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Archaeology Professor Digs for Information about Mayan Caves

March 19, 2010

Archaeology Professor Digs for Information about Mayan Caves

Even as a child,
Holley Moyeswas fascinated by caves.

Family vacations included stops at Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico so Moyes could tour the natural wonders hidden underground.

Moyes transformed her youthful interest in the sites into a career studying the archaeology of religion, a relatively new subdiscipline in the field. Moyes, an archaeology professor, is researching how caves were used in Mesoamerica as sacred or religious spaces. The notion of early humans living in caves is a myth, Moyes said. Their homes were usually rock shelters. Dark zones of caves were almost always used as religious or sacred spaces, and sometimes as burial grounds.

Her book, with the working title “Sacred Darkness: A Global Perspective on the Use of Caves as Sacred Space,” is currently under review.

“Caves are one of archaeology’s best resources because of their excellent preservation - but they are also one of the most misunderstood,” Moyes explained. “The idea of the ‘cave man’ living in his nice warm cave house has gripped the imagination of both the public and archaeologists themselves, so this image has had a major influence on how caves have been interpreted. My volume presents an entirely different picture of cave use.”

Like an expansive cave, Moyes’ path to archaeology had plenty of turns. Moyes earned her bachelor’s degree in theater from Florida State University, studied under the late-Sanford Meisner and went on to open and manage a New York City theater company for a decade.

She decided to change careers and got an associate’s degree in dental hygiene in 1994, though on the first day of class she knew it wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life. A career counselor she consulted suggested archaeology, which she began to pursue.

Her first project was working in caves with the Belize Valley Archaeological Reconnaissance in western Belize. She wrote a paper about the experience and sent it to Jaime Awe, president of the Institute of Archaeology. He suggested she write her master’s thesis on the Actun Tunichil Muknal, a cave in that had just been discovered.

The cave hadn’t been looted, giving archaeologists a pristine site to study. Only as the research progressed did Moyes realize the significance.

“This was probably one of the most amazing sites I may ever work on,” she said. “This is the kind of site archaeologists dream of.”

She earned her master’s degree in anthropology in 2001 from Florida Atlantic University. In 2006, she got her doctorate from State University of New York at Buffalo in a National Science Foundation-sponsored Integrated Graduate and Education, Research, and Training program that fostered connections between Geographic Information Sciences and archaeology.

Moyes joined UC Merced in January after teaching as a visiting professor at New Mexico State University. Moyes and her partner,
Mark S. Aldenderfer, dean of the
School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, were drawn to the University of California system in general because of its excellence and UC Merced in particular because of its focus on
interdisciplinary research.

More work still needs to be done in the caves of Western Belize. Moyes plans to head back there later this year to conduct research. One project involves studying how religion may have played a role in the collapse of Mayan society.


Following UC Merced’s interdisciplinary calling, Moyes hopes to launch projects that cross academic borders, boost UC Merced’s recognition in archaeological fields and include all her skills - even theater.