Maya commoners recorded history by burying relatives under homes

Illiterate Maya people had a novel way of recording their histories - they buried family items and even relatives under their homes.

Excavations of Maya homes in central Belize have thrown up objects and human remains from the Classic period (250-900 A.D.) revealing that farmers and servants stored objects and buried relatives within their residences.

"Commoners may not have had the written word, but they had the means to record their own history under their feet, within walls and under their roof," Discovery News quoted Lisa Lucero, anthropology professor at the University of Illinois, as writing in the Journal of Social Archaeology.

Lucero analysed the arrangement, colour and condition of several Maya artefacts excavated at two commoners' homes in a small Maya center called Saturday Creek, in central Belize.

Occupied from about 450 to 1150 A.D., the two homes had nearly a dozen human remains of men, women and children with artefacts arranged around and on top of the bodies.

Lucero believes those who were buried in the homes were family members who died closest to calendrical rites every 40 or 52 years or at the time, every 20-30 years, in which houses needed to be re-roofed.

Lucero said: "After the funeral rites, the house and what it contained were destroyed and burned. The ceremonial destruction provided the basis for the new house."

The Maya used broken and whole vessels, colourful ceramic fragments, animal bones and rocks to provide ballast for a new plaster floor. All items were symbolically arranged.

Lucero said: "The Maya deposited items that had a particular history with the family. Once placed and buried, the objects disappeared from sight, not memory."

The Maya "de-animated" objects they buried by breaking them. They believed that in this way the artefacts could enter the next stage of their life history.

Archaeologists found several vessels and jars, which underwent de-animation rites - they lacked bases or necks and had their rims broken off. Some vessels were de-animated with a "kill hole" drilled through their bottoms.

However, some bowls and jars were also buried in perfect condition. They were specifically manufactured to represent "re-animation" rites for the new house built over the old.

Some artefacts - including groups of obsidian or chert rocks - symbolized the Maya belief in the nine levels of the underworld and the 13 levels of heaven.

Lucero found that colors like red and orange, which symbolized sunrise and life, were commonly used in burials.

Black represented death and the underworld, but no black objects were found in or near a burial.

Lucero said: "Perhaps the Maya only wanted to use colors that were associated with the realm of living."

Cynthia Robin, an anthropological archaeologist at Northwestern University, Illinois, corroborated Lucero's conclusions.

Robin, who specializes in the study of ancient, everyday Maya society, said: "Although ancient Maya commoners didn't write anything down, they 'wrote' their history in many other ways. The burial of ancestors is a history of the families that lived there. In a sense you could compare this to a written deed or census.

"In a similar vein, objects buried in homes often recorded religious ideas: rather than reading a religious text, you can 'read' the meaning of the objects buried in houses." (ANI)