Jessica Martinez | Spotlight

Martinez enters ‘Midnight Terror,’ a cave in the jungles of Belize

Jessica Martinez in Belize.

CSULA graduate, part of Cotsen team, also uncovered early agricultural settlement in Egypt

How does a trip to “Midnight Terror” sound? For CSULA grad student Jessica Martinez, it was a thrilling adventure into a newly discovered cavern in the jungles of Belize, a cave known as “Midnight Terror.” She was recently a member of Cal State L.A.’s first anthropology team to investigate this mysterious cave in Central America.

Martinez said, “One of the theories about this cave is that it was possibly not only a pilgrimage site where ancestor worship was conducted, but a place where ancient Mayans were sacrificed. We found many things, including a large amount of human bones, providing us an insight into the cave’s use and history.”

Conducting preliminary archaeological work—including surface surveying and collection and assisting the cavers with mapping, Martinez’s cave exploration project in Belize was directed by James Brady, a professor of anthropology at Cal State L.A. and a renowned Maya cave archaeologist.

Jessica Martinez in a cave in Belize.

According to Brady, “The name ‘Midnight Terror’ was given by the local Mennonites who had been summoned in the middle of the night to rescue a badly injured looter who had slipped and fallen more than 30 feet. They found several of his teeth that had been knocked out when he landed.”

Martinez added, “The name also fits the immensity, depth and darkness of the cave. The cave itself is an immense formation. It is more than 60 feet down to the first chamber of the cave; however, its true dimensions are still to be determined.”

Not a novice to archaeological fieldwork, Martinez was previously part of an ongoing field research in Fayum, Egypt, made possible through Cal State L.A.’s Cotsen Grant—a collaboration between Cal State L.A.’s highly-regarded anthropology program and the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA.

Martinez explained, “My work in Egypt was focused on a Neolithic farming site called Kom K that was originally discovered in the early 1920’s by Caton-Thompson and Gardner. My team was the first to return to the site after a more than 80-year hiatus from Kom K.”

Jessica Martinez in Giza.

Though she was bitten by a scorpion-looking spider, the experience affirmed her choice of career. She said, “We found evidence of the earliest semi-sedentary people in the Fayum, dating back approximately 6,000 years. We also discovered the earliest evidence of domesticated cattle, and wheat and barley in Egypt.”

In her own 3-by-10 meter trench in the Kom K basin of Fayum, she came across a couple of hearths and clay lining in what is believed to be “living areas.” Martinez said, “This suggested some degree of sedentism and technological development that up to this point was thought not to exist in the Neolithic or late Stone Age period.”

While in Egypt, Martinez also had the opportunity to tour Cairo, camp out in “David’s Village,” walk along the north shore of the ancient Lake Qarun, visit the Giza Plateau and the Sphinx, climb up the Great Pyramid of Giza, explore ancient monuments in Luxor, and meet and attend lectures conducted by Egyptian archaeologists.

Martinez, who received her bachelor’s degree in anthropology with a minor in sociology at Cal State L.A., is currently pursuing a master’s degree in anthropology with a focus on archaeology field research. She attended Bell High School in Los Angeles county.

Jessica Martinez in Egypt.

“My journey at Cal State L.A. has been a life-altering experience. The staff, particularly my mentor, Dr. James Brady, in the Anthropology department has been supportive and instrumental in my success as a graduate student. If it had not been for my mentor’s continued support and his belief in me, I would not have accomplished what I have thus far. Who knew that a little girl from Maywood with big dreams of becoming an archaeologist would live to see her dreams flourish and come true! I am truly blessed.” -- Jessica Martinez