Discovery of the first evidence for Pre-Columbian sources of Maya Blue

Apr 02, 2012

Once again, science and anthropology have teamed up to solve questions concerning the fascinating, brilliantly hued pigment known as Maya Blue. Impervious to the effects of chemical or physical weathering, the pigment was applied to pottery, sculpture, and murals in Mesoamerica largely during the Classic and Postclassic periods (AD 250-1520), playing a central role in ancient Maya religious practice. This unusual blue paint was used to coat the victims of human sacrifice and the altars on which they were dispatched.

For some time, scientists have known that Maya Blue is formed through the chemical combination of indigo and the palygorskite. Only now, however, have researchers established a link between contemporary indigenous knowledge and ancient sources of the mineral.

In a paper published online in the on March 16, 2012, researchers from Wheaton College, The Field Museum of Natural History, the United States Geological Survey, California State University of Long Beach, and the Smithsonian Institution, demonstrated that the palygorskite component in some of the Maya Blue samples came from mines in two locations in Mexico's northern Yucatan Peninsula

Research on sources for palygorskite has been ongoing since the late 1960's. Through a combination of ethnographic research and mineralogical analyses, Dean E. Arnold, Professor of Anthropology at Wheaton College, and now Adjunct Curator of Anthropology at The Field Museum, discovered that palygorskite was well known among indigenous potters of Ticul, Yucatán. These contemporary Maya used palygorskite as a key component of pottery and also prescribed the mineral for medicinal purposes. further extends to sources of palygorskite: potters extracted the mineral from two mines in Yucatán – one in Sacalum and the other near the city of Ticul at a location called Yo' Sah Kab.

As part of his research, Arnold noted Terminal Classic (800-1000 AD) pottery and other signs of ancient site occupation at both of the modern sources. This suggested that the mines were used by the Maya as sources for the palygorskite used in Maya Blue. However, further tests were needed to convincingly link the present-day mines with the ancient Maya.

Between 1965 and 1997, Dean Arnold and Bruce E. Bohor of the United States Geological Survey collected 33 samples of the mineral from the Yucatán region. After mineralogical analysis, it was possible to differentiate between samples of palygorskite based on composition, which meant the palygorskite within specific samples of Maya Blue could be traced to specific locations.

With funding from the National Geographic Society, Arnold and Bohor collected additional 167 samples of palygorskite from five different sites in Yucatan in 2008. The analyses of these samples were then compared to analyses of the Maya Blue pigment found on pottery originally taken from Chichén Itzá and Palenque, Yucatán. The Chichén Itzá material was collected by E. H. Thompson and J. E. S. Thompson in the late 19th and early 20th century and is curated at The Field Museum. These objects were analyzed in the museum's Elemental Analysis Facility (EAF).

The analysis confirmed that all the samples of Maya Blue from the ancient Maya site of Chichén Itzá were created with palygorskite derived from Sacalum, while the Maya Blue samples from Palenque could have been from Sacalum, Yo' Sah Kab, or another unknown source.

"Utilizing ground-breaking chemical sourcing techniques, we have unlocked data from collections held in The Field Museum for more than 100 years," reported The Field Museum's EAF Director and Curator and Chair of Anthropology, Ryan Williams.

"The data resulting from this study provides definitive evidence that Sacalum was the source for palygorskite used in Maya Blue from Chichén Itzá," Williams added.

Noting that the ancient Maya would have been limited by available technology and using this new data, senior author Arnold and his colleagues argue that sources of palygorskite for the ancient Maya were limited by available technology and the ancient landscape. Thus, Sacalum and Yo' Sah Kab, because of their accessibility and size, would have been prime sources of palygorskite used by the ancient Maya.

"Overall this study illustrates the key benefits of scientific teamwork to unravel the mysteries of a key technology," said study participant and curator, Gary Feinman.

Explore further: Scientists seek more tombs at ancient Greek site

More information: Arnold, D.E., et al., The first direct evidence of pre-columbian sources of palygorskite for Maya Blue, Journal of Archaeological Science (2012), doi:10.1016/j.jas.2012.02.036

Related Stories

Researchers discover Maya mask splendor

Jan 23, 2008

Ancient Mayan temple builders discovered and used lustrous pigments to make their buildings dazzle in the daylight, a Queensland University of Technology researcher has discovered.

Mass murder mystery of Maya kingdom

Nov 17, 2005

Forensic scientists with mass burial expertise have been called into an ancient Maya city in Guatemala to help unravel a 1,300-year-old mass murder mystery.

Ancient Mayans Inspire Modern Fade Proof Dye

Jul 30, 2010

Physicists have created a dye that promises to last for a thousand years. The secret to this extraordinary durability? Its formula is based on a Mayan pigment, a brilliant blue color that survives to this ...

Mexico: Maya tomb find could help explain collapse

Jan 28, 2010

(AP) -- Mexican archaeologists have found an 1,100-year-old tomb from the twilight of the Maya civilization that they hope may shed light on what happened to the once-glorious culture.

Recommended for you

Laser from plane discovers Roman goldmines in Spain

Nov 20, 2014

Las Médulas in León is considered to be the largest opencast goldmine of the Roman Empire, but the search for this metal extended many kilometres further south-east to the Erica river valley. Thanks to ...

Ancient New Zealand 'Dawn Whale' identified

Nov 18, 2014

University of Otago palaeontologists are rewriting the history of New Zealand's ancient whales by describing a previously unknown genus of fossil baleen whales and two species within it.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Dug
not rated yet Apr 02, 2012
This article was horribly written and edited. It is very difficult to follow the organization - if there is any.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.