for National Geographic News
The ancient Maya painted some of their ornate temples with mica to make them sparkle in the sun, a new study suggests.
Scientists discovered traces of the shiny mineral while analyzing flakes of paint taken from the Rosalila temple in Copán, Honduras.
(See an interactive map of key Maya sites.)
The temple, built in the sixth century A.D., today sits "entombed" in a giant pyramid built around it. (See a cut-away view of the Rosalila temple.)
The covering of sparkling paint likely gave the sacred site a dazzling appearance, said the study's lead author, Rosemary Goodall, a doctoral student in physical sciences at Australia's Queensland University of Technology.
"The mica pigment would have had a lustrous effect," Goodall said.
"Mica is used today in paints for that very purpose—to create a shimmering finish to the paint."
The gleaming paint also appears to have been applied periodically, perhaps in honor of important anniversaries or ceremonial events, she added.
Goodall's team used a new infrared analysis technique to study red, green, and gray paint applied to stucco masks that appear on the exterior of the well-preserved temple.
The technique reads the chemical "signature" of each particle it samples, she explained.
"We've been unable to differentiate the different particles that have made up the paint," she said, "but by using this technique, I'm able to get an image of the surface of the material and spatially separate the different particles in that paint.
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