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.
First, welcome back to the fray, Chris! Northstate Science has been somewhat silent the past few weeks but Christopher O’Brien is back and he made the move to WordPress! Looks like I’m not alone in that move! I’ve updated his link in my Blogroll and be sure to visit -his blog is one of those “don’t miss” blogs on the topic of archaeology.
Next, the Four Stone Hearth’s 34th edition is up at Our Cultural World. This is the first time being hosted at this blog and blogger bedeboop has done a fine job presenting it. As is usual of late, I’m behind the curve in getting a post ready. New job position, new hours, etc…. I won’t bore with the details, but I’m getting it sorted.
North American history and archaeology isn’t as glamorous and monumental as Egyptian, Greek, Roman, or even European with its henges, barrows, and castles. We’re a young country and the predominant cultures (like the Algonquin, the Hopewell, etc.) of the North American Continent left little in the way of durable material remains. No marble friezes or granite pyramids, no massive stone henges or coliseums.
But that doesn’t diminish in the least the fascination and mystery that surrounds many aspects of early American history.
The Lost Colony
One of the most intriguing mysteries of American history has always been the Lost Colony of Roanoke. Even as a boy, I remember first hearing it in my fourth grade Virginia History class. The story goes like this:
Sir Walter Raleigh in the 16th century financed and set up the colony of Roanoke in what is present-day North Carolina. Several groups of colonists were left between 1585 and 1587, the last disappearing after being left on their own for three years. With not so much as a cell phone or iPod between them (or any realistic and much needed logistical support from England), the colonists “disappeared” without a trace.
They might have been slaughtered by indigenous peoples who viewed them (rightly so) as invaders; they might have been done in by the Spanish; or they may have simply set off on their own, joining the indigenous people after being left for so long by England. Perhaps they were absorbed in to an Algonquian tribe like the Hatteras or Croatans. The word “Croatoan” was alleged to have been carved into a post of the fort upon the return of Raleigh (or, I should say, Raleigh’s friend John White). It was assumed that they had moved to Croatoan Island, but no trace was ever found.
Now, in 2008 and in the Fort Raleigh Historic Park, archaeologists with the First Colony Foundation are using modern technology to remotely image the grounds of the park, working with the National Park Service. The technology is known as Computer Assisted Radar Tomography and it allows the operators to see up to 6 feet deep in 2 meter wide swaths and can cover up to 40,000 square feet per day. Already, the team operating this high-tech gear has located anomalies of interest that they might go back an excavate.
Another iconic story of American History is the tale of the boyhood Abe Lincoln growing up in a log cabin in the wilderness of Kentucky. Archaeologists, again working with the National Park Service, are exploring National Park lands in the Knob Creek region of Kentucky for the log cabin of the boy-to-be-President until his family moved from it to Indiana when he was age 7.
Long believed to be experiences that were important and memorable to Lincoln well into his Presidency, the Presidential Birth Place -a 16 by 18 foot, dirt-floor cabin- would be a welcome find during the 2-year Lincoln bicentennial celebration.
“He formed his first impressions here, and his connection to Kentucky followed him throughout his life,” says Sandy Brue, an official with the nearby Lincoln Birthplace National Historic site.
The dig at the Knob Creek site is a prelude to Kentucky’s February kickoff of a sprawling, two-year national Lincoln bicentennial — celebrating the man many consider to be the greatest leader in American history. Kentucky will play a pivotal role in that celebration, officials say.
Lincoln himself said in a letter in 1860: “My earliest recollection . . . is of the Knob Creek place.”
Here’s an interesting video that I stumbled across in YouTube today. This YouTuber just posted it 1 day ago and its his first video. For those unable to actually get up and go to Egypt, videos like this help put the experience into a perspective that you won’t find on The Discovery Channel or BBC (not that productions on these media outlets aren’t worth watching!).
Here’s hoping ancientresource‘s channel continues to populate with more videos.