Archaeologists from the University of Louisiana discover in Belize homes of salt workers from the Mayan Empire in an underwater site

Radiocarbon dating of samples of wooden poles and ceramics revealed the first remains of the dwellings of the salineros who served this valuable raw material to the Mayan empire.

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The ancient Maya had stone temples and palaces in the Central American rainforest, along with dynastic records of royal leaders carved in stone, but they lacked a basic commodity essential to daily life: salt.

Sources of salt are found mainly along the coast, including the salt flats on the Yucatan coast and brine along the Belizean coast, where it rains a lot. But how did the inland Maya maintain a supply of salt?

LSU (Louisiana State University) archaeologist Maya Heather McKillop and her team have excavated salt kitchens where brine was boiled in clay pots over fires in post-and-thatch buildings preserved in oxygen-free sediments beneath the sea floor in Belize. But the place where these salt workers lived remained elusive, leaving possible interpretations of daily or seasonal workers from the coast or even from the interior. This breach left lingering questions about the organization of production and distribution.

New findings about the organization of the salt industry to supply this staple food product to inland cities during the Classic Maya civilization are reported in a recent article published in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica.

McKillop and his colleagues started this new project looking for 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, home to the Paynes Creek Saltworks site, has been postponed since March 2020 due to the pandemic, the researchers turned to previously exported material for study at the LSU Archeology Lab, including hundreds of samples of wooden poles and thatched buildings, as well as pottery sherds.

“The archeology lab looks like a Tupperware party, with hundreds of plastic containers of water, but they keep the wood samples moist so they don’t dry out or decay,” McKillop said in a statement.

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

As the dates began to roll in, two by two, McKillop identified a sequence of building construction that began in the Late Classic at the height of Maya civilization and continued through the Terminal Classic when dynastic leaders of inland city-states they were losing control and finally the cities were abandoned by 900 AD

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

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

The new analysis verifies McKillop’s estimate that 10 salt cookers were in production at one time at the Paynes Creek Salt Works, which he reported in his book Maya Salt Works (2019, University Press of Florida).

“The research underscores the importance of radiocarbon dating of each post and thatched-roof construction on salt flats to assess the production capacity of this dietary need. The research also shows the value of individually mapping seabed artifacts and poles at underwater sites in Using the Sacapulas salt flats as a model from which to develop archaeological correlates fits with Ek Way Nal and suggests that the Maya who they lived permanently in the community were dedicated to the family production of surplus salt that was well integrated into the regional economy allowing them to purchase a variety of non-local goods,” he said.

With information from Europa Press.


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