Ancient Maya Tomb Yields "Amazing" Fabrics

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Some of the fragments retained hints of glorious hues, including a bright red made from cinnabar and a deep black, possibly created using iron.

(Read related story: "Ancient Maya Used 'Glitter' Paint to Make Temple Gleam" [February 7, 2008].)

The high quality of the weaving suggests it was a very time-consuming task, Ordonez said.

It's unknown how the Maya wove their fabrics, but Ordonez suspects they used an instrument called a back-strap loom.

One end of the loom was anchored to a tree, while a strap at the other end was wrapped around the weaver (see enlarged picture at left).

"The weaver leans forward and backward to create the tension on the yarns," Ordonez said.

Ordonez's work was funded by the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies and is currently being prepared for publication.

"Boon" to Maya Studies

Allan Maca, an archaeologist and Maya expert at Colgate University in New York called the discovery "extraordinary" and a boon to Maya studies.

"The samples are probably too small for substantive studies of symbolism, but Ordonez's work is providing new insights into ancestor veneration, weaving technology, and women's production," Maca said.

"A great number of archaeologists anxiously await the whole of her results."

William Saturno is a Maya expert at Boston University and a National Geographic Society grantee (National Geographic News is a division of the National Geographic Society).

He said the fabric's sophistication is not surprising considering the attire worn by figures in Maya paintings.

"The most important part of this work is the variety and subtlety of the materials being used," Saturno said.

"We finally get to look at the very fabrics themselves rather than just the images of them in art."

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