Mysteries of "Sacrificial" Maya Blue Pigment Solved?

February 26, 2008

An ancient clay bowl from Mexico is providing new clues to the production and role of a hardy blue pigment widely employed by the ancient Maya.

The find also helps explain a mysteriously thick layer of blue silt that archaeologists reported at the bottom of a sacrificial sinkhole where the bowl was recovered more than a century ago.

The pigment, known commonly as Maya blue, was used to paint offerings, pottery, murals, and even the bodies of humans before ritual sacrifices. (Related: "Ancient Maya Used 'Glitter' Paint to Make Temple Gleam [February 7, 2008].)

Scientists have long known the basic chemical components of the pigment, which has a remarkable ability to resist age, acid, weathering, and even modern chemical solvents.

"Unlike a lot of natural pigments that may fade, [Maya blue] is very stable," said Gary Feinman, curator of Mesoamerican anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.

But the exact recipe, along with the tools the Maya used to create the pigment and the circumstances surrounding its use, were unknown.

The new research by Feinman and colleagues, which appears online today in the journal Antiquity, may answer some of these questions.

Sacrificial Sinkhole

Lead study author Dean Arnold of Wheaton College in Illinois first came across the pottery bowl while searching through the Maya collection at the Field Museum.

He noticed that the bowl contained a wedge of preserved incense dotted with white flecks and a blue pigment.

The bowl had been discovered more than a century ago at the bottom of the Sacred Cenote, a large sacrificial sinkhole at the Maya site of Chichén Itzá, which was associated with the rain god Chaak.

More than a hundred humans were sacrificed to the deity at this site. (See an interactive map of key Maya sites.)

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