Muck Yields a Maya Treasure: Empire's First Wooden Artifacts
The remnants of a large salt factory are found submerged in a peat bog off the coast of Belize.
By Thomas H. Maugh II
Times Staff Writer
April 5, 2005
A Louisiana archeologist has discovered the remains of a massive Maya salt-production complex submerged in a lagoon off the southern coast of Belize.
Examination of the underwater site also revealed the first wooden structural artifacts from the empire, including poles and beams used in building the salt factories. A wooden paddle from the canoes used to transport the salt via inland waterways also was discovered — the first time such a Maya object has been found, researchers said.
Archeologist Heather McKillop of Louisiana State University reported today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that she and her colleagues had so far discovered 45 facilities for salt production in the mangrove peat bogs of Punta Ycacos Lagoon.
"There are many more sites there," she said in an interview.
The discoveries are "tremendously exciting," said archeologist Tom Guderjan of Texas Christian University, who was not involved in the research. "We have never, in that region of the world, found preservation of architectural materials [wood] like she has found underwater."
The discovery of the paddle is particularly intriguing, he said, because even though Maya art shows canoes, researchers have been unable to find any traces of them.
"We've all been looking for the canoe," Guderjan said. "It could be six inches under the muck."
Salt played a crucial role in ancient economies because humans needed it to survive and also desired its taste. It also has a variety of secondary uses, such as preserving food.
The cities of the Maya civilization are largely in areas that have little salt. Researchers previously discovered ancient production centers in the salt flats of the Yucatan as well as along the Caribbean coast, but none is large enough to have accommodated the needs of Maya society, which dominated much of Central America from approximately the 4th century to the 16th century.
McKillop's findings suggest that many, if not most, of the Maya salt facilities were along the coast and became submerged during the last millennium as ocean levels rose. The immersion actually led to their preservation. Being buried in peat protects wood from decay, McKillop said, and being underwater prevents artifacts from being trampled, making identification and analysis much easier.
McKillop initially identified four salt production facilities in the lagoon and decided to expand the search. A team of students equipped with snorkeling gear divided the surface into grids and looked for submerged pottery, buildings and other items.
In three weeks of study, they found 41 sites characterized by pottery, wooden posts and beams, obsidian objects and other artifacts.
The largest structure was at Chak Sak Ha Nal, where 112 posts define the exterior walls of a rectangular building measuring about 36 by 65 feet. Inside the perimeter are 31 posts marking off rooms. The arrangement of the structure's other pieces of wood, such as beams, remains to be mapped.
The interior areas contain remnants of large, apparently mass-produced urns that sat over fires on clay cylinders about a foot high. Seawater would have been placed in the urns, scientists say. The water would boil away, leaving behind the salt.
Although it has just begun examining the sites, McKillop's team has found extensive evidence of artifacts produced in inland cities, indicating well-developed trade over the Central American waterways. The salt would have been loaded into canoes and paddled upstream, where it would be exchanged for a variety of goods.
The partially degraded paddle that was discovered — virtually identical to those seen in Maya art — ties the salt facilities to inland trade, McKillop said.
The facilities "represent a new kind of economy that we haven't looked at before," she said. Researchers have long studied the royal court workshops in large Maya cities that manufactured goods for the elite. At the opposite end of the scale, they have studied household economies where family members made things for their own use.
The salt factories represent an intermediate stage in which small groups of people were producing things for the entire society, McKillop said.