Recent News In Mesoamerican Archaeology

The King Has Left The Building

Apparently Maya elites and royalty weren’t the only ones building temples and pyramids. And the mystery of the blue pigment used in Maya pottery and murals has been solved.

Mayanists, archaeologists that specialize in the study of Maya culture in Mesoamerica, have long believed that temples were built by and for royalty. And, at first glance, this assumption would seem intuitive. Monumental architecture is a costly undertaking in both resources and manpower. The people used to erect monumental architecture such as the pyramid temples of sites in Belize and Guatemala wouldn’t have been available, for instance, for farming. They would have been dedicated to moving rock, earth, gravel, and lumber used for fuel in the hot fires needed to create lime for plaster.

What archaeologist Lisa Lucero, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, began to wonder is what would royals at Yalbac need with six temples. What Lucero noted over the last five years of working the Yalbac site in central Belize is that there are a variety of construction techniques and materials used in the temples there and, by examining the fill, mortar and other features, she’s willing to suggest that several groups may have created temples: royals, nobles, priests, and even commoners.

The broader implication is that a kind of religious freedom may have existed among the Maya in which they were able to worship different gods. Says Lucero, “the Maya could choose which temples to worship in and support; they had a voice in who succeeded politically.”

Lucero’s paper on the subject is published in the most recent issue of Latin American Antiquity with the title, “Classic Maya Temples, Politics, and the Voice of the People.” I’m eager to read it once I finally make over to the university library (UTA doesn’t carry the current version in electronic format) to see just how it is she’s able to infer non-Royal involvement in construction through fill and mortar.

Don’t Step On Maya Blue Suede Shoes

At the bottom of the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá is a 14 foot layer of Maya Blue, a nearly indestructible pigment that is found on Maya pottery, murals, rubber artifacts, wood, copal incense, etc. So named because of its color and origin, the pigment has long been a marvel and a mystery to Mayanists. It resists corrosion, biodegredation, weathering, and solvents and can withstand the test of time with an uncanny vividness. This stable pigment results from a chemical bond between indigo and palygorskite, a type of clay.

What Mayanists couldn’t figure out is how, precisely the Maya created the pigment and why so much of it resided in a 14 foot layer at the bottom of the cenote. To bond the indigo and palygorskite, the two substances need to be heated. As it turns out, the Maya burned a mixture of copal incense, palygorskite and parts of the indigo plant, creating the blue pigment. Sacrifices, ranging from pottery to people, were then painted blue and tossed in the cenote.

But how do we know that sacrifices were painted blue? And why paint them blue to begin with?

Scenes on pottery and murals depict the sacrifices as blue in color, whether they be objects or people. The sacrifices were painted before being plunged into the waters of the cenote or being put on the altar for the removal of a still-beating heart. The components of Maya Blue, the indigo plant, the clay, and the copal incense, were each important items of medicinal importance to the Maya:

… what we have here are three healing elements that were combined with fire during the ritual at the edge of the Sacred Cenote. The result created Maya Blue, symbolic of the healing power of water in an agricultural community.”

Rain was critical to the ancient Maya of northern Yucatan. From January through mid-May there is little rain – so little that the dry season could be described as a seasonal drought. “The offering of three healing elements thus fed Chaak and symbolically brought him into the ritual in the form a bright blue color that hopefully would bring rainfall and allow the corn to grow again,”

And how did the pigment arrive at the bottom of the Sacred Cenote to form a 14 foot layer of Maya Blue?

While it’s one of the most durable pigments known, it still has a tendency to wash off the items it’s painted on. Hundreds of blue-painted people and countless items of pottery and other artifacts sacrificed to gods like Chaak over the centuries of Maya influence at Chichén Itzá allowed for a precipitate of the pigment to fall off the sacrifices and collect at the bottom.

You’ll be able to read more about the Maya Blue research in the next issue of the Journal Antiquity where the researchers have a paper about to be published.

For me, insights into the beliefs and motivations of ancient peoples is the payoff for research conducted by Lisa Lucero in the first news item above and the anthropologists at Wheaton College and The Field Museum in the second item. My research interests lie in ancient beliefs, cult practices, rituals, and religion and what motivated people of antiquity to adhere to these beliefs and practices. But the Maya Blue research also highlights the importance of continuing to conduct research on museum collections, particularly as new techniques and insights are developed and applied to these items. In this case, The Field Museum was able to analyze a three-footed pottery bowl recovered from the Sacred Cenote in 1904 and kept in the museum since 1934. With a scanning electron microscope, the researchers were able to identify signatures for palygorskite and indigo in the bowl. Further analysis might reveal which parts of the indigo plant were specifically used, although leaves are the most likely.

Further Reading:

Royals weren’t only builders of Maya temples, archaeologist finds
Archaeologists let looters do some of the work
Centuries-old Maya Blue mystery finally solved