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A Quest to Save Sacred Waters in the Maya World

February 1 2018
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A thousand years ago, the ancient Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula in modern-day Mexico built towering pyramids and beautiful palaces. They charted stars and planets in the heavens and kept elaborate calendars and histories related to these celestial beings. The earth itself was also a sacred place filled with divine presence. Perhaps most sacred were the cenotes, natural wells of life-giving fresh water. These openings into the earth's surface were places where underworld deities and rain gods dwelled.


Today, many cenotes function as tourist attractions. People from all over the world can venture into the Maya underworld among stalactites and stalagmites and swim in the deep blue waters of cenotes. Unfortunately, however, many cenotes have become increasingly polluted with trash and other waste.

Our expedition seeks to preserve cenotes as an important part of Maya culture. We are a partnership of both Mexican and U.S. faculty, university students, teachers, and affiliated professionals. Together, we are developing curriculum for students in Mexico ages 11-14 surrounding the science and history of cenotes. Ultimately, it is our goal that young people in Yucatan will be the voice and stewards for these precious sources of freshwater and Maya heritage.

February 1 2018

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Mission Underway

Yesterday we had our second photovoice session. We were able to have a great discussion about the pictures that the school kids took during the first session. Some interesting themes that came up were the legends and culture surrounding the cenotes in the town; the natural history, such as rock formations; and contamination. The students taught us a lot about how the cenotes are part of their ancestors and are a central part of their culture and community. There are many interesting stories surrounding the cenotes as well, such as the serpent that protects the gold inside or the sacrifices that happened there. The students were also very concerned about the contamination--for example, they told us that people should appreciate and conserve the water inside the cenotes.


After our discussion we handed out surveys to the school kids to take another look at the general thoughts about the cenotes in their town, which also resulted in great answers such as the one pictured below. Along with the global investigators and UNO students, the school kids then went back to the cenote to take more pictures--this time focusing on one of the major themes.

Translation: "For me the cenotes are life and joy" C: know them E: Explore them N: it's never too late O: never forget them T: we should always take care of them E: Instead of contaminating them

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We work a lot...and sometimes that means we have to "test the waters" ourselves! Time for a dip in the cenote Hubiku near Temozon, Yucatan!

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Our photovoice activities are well underway! Our Global Investigators from the University of North Carolina worked alongside our students from the Universidad de Oriente to help us with instruction. Together with school kids we went out to take pictures of the local cenote. This Friday we meet to discuss the images!

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Early this week we visited the beautiful cenotes "Palomitas" and "Agua Dulce" in the town of Yalcoba. These amazing cenotes are wonderful reminders of how precious cenotes are to the people of Yucatan. These cenotes each serve as fresh water sources (for bathing, etc.) for the community and also function as tourist destinations--therefore serving as a vital economic resource. We were greeted by warm welcomes in both Spanish AND Maya!

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Wow! So beautiful, Khristin. Love this photo.

Did you know that one of the most famous cenotes in Yucatan features sacred offerings? Over the weekend our team visited the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, an ancient Maya site that rose and fell between 900 and 1200A.D./C.E. Offerings that were thrown into the Sacred Cenote range from possible human sacrifices to the gold masks of the feathered serpent deity Queztalcoatl/Kukulcan (seen here).


These offerings came to light during the early 20th century when Massachusetts's- born Harvard professor Edward H. Thompson purchased the plantation on which Chichen Itza was located and dredged the Sacred Cenote.

Today, tourists can still visit the Sacred Cenote and even see the equipment used by Thompson, over one hundred years ago, to recover objects from the cenote's silent depths.

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Meetings with university students and co-director Dr. Ivan Batún of the Universidad de Oriente are underway! We ended our first week with this "meeting of the minds" during which time we discussed how we would proceed with photovoice, our preliminary initiative. For this initiative, we will split up into smaller groups and head out into communities around Valladolid, Yucatan. There, we will give students in the schools cameras. Their task is to take pictures of their town's cenotes. After that, we will print and exhibit the photos and the students will tell us what each photo means to them. This way, we begin our project with a better sense for what 11-14 year old youth already think about cenotes--from their own perspective. Stay tuned for photovoice pictures!

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Preparation Stage

Yesterday the team headed out to meet teachers and school directors in communities around Valladolid, Yucatan. We also scouted out the town cenotes!

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Heading to Yucatan to start the first on-the-ground phase of the project! Cameras (and coffee) in hand for our photovoice element. Yucatan students and teachers will use the cameras to take pictures of and about cenotes in their communities. These photographs will encourage dialog about cenotes between students, teachers and the rest of our team!

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Very cool Khristin! Can't wait to see more from your team :)

Very cool Khristin! Can't wait to see more from your team :)

Very cool Khristin! Can't wait to see more from your team :)

Expedition Background

The ultimate goal of this project is to develop sustainable local and regional educational programs and community activities that highlight cenotes and promote deeper understanding of this critical and fragile resource. Our team will train local university students in Yucatan to become ambassadors for cenotes. Together with other expedition team members, our ambassadors will reach out to local teachers and students in Yucatan. By focusing on students and young adults we will reach a cohort that is beginning to develop critical thinking skills and a social consciousness.


To date, our team has successfully obtained National Geographic funding to undertake the exhibition. Currently, we are busy planning teaching modules centered around the oral history and folklore, science and safety, archaeology and heritage of cenotes. We have selected our advisory board composed of K-12 teachers, archaeologists, engineers, art historians, professors and governments officials and are in the process of selecting university students from Valladolid, Mexico to serve as our Yucatan student ambassadors. Our ambassadors, along with members of our advisory board will begin leading our teaching modules with local Yucatan teachers and students next month!

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Khristin, this look very interesting. Will you be diving in the cenotes at all?

Hi Madeleine! Sorry for the late response, I was away at a conference. We will be working with local communities and professional diving teams in a few ways! We are also going to be relying on ROV units to explore some of the cenotes and their caverns! Stay tuned for more pictures and updates. Most of our work on the ground will begin next months!