In addition to the natural beauty of the area, Barton Creek Cave contains many cultural remains left in the cave by the ancient Maya, centuries ago. Artifacts, hearths, modified cave formations, and human skeletons were deposited on cave ledges as part of the ritual activities of the anciet inhabitants of Barton Creek Valley. Archaeological investigations in the cave established that the May began utilizing the stie some 1,800 years ago, during the Early Classic period (around AD 250). This is typical of caves in this area, however at Barton Creek, Early Classic remains are found farther into the cave than at other sites. During the Late Classic period ritual activity in the cave increased substantialy but eventually terminated around AD 900.
Ancient Maya activity in Barton Creek Cave generally conforms to pattersn of cave use in the regions, and the placement of human remains in reimstone pools, or in places where water flows, suggests that humans were sacrificied to earth deities and the rain deities and the rain god Chac. Artifacts discovered in teh cave also help to determine the nature of ancient cave use. Large jars (ollas) were sometimes palced under formations with dripping water. Other jars, containing corn or other produce, served as offerings to the gos. Areas with broken ceramic vessels may be indicative of period-ending events (katuns, baktuns, etc.) where old ritual vessels were cermonially discarded. Alternatively they may represent the accumulated debris of vessels that wereritually terminated following their use in cave rituals.
Although Barton Creek Cave is several kilometres long, cultural remains have only been found within the first kilometre from the entrance. This area contains ten ledges above the river with evidence of ancient Maya activity. The first ledge is located on teh left just inside the entrance to the cave, and continues to roughly 30 metres beyond the so-called Maya Bridge. The "bridge" is actually a natural flowstone formation left straddling the main passage when the level of the river dropped due to riverbed erosion.
A large number of hearths, indentified by ash lens with flecks of charcoal, were discovered in the cave. Typically they are located against the wallsor near the drop to the river. Little evidence of cooking has been found associated with these hearths suggesting that their functions was primarily associated with the burning of copal incense and other offerings. One hearth contained between six and ten burnt corncobs plus several corn stems and leaves. Other plant remains includeed pine needles that had been spread over the floor of the ledge. A similar practice continues in Chiapas and Highalnd Guatemala where the contemporary Maya spread a bed of pine needles and flowers over the floor of ritual areas. A small jar, a lurel leaf-shaped prjectile point and a crude adze were also associated with this hearth. These remains likely represent objects used in agricultural fertility rituals and with the cirst fruits of the corn. The small size of the cobs represent corn that was liekly ahrvested before maturity.
The remains of at least 28 individuals were discovered in teh cave. Most were lying on the floor, in dry rimstone pools or depressions over a blanket of ash and charcoal. The individuals range in age from young children to older adults and likely respresented victims of sacrifice. Others, such as an older adult female, may have been palcedin the cave as a form of ancestor worship.
Some areas of the cave exhibit broken natural formations. Thse appear to have been purposely modified by the Maya to improve access to locations otherwise difficult to reach. Biconically-drilled holes, used to attach climbing ropes or a hand holds, are also found in the flowstone.
One of the most interesting discoveries at the site was a necklace composed of perforated animal phalanges and a carved bone. The carving depicts a seated figure with hands across the waist and legs out forward. Another area contained a carved sandstone spindle whorl that was used in weaving. Among contemporary Maya communities cotton is associated with rain clounds and the making of cloth with procreation. Other tools found include several grinding cstones that were used for processing corn. These artifacts may be related to Maya creation myths, or the Maya belief that humans were created from corn in a cave. They may have been used to make ceremonial corn bread during agricultural fertility rituals.
Barbara MacLeod is the first person on record to conduct reconnaissance in Barton Creek Cave. In the mid-1970's, MacLeod and Carol J. Rushin, returned to the stie as part of a Belize Department of Archaeology survey of cave sites.
Despite this early interest, intensive research of Barton Creek Cave only began in the late 1990's. Following several seasons of cave research in the Roaring Creek Valley, Jaime Awe, director of the Western Belize Regional Cave Project (WBRCP), focused investigations on Barton Creek. The project began wth a brief reconnaissance in 1998 to determine the archaeolgical potential of the site. The investigations were initiated following a request by the Belize Department of Archaeology to inventory all the cultural materials still preserved within the cave. Awe, Vanessa Owens, Mike Mirro and David and Eleonor Larson have continued investigations of the site into 2004. Their research at Barton Creek is ongoing as they continue their efforts to understand the nature of prehistoric Maya cave utilization.