Ancient Maya Tomb Yields "Amazing" Fabrics

Ker Than
for National Geographic News
April 25, 2008
Fabric fragments excavated from the tomb of an ancient Maya queen rival modern textiles in their complexity and quality, scientists say.

The tomb was discovered in the Maya city of Copán in Honduras by a team led by archaeologist Robert Sharer of the University of Pennsylvania.

Researchers believe the queen, whose name is not known, was buried in the fifth century A.D.

Some of the fabrics found within her tomb have thread counts of over 80 weft yarns per inch, said Margaret Ordonez, a textile expert at the University of Rhode Island who studied the cloth.

"This is in the range of the clothing that we wear," she said. "This is a higher thread count than your jeans."

Some of the fragments contained as many as 25 layers of fabric, stacked atop one another and fused together over time.

"What's surprising is the fragments still exist," Ordonez said.

"We're talking about a humid climate, and to have fragments of fabric exist in the tomb for that long is just amazing."

Archaeologists suspect that the tomb was opened after the queen's death to allow worshipers to perform rituals and make offerings of fabric and other items.

"It was fairly common that there was a ritual conducted, especially for royalty," Sharer, the archaeologist, said.

How Did the Maya Weave?

The fabrics were made of various plant materials, including cotton, grasses, leaves, and tree bark.

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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