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Archaeologists find salt worker residences at Mayan underwater site

The ancient Mayans had stone temples and palaces in the Central American rainforest, as well as dynastic records of royal chieftains carved in stone, but they lacked a basic commodity essential to daily life: salt. . Sources of salt are mostly found along the coast, including the salt marshes on the Yucatan coast and the boiling brine along the coast of Belize, where it rains heavily. But how did the interior Mayans maintain a supply of salt?

LSU Maya archaeologist Heather McKillop and her team excavated salt kitchens where brine was boiled in clay pots over fires in post and thatch buildings preserved in oxygen-free sediment beneath the seabed in Belize . But the place where these salt workers lived has been elusive, leaving possible interpretations of day laborers or seasonal workers from the coast or even from inland. This discrepancy has left nagging questions about the organization of production and distribution.

New findings about the organization of the salt industry to provide this staple foodstuff to cities of the interior during the classical Mayan civilization are reported in a recent article by McKillop and the former student of LSU, Cory Sills, associate professor at Texas-Tyler University. The article “Brickwork and Brine: Living and Working at the Ek Way Nal Salt Flats, Belize” was published in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica.

McKillop and Sills began this new project to find residences where salt workers lived and to understand the energetics of salt production with funding from the National Science Foundation. Although fieldwork at Ek Way Nal, where the Paynes Creek salt flats are located, has been postponed since March 2020 due to the pandemic, researchers have turned to previously exported material for study in the lab. LSU archeology, including hundreds of wood samples from poles and thatched buildings, as well as pottery shards.

“The archeology lab looks like a Tupperware party, with hundreds of plastic water containers, but they keep the wood samples moist so they don’t dry out and deteriorate,” McKillop said, who is Professor Thomas & Lillian Landrum Alumni at the Department of Geography and Anthropology at LSU.

She explained the strategy for continuing the lab research: “I decided to submit a sample of a wooden pole for radiocarbon dating from each building to Ek Way Nal to see if they were all from the same time. which was suggested by the visibility of artifacts and buildings at the bottom of the sea.

When the dates began to arrive, two at a time, McKillop identified a sequence of building construction that began at the end of the Classical period at the height of Mayan civilization and continued through to the final year. classic when the dynastic rulers of the interior city-states lost control and the cities were finally abandoned in AD 900.

According to McKillop, “Using the well-studied site, Sacapulas, Guatemala, as a model, worked well to develop archaeological expectations for different activities for brine boiling in a salt kitchen, residence and other activities, including including salting the fish. “

In the article from ancient Mesoamerica, they report a 3-part building construction sequence with salt kitchens, at least one residence, and an outdoor area where the fish were salted and dried. The archaeologists’ strategy of radiocarbon dating each building had produced a finer timeline for Ek Way Nal which they are using for more sites.

The new analysis verifies McKillop’s estimate that 10 salt kitchens were in production at a time at Paynes Creek Salt Works, which she reported in her book “Maya Salt Works” (2019, University Press of Florida).

“The research underscores the importance of radiocarbon dating of every pole and stubble in the salt flats in order to assess the productive capacity of this food necessity. Research also shows the value of individual mapping of artifacts and seabed poles at underwater sites in order to interpret building use. The use of the Sacapulas salt flats as a model from which to develop archaeological correlates corresponds to Ek Way Nal and suggests that the Mayans permanently living in the community were engaged in excess household salt production that was well integrated into the regional economy. , allowing them to acquire a variety of non-local goods, ”she said.