Hakai Magazine

underwater archaeologist Guillermo de Anda
Guillermo de Anda emerges from the water after exploring a cenote south of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Photo by Karla Ortega, GMA Project

Coastal Job: Underwater Archaeologist

Guillermo de Anda explores the hidden underwater world of the ancient Maya.  

Authored by

As told to Brent Crane

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Some people work in cubicles, others work in kitchens, but the most intriguing workplace of all may be the coast. Meet the people who head to the ocean instead of the office in our Coastal Jobs series.

Guillermo de Anda, an underwater archaeologist based in Cancún, Mexico, studies sites that were sacred to the Maya. His work involves diving through underwater caves and underground water-filled caverns called cenotes. He leads the Great Maya Aquifer Project, which explores how the Maya interacted with water.

I first became interested in the Maya as a boy after seeing a display of human skulls at a museum in Mexico City with my father. And I always wanted to become a diver. When I found out about underwater archaeology, I knew it was for me.

The Yucatan is one of the richest areas for underwater archaeology in the world, in particular in its caves and cenotes. A cenote is basically a sinkhole filled with rainwater. Most are located deep in the jungle, accessed via extensive cave networks. The Maya used them for both drinking water and religious ceremonial purposes.

If you dive in an underwater cave, you travel through time, the artifacts growing older the deeper you swim because the water level has risen over the centuries. Sometimes you see modern trash, then go farther and you see colonial-era deposits, such as human bones. Then, farther, you see pre-Hispanic Maya stuff, such as ceremonial pots. Sometimes when you go a little farther, you see Pleistocene fauna or humans. That’s amazing.

What motivates me is the passion of discovery, the desire to answer questions that have remained unsolved. We want to know what kind of rituals the Maya performed and why. Cenotes were often venues for human sacrifice. We know many such rituals were produced for agricultural reasons, but how exactly did they originate? Why were some victims chosen over others? Plenty of answers lie hidden within these caves.

Both symbolically and practically, the ocean was a very important place for the Maya. They used seashells for construction, jewelry, and ceremonial purposes. I often work in cenotes near the coast and sometimes find ocean artifacts in them. Recently, for instance, I found three stingray barbs, which were used in self-sacrifice rituals to encourage rainfall. To produce blood, a man would pass a barb through his penis. Must have hurt!

Underwater archeology in caves is a real human effort. Lidar and other technologies, like GPS mapping, are great, but this work requires, above all, human precision: trekking through a jungle with all of our gear, rappelling into a cave to dive in a place that has never been explored. Some cenotes and caves, such as the cave we recently discovered beneath the famous Chichén-Itzá temple, require hours of crawling through tunnels to reach.

As to not disturb a site while diving, my team and I try to analyze as much as possible in the water, taking photos, noting where and in what position an artefact was found. Sometimes we will spend six or seven hours in the water. Recently, I found a skull that had been converted into an incense burner at the bottom of a cenote, buried in the sand, the second one in Meso-America ever found. Often, we rely on local Mayans to decide which cenote to seek out and dive in—sacred spots that have been passed down through oral traditions.

Fifteen years ago, I had a pretty close call. A rappelling rope was not properly tied; it was my mistake to have not checked it. I fell 15 meters along sloped rock on my back, then started flipping over. When I finally got to the bottom, I couldn’t speak because I’d hit my ribs. By a miracle, I survived, but it was painful.

Archaeologists in this field can be compared to 19th-century explorers. We combine exploration, science, adventure, and extreme sports. But the most important thing is we’re helping to further the knowledge about our ancient cultures, to help us better follow the paths of our ancestors and, in some small part, make the world better.