Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Mayan Sacrifices - Blue Paint
Feeling blue? Not like a Maya sacrificial victim
By Will Dunham 49 minutes ago
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - There was more than the obvious reason to feel blue for people offered in human sacrifice rituals by the ancient Maya to their rain god -- they were painted blue before being heaved into a watery sinkhole. And it wasn't just any blue. It was Maya blue -- a vivid, somewhat turquoise-colored pigment used for about a millennium by Mesoamerican peoples to decorate pottery, figurines and murals that has long mystified scientists.
But now anthropologists from Wheaton College inand the Field Museum in have discovered how the ancient Maya produced this pigment and the role it played in important rituals at a famous Maya site in .
"Maya blue has long been of interest to scholars, both archeologists and chemists," Gary Feinman, curator of anthropology at the Field Museum who worked on the study, said in a telephone interview.
"The interest in Maya blue stems from the fact that it is a very durable pigment -- more durable than most. It also stems from the fact it wasn't immediately obvious how it was made and what the key ingredients were."
The pigment resists age, acid, weathering, biodegradation and modern chemical solvents. Previous research had identified two ingredients as extract from the leaves of the indigo plant and an unusual white clay mineral called palygorskite.
These researchers did microscopic analysis on material found in a three-footed pottery bowl in the museum's collection dating from A.D. 1400 that had been used as an incense burner.
RAIN GOD CHAAK
A century ago, the bowl was dredged from the Sacred Cenote, a natural sinkhole well, at, a key urban center late in Maya history. They found that copal, a tree resin burned as incense, also was part of the Maya blue concoction.
And they concluded that the pigment was made by mixing the ingredients over low heat in rituals performed on the edge of the sinkhole. That was bad news for human sacrificial victims.
Feinman said that human sacrifice was part of rituals appealing to theChaak -- depicted on some Maya structures with a unique elongated, curled nose -- to deliver rain for crops such as corn.
During the rituals conducted on the edge of the cenote at Chichen Itza, Feinman said, the Maya seem to have produced the pigment and painted items like pottery that would be tossed into the water as offerings to the god.
And, he added, they also would paint people being offered as human sacrifices blue and heave them into the sinkhole. Feinman said about 120 sets of human remains have been dredged from the sinkhole, along with lots of ceremonial objects.
"Adult males may have had their hearts removed before they were dumped in," Feinman said.
Feinman said at the bottom of the cenote, a layer 14 feet
deep of blue goo has been found, likely composed of pigment that washed off sacrificial victims and objects.
"The Maya used indigo, copal incense and palygorskite for medicinal purposes," said anthropologist Dean Arnold of Wheaton College and the Field Museum, who also worked on the study.
"So, what we have here are three healing elements that were combined with fire during the ritual at the edge of the Sacred Cenote. The result created Maya blue, symbolic of the healing power of water in an agricultural community," Arnold said.
The findings were published in the journal Antiquity.
(Editing by Julie Steenhuysen and Xavier Briand)
Mysteries of "Sacrificial" Maya Blue Pigment Solved?
for National Geographic News
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.
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.)
Analyses revealed the incense was made of a copal, a tree sap whose smoke the Maya believed nourished the gods.
The pigment was the famed Maya blue, and the flecks were bits of a white clay mineral called palygorskite.
According to previous studies, Maya blue is made by fusing palygorskite with pigments from the leaves of the indigo plant.
But the two ingredients do not readily combine, and it was unknown how the Maya fused them.
Archaeologists had suspected that copal was important to the production of Maya blue, and the new findings seem to confirm that theory.
"Our study suggests that heat and copal incense likely were key elements used to fuse the two components together," Feinman said.
Taken together, the bowl's history and its contents support the idea that Maya blue had great symbolic significance, study leader Arnold said.
Indigo, palygorskite, and copal—all associated with healing—were used individually as medicines by the ancient Maya.
"The offering of three healing elements thus fed Chaak and symbolically brought him into the ritual in the form a bright blue color that hopefully would bring rainfall and allow the corn to grow again," Arnold said.
The pigment's importance to the Maya is perhaps best illustrated by a 14-foot (4-meter) layer of blue silt that was discovered at the bottom of the Sacred Cenote when it was first excavated in 1904, the researchers say.
At the time archaeologists did not know what the blue material was, but the new findings strongly suggest it was Maya blue precipitate that had washed off of pottery and human bodies cast into the sinkhole.
Mary Miller, an art historian at Yale University in Connecticut who was not involved in the study, called the new findings "an exciting addition to the corpus of what is known about this stunning and tenacious pigment."
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