When the Maya sang the blues …

… it was time to skip town.I’m going to Mayaland in a few weeks. I know nothing about Mayan archaeology, even though I attended graduate school at one of the world’s premier locals for the study of Mesoamerican archaeology. Since I was working towards a double PhD (in Biological Anthropology and Archaeology) I was allowed to “skip” one major subfield in each. Feeling ambitious, I skipped New World Archaeology (since I was already a New World archaeologist) and Anatomy (since I was really interested in Anatomy). That way I actually covered everything. But, my New World Archaeology stops at the Rio Grande. So it will be an interesting, educational visit!Anyway, there is an interesting story in the NYT about the Maya.This is about a blue pigment known as Maya Blue, or Chaak, the color of the rain god and of human sacrifice. The Maya were, of course, famous for human sacrifice.

When the skies looked too much like Maya blue — cloudless and dry — the Maya sometimes selected an unlucky victim to be painted this color and sacrificed to Chaak in hopes that the rains would follow.An account by a 16th century Spanish priest described rituals where victims were stripped, painted and thrown onto a stone altar where their hearts, still beating, were cut out.

Apparently, nobody knows where the Maya got their blue stuff. It was not in the writing, and no one had found a production site. But, Dean Arnold of Wheaton College has figured it out.An answer comes from a bowl that has been sitting in the Field Museum in Chicago for decades …

The bowl had been dredged up … by an explorer named Edward Thompson early in the 20th century from a natural well at Chichen Itza,…Also intriguingly, Thompson described a 14-foot-layer of blue sediment at the bottom of the well…The three-legged bowl, dating from about 1400, contained a chunk of incense that was burned in Maya rituals. Within the incense, were bits of white and blue. Molecular-scale images taken by a scanning tunneling telescope showed these to be palygroskite and indigo.Thus, the researchers concluded, Indigo blue was made as part of the ritual, the ingredients heated by the burning of incense. The pigment was then applied to pots and sacrifices before being thrown into the well.


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4 thoughts on “When the Maya sang the blues …

  1. Actually, as I noted here, although notoriously unknown for decades, the ingredients in Maya Blue have been known since the 1990s. Only some of the “cooking directions” were missing really. The core contribution of this new “mystery-solving” research is linking the sustained low heat needed to make Maya Blue with the ritual practices performed at Chichen Itza.

  2. Thanks. I’ve been lurking for a while — first-time poster, long-time reader. I regularly read the anthropology (you, Aardvarchaeology, Afarensis) and geology (Green Gabbro, Highly Allochtonous) blogs here on ScienceBlogs.

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