Finally! Some Time Off!

I’m officially on vacation for a week. Other than a couple of days at Sea World, San Antonio at the end of the week (if I can get a dog sitter), I’m not planning on an out of town trip. I’ll probably take the kid to a couple of local museums, sites, and hiking since its her spring vacation. I’ll try to get a few photos if I go to the Kimble… I’ve been meaning to do a post about artifacts and the ethics of museum acquisitions and the Kimble has some pre-Columbian artifacts on display that might make a good jumping off point.

I’ve also recently purchased a Nokia N800 internet tablet which I love! I won’t go into a lot of details about it here, since I decided to blog about it at Hot Cup of Joe Tablet! I know what you’re thinking: “Carl, you haven’t even blogged here in a coon’s age, so why are starting a new blog?” The answer is simple: I really don’t know. The motivation to write comes and goes in spurts with me and I think a new spurt is coming (jeez, did I really just type that?).

Anyway, I’ve a few posts I’m working on here already and I’m going to be hosting the Four Stone Hearth soon (so send me your entries either through the submit link on the FSH page or to cfeagans AT gmail DOT com, FSH in the subject line). I’m either going to use a Doctor Who theme or a Pulp Sci Fi theme for this installment. If you want to vote on the theme, leave a comment here.

In the mean time, Coturnix at A Blog Around the Clock (a *must* read blog if you haven’t checked him out) has asked a couple of us anthropologist bloggers to read and comment on a PLoS One article on the Peopling of the Americas which he’s linked to in this post. I gave it a once over and will be reading it closer in the next day or so. Hopefully I’ll have a useful comment to add. I was aware of the article previously, but hadn’t the chance to really read it.

So what say ye? Doctor Who? or Pulp Sci Fi?


The Four Stone Hearth #35, The Giants Are Real edition

Find it here at Archaeoporn! He was good enough to slip me in at the last minute. Next up is Afarensis on March 12th and I get the honors after that on March 26th.

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

Current Events in Blogging

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.

Four Stone Hearth #30

Please take the time to visit the 30th edition of the Four Stone Hearth, a bi-weekly blog carnival on anthropology. You can find this latest edition at The Greenbelt!