral."  Here lies a pile of human remains from fourteen different bodies.  The holes in most of the heads clearly establishes them as sacrificial victims and not as bodies in a burial space.  Seven of these victims were less than five years old.  One is particularly disturbing - the remains of an infant about two months old.  You could tell Zimmern was a bit overwhelmed by this sight, being a parent himself.  It's just hard to imagine how anyone could sacrifice a baby.  But there is still one site of interest beyond "The Cathedral."

The most intriguing remains in the cave are those of the Crystal Maiden.  She is set apart from the rest of the piles of bones, on a higher level, so it's believed she was a particularly important sacrifice.  She was most likely in her teens or early twenties when she was killed, probably by a blow to the head.  There is a stone celt which may have been the instrument of her demise near her remains on a shelf.  What is particularly striking about her remains is that they have fused with the floor of the cave and a layer of brown calcite has covered them entirely, resulting in a crystal sheen for which she was named.  Throughout his visit, Zimmern remained a bit in awe of all that he saw.  A trip to the cave can take about half a day, but I imagine for those that venture there, the chilling memories can last a lifetime.

Belize is also connected to another mysterious legend:  that of the Crystal Skulls. Over time, 13 Crystal Skulls have been found scattered all the way from Mexico to South America, usually near Aztec or Mayan ruins.  But some believe that neither civilization is responsible for the creation of these artifacts and that they may be the remnants of an older, more mysterious empire, perhaps even that of Atlantis.  No one can say how old these skulls are, but some may be as old as 5,000 years.  And they are believed to have incredible magical and healing powers.  The mystery surrounding them is becoming as great as that of Stonehenge or the Pyramids of Egypt.  And considering they were featured in the last Indiana Jones film, their reputation is likely to grow greater still.

The Crystal Skull that is perhaps the most famous and most mysterious was said to found in what is now Belize in 1924. British explorer F.A. Mitchell-Hedges claimed his daughter Anna discovered the quartz skull with a removable jawbone in a temple there.  Its authenticity was been called into question over the years, and the fact that Mitchell-Hedges has only allowed it to be scientifically examined once hasn't helped.  During that assessment, conflicting evidence was found.  It was discovered that the skull was carved against the crystal's natural axis, something that no modern artist would have done, as it would almost certainly cause cracking.  Also, there were no scratches that metal instruments would have produced.  Some have thought that perhaps diamonds and sand were used to shape and polish the skull, a process that could have taken as many as 300 years.  However, there were holes on the piece that appeared to have been made by a modern drill.  Overall, the experts were baffled by the skull and unable to make any concrete conclusions about it, although one felt it shouldn't exist at all.  The most disturbing part of the skull is that Mitchell-Hughes claimed the Maya used it to inflict death, but, to this day, many believe her story to be a hoax.

Belize's ancient past is clearly surrounded in a shroud of mystery.  No one can say for certain what civilizations have lived there, but what has been left behind in the country is fascinating.  Although the Cave of the Crystal Maiden and the Mitchell-Hughes Skull have already been discovered, this unsuspecting country may still hold other dark, creepy secrets that have yet to be unearthed.

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