Balamku near Chichén Itzá (Mexico)

Archaeologists discover cave in Mexico filled with 1,000-year-old Mayan ceramics in near-perfect condition

 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/mexico-mayan-cave-ceramics-chichen-itza-archaeology-a8808536.html

Mexican archaeologists have discovered a cave at the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza containing around 200 ceramic vessels in nearly perfect condition.

The items appear to date to around AD 1000 and contain bone fragments and burnt offering materials, according to the National Institute of Anthropology and History.

Exploration of the cave began last year after indigenous people living in the area told experts about it, said archaeologist Guillermo de Anda.

The 155 ceramic braziers – containers used for burning – and incense pots found by the experts bear the likeness of Tlaloc, the rain god of central Mexico. Small clay boxes were among the other vessels found.

Mr De Anda said the objects were “completely untouched”.

The team of explorers had been searching for an underground water system before finding the sacred cave.

The ancient Mayans had their own rain god, Chaac, and may have imported Tlaloc from other pre-Hispanic cultures.

Mr De Anda said the Mayans would have had to crawl on their bellies through the extremely narrow cave to deposit the offerings inside a few larger, higher chambers. The offerings were meant to ask for rain, the experts believe. 

It emerged that the cave had been discovered, but not fully explored, by local people around 50 years ago.

They told an archaeologist about the cave but he ordered it sealed – possibly to protect it – and only issued a brief report that was forgotten in Mexican government archives.

The archaeologists studying the objects plan to leave them all in the cave after their analysis.

Known as Balamku, the cave is about 1.7 miles east of the main pyramid of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo or “The Castle”.

Mr De Anda and his team have been exploring Chichen Itza to establish the routes and sites of the Mayan underground water system.

 A series of sinkhole lakes known as cenotes are visible on the surface of the site, but there are other, undiscovered water sites beneath the labyrinth of pyramids, patios and temples.

Water was always central to Chichen Itza, whose name means “at the mouth of the well of the water wizards” in the Maya language.

Mr De Anda said experts had crawled a few hundred metres into the cave, which in places is just 40cm high, in hopes of finding the connection to a cenote believed to lie under the pyramid of Kukulkan.

“Let’s hope this leads us there. That is part of the reason why we are entering these sites, to find a connection to the cenote under the Castillo,” he said.


https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2019/03/maya-ritual-balamku-cave-stuns-archaeologists/

National Geographic, Published March 4, 2019, By Gena Steffens

Maya ritual cave ‘untouched’ for 1,000 years stuns archaeologists

Exploration of Balamku (Cave of the Jaguar God) reveals ancient religious practices—and may hold clues to the rise and fall of the Maya empire.

Archaeologists hunting for a sacred well beneath the ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula have accidentally discovered a trove of more than 150 ritual objects—untouched for more than a thousand years—in a series of cave chambers that may hold clues to the rise and fall of the ancient Maya. The discovery of the cave system, known as Balamku or “Jaguar God,” was announced by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in a press conference held today in Mexico City.

After its initial discovery by farmers in 1966, Balamku was visited by archaeologist Víctor Segovia Pinto, who wrote up a report noting the presence of an extensive amount of archaeological material. But instead of excavating the site, Segovia then directed the farmers to seal up the entrance, and all records of the discovery of the cave seemed to vanish.

Exclusive video: Inside the cave of the ancient Jaguar God Archaeologists crawl for hours through tight underground passageways of Balamku to reach artifacts untouched for 1,000 years.

Balamku remained sealed for more than 50 years, until it was reopened in 2018 by National Geographic Explorer Guillermo de Anda and his team of investigators from the Great Maya Aquifer Project during their search for the water table beneath Chichén Itzá. Exploration of the system was funded in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society.

De Anda recalls pulling himself on his stomach through the tight tunnels of Balamku for hours before his headlamp illuminated something entirely unexpected: A cascade of offerings left by the ancient residents of Chichén Itzá, so perfectly preserved and untouched that stalagmites had formed around the incense burners, vases, decorated plates, and other objects in the cavern.

[Photos: see at the end ...]

“I couldn’t speak, I started to cry. I’ve analyzed human remains in [Chichén Itzá’s] Sacred Cenote, but nothing compares to the sensation I had entering, alone, for the first time in that cave,” says de Anda, who is an investigator with INAH and director of the Great Maya Aquifer Project, which seeks to explore, understand, and protect the aquifer of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

 “You almost feel the presence of the Maya who deposited these things in there,” he adds.

An unprecedented second chance

To access just the first of seven ritual offering chambers identified so far within Balamku, archaeologists must crawl flat on their stomachs through hundreds of feet of tortuously narrow passages. In the original report on the cave (recently located by archaeologist and GAM investigator James Brady of California State University, Los Angeles), Segovia identified 155 artifacts, some with faces of Toltec rain god Tláloc, and others with markings of the sacred ceiba tree, a potent representation of the Maya universe. In comparison, the nearby cave of Balankanché, a ritual site excavated in 1959, contains just 70 of these objects.

“Balamku appears to be the ‘mother’ of Balankanché,” says de Anda. “I don’t want to say that quantity is more important than information, but when you see that there are many, many offerings in a cave that is also much more difficult to access, this tells us something.”

Why Segovia would decide to seal up such a phenomenal discovery is still a matter of debate. But in doing so, he inadvertently provided researchers with an unprecedented “second chance” to answer some of the most perplexing questions that continue to stir controversy among Mayanists today, such as such as the level of contact and influence exchanged between different Mesoamerican cultures, and what was going on in the Maya world prior to the fall of Chichén Itzá.

Entrances to the Underworld

 “For the ancient Maya, caves and cenotes [sinkoles] were considered openings to the underworld,” says Holley Moyes, a University of California, Merced expert on the archaeology and religious use of Maya caves who was not a part of the project. “They represent some of the most sacred spaces for the Maya, ones that also influenced site planning and social organization. They are fundamental, hugely important, to the Maya experience.”

But until the concept of cave archaeology began to take shape in the 1980s, archaeologists were more interested in monumental architecture and intact artifacts than they were in analyzing the residues and materials found in and around objects. When Balankanché was excavated in 1959, caves were still mapped by hand in the dark and artifacts were routinely removed from their sites, cleaned, and later put back. Of all the incense burners found in Balankanché that were filled with material that could have provided definitive evidence related to the chronology of the site, for instance, only one was ever analyzed.

Explore the world's largest underwater cave system in Yucatán, Mexico.

Investigators of the Great Maya Aquifer Project see the (re)discovery of Balamku as a chance to implement a totally new model of cave archaeology, one that employs cutting-edge technology and specialized fields such as 3-D mapping and paleobotany. These new insights could give us a much more detailed idea of what was actually occurring in Maya cave rituals, as well as the history of the great city of Chichén Itzá, which declined for unknown reasons in the 13th century.

“Balamku can tell us not only the moment of collapse of Chichén Itzá,” says de Anda. “It can also probably tell us the moment of its beginning. Now, we have a sealed context, with a great quantity of information, including useable organic matter, that we can use to understand the development of Chichén Itzá.”

Further study of the site will also shed light on the intimate details of the catastrophic droughts that likely provoked the collapse of the Maya civilization. While this area has always been prone to drastic cycles of climate variability, some researchers have suggested that excessive deforestation in the Maya lowlands, which was once home to some 10-15 million people, could have exacerbated the problem and made the entire region uninhabitable.

Understanding these past cycles can have an added benefit for modern life as well, says National Geographic archaeologist-in-residence Fredrik Hiebert. “By studying these caves and cenotes, it’s possible to learn some lessons for how to best use the environment today, in terms of sustainability for the future.”

In this sense, de Anda believes archaeology has the potential to become a much more “useful” science.

“It’s always been considered the opposite—a beautiful and interesting field of science, but without a great deal of utility,” he says. “I think that here, we will be able to demonstrate the contrary, because when we begin to understand these marvelous contexts, we can understand the footprints of humankind’s past, and what was happening on Earth during one of the most dramatic moments in history.”


Further video from the internet:

(video in Spanish)

Several photos from the internet:

Lago Petén Itzá (Guatemala)

Discovery of several hundred artefacts in the holy lake of the Maya

https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/maya-relics-found-lake-0011463?fbclid=IwAR06cQQsZAdXt36ePOuGSCTULgQRbGAd1tXf4aKQuXt3K0yYoZVjLhAhY5A

Ancient Origins, 11 February, 2019 – by Ed Whelan

Divers Find Hundreds of Ritual Offerings in Lake Sacred to the Maya

Drivers from the ‘Underwater Archaeological Expedition to Guatemala’ project.          

Source: Magdalena Krzemień & Mateusz Popek .

The civilization of the Maya is one of the most fascinating of the many that flourished in ancient Mesoamerica and it has just been announced that a joint Polish and Guatemalan team have retrieved a stack of objects from this culture’s golden age from a lake. Their finds are offering new insights into the great Classical Maya era.

The discoveries were made in the remote Petén Itzá lake, in north-central Guatemala, which surrounds an island called Flores that was once the site of the great Maya city of Nojpeten. The artifacts were recovered by a team of Polish divers from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, who examined the bed of the body of water. The team made the finds some 480 feet (160 meters) beneath the surface. Their discoveries were made over the summer but they were not initially publicized so that looters would not be attracted to the lake.

500 objects found at the bottom of the lake

The leader of the archaeologist team, Magdalena Krzemień, told a news agency that “we have discovered more than half a thousand relics, including objects sunk during religious rituals,” reports the Science in Poland website. The divers had expected to find remains from a great battle that took place between the Spanish and the Maya. Instead they found items that date from an earlier historical period.

They found a treasure trove littered on the bed of the lake. The divers found grisly skull-shaped incense burners, shells, and ceremonial bowls. It is believed that the shells that were found, which were imported from the Caribbean, were used as ritual musical instrument. One important discovery was that of an obsidian knife and such blades were often used in human sacrifices in ancient Mesoamerica. According to First News they also found “various monuments detailing ritual ceremonies that took place in the ancient Mayan capital, Nojpeten.”

The group was hoping to find evidence of the ‘great battle’ between the Maya and their Spanish conquerors. However, these relics are around 1000 years older. ( Magdalena Krzemień & Mateusz Popek )

Knives used in sacrifices

Some of the ceremonial bowls were set on top of each other and there were fragments of obsidian and charcoal in them. It was in one of these stacks of bowls that the knife made from volcanic rock was found. It was deliberately left in the bowl and this indicates that it was used in some form of sacrifice, possibly even a human sacrifice. The Maya often used these knives to cut the heart out of living victims in a way very reminiscent of the Aztecs.

The archaeologists found an obsidian blade measuring almost 20 cm which they believe was 'clearly associated with ritual and sacrifice.' ( Magdalena Krzemień & Mateusz Popek )

Experts are not surprised at finding so many important relics discarded at the bottom of a lake. Bodies of water held a great religious significance for the Maya as they considered them gateways to the underworld. Moreover, water was also associated with the powerful God of Rain, Chaak , who was the deity of fertility. The artifacts could have been sacrificial gifts to this god who was very important in the Maya pantheon.

Earthenware effigy urn (an incense burner) of Chaac, 12th-14th century. ( Public Domain )

All of the relics and sacrificial items were in good condition. This was initially a mystery to the team, and they were baffled as to how these fragile artifacts were not broken. It is believed that the items were deliberately placed on the bed of the lake in some way. They reasoned that it was unlikely that they were deposited there by divers and were probably lowered onto the bed by means of nets.

According to the First News website the finds all date back to the Classical Maya period from “150 BC - 250 AD to 600 - 800 AD.” This era is often seen as the zenith of the Maya before their civilization collapsed in around 1000 AD. However, they did enjoy a renaissance before and even after the coming of the Spanish Conquistadors .

Water had a special symbolic meaning for the Mayan people, as they believed it was the medium through which the dead journeyed to the underworld. ( Magdalena Krzemień & Mateusz Popek )

The fall of Nojpeten

The treasure trove was found near the island-city of Nojpeten, which for many centuries was very important in the region. It was the last bastion of the Maya with its inhabitants defying the Conquistadors for almost two-hundred years and it did not fall to the Spanish until the 1690s. It was only taken by the Europeans after a brutal battle on the lake. The Spanish used ships armed with cannons to destroy the city and this effectively ended the last independent Maya state.

The recovered items offer new insights into the religious and cultural beliefs of the Maya during their heyday. The divers are continuing their investigations and they hope to find more sacrificial items from other periods. In particular they hope to find more artifacts from the battle on the lake that resulted in the conquest of the last independent Maya in Central America.

The drivers are excited at their discoveries and believe there are more treasures waiting to be discovered deeper in the lake bed. ( Magdalena Krzemień & Mateusz Popek )


http://scienceinpoland.pap.pl/en/news/news%2C32650%2Cguatemala-polish-archaeologists-discovered-several-hundred-artefacts-holy-lake-maya

PAP - Science in Poland, Febr. 1, 2019, by Szymon Zdziebłowski

Guatemala/ Polish archaeologists discovered several hundred artefacts in the holy lake of the Maya

Fragment of a face-shaped ceramic censer, evidence of religious rituals in the form of ceramic vessels - in total, Polish archaeologists discovered several hundred artefacts during underwater research in the lake Petén Itzá near the ancient Mayan capital Nojpetén in Guatemala.

Nojpetén was the capital city of the last of the ancient Maya groups that resisted the attacks of European conquerors for almost 200 years after their arrival in Central America. It was located on today`s Flores Island in the southern part of the vast Petén Itza Lake in Guatemala. This area was one of the places where Polish underwater archaeologists carried out research in August and September 2018. They reported their results in January.

"We have discovered more than 500 artefacts near the ancient Mayan capital, including objects sunk during religious rituals" - says the Polish team leader, archaeologist from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Magdalena Krzemień.

The place where the rituals took place was located north of the island, as evidenced by numerous finds. In one place, scientists saw three bowls placed one inside another. The top bowl contained fragments of burned wood and obsidian - glassy volcanic rock. The bowls rested on larger three-leg vessels. In one of them, archaeologists discovered an almost 20 cm long obsidian blade. "Its presence is clearly associated with ritual and sacrifice" - the researcher emphasises.

Krzemień believes that the discovery was made exactly in the place where the vessels had been originally deposited. They were partially buried under the bottom, so even the currents could not move them.

"It is a mystery how the Mayans were able to deposit the offering so that the vessels did not scatter over a larger surface. We suspect that they were dropped to the bottom in a net" - says underwater archaeologist Mateusz Popek from the Institute of Archeology, Nicolaus Copernicus University.

A bit further was a partly destroyed fragment of a censer shaped like a human head. The project leader says that very similar items have been discovered in onshore Maya temples.

"During some of the ceremonies the censers were deliberately broken. That was probably the case here" - she adds.

The researcher says that the lakes were an important element of the Maya`s holy landscape, because water had a special symbolic meaning for the members of this civilization - it was perceived as a medium, through which the dead would pass to the underworld.

Water reservoirs were also perceived as places closely related to Chaak - a rain god, responsible for rainfall, and consequently also crops. "That is why a large number of various kinds of sacrificial gifts ended up in water reservoirs over the centuries" - adds the project leader.

Archaeologists have determined the age of finds. They believe that the studied area was a place of worship from the Proto-Classic period (150 BC - 250 BC) to the late Classic period (600 - 800 BC).

The Maya resisted the conquistadors for a very long time. Nojpetén - the last independent fortress of the Maya - was captured in 1697 after a great battle. The Spaniards attacked the island on ships, from which they shot their weapons at the Maya.

Archaeologists also hoped to discover numerous items associated with this crucial moment during their research. The final battle between the residents of the capital city and the Spaniards took place on the west side of the island. While diving in this area, the Polish archaeologists only found a part of a mace, blunt weapon consisting of a heavy head on the end of a handle. They recovered a well-preserved stone head.

A little further north, in the area of the El Hospital island, archaeologists discovered of a large shell from the Caribbean Sea on the bottom, which indicates that the Maya had contacts with the inhabitants of the Caribbean Coast. "Such a shell could be used as a music instrument. It could also be connected to the elites or the symbolic sphere, because objects of this type were associated with births, rituals of maturation, sacrificial offerings, war, the underworld and death" - Krzemień says.

The project leader emphasizes that all artefacts were located on the surface of the lake bed - they did not even have to be excavated. "Considering the number of objects we discovered on the surface, we would probably find even more during excavations. Therefore, we plan to continue our research" - informs Krzemień.

 


 https://www.archaeology.org/news/7344-190201-guatemala-maya-nojpeten

 Archaeology, Febr. 1, 2019

Maya Artifacts Recovered from Guatemala’s Lake Petén Itzá

KRAKÓW, POLAND—Science in Poland reports that teams of Guatemalan and Polish researchers recovered several hundred Maya artifacts from Lake Petén Itzá, where the Classic period Maya capital of Nojpetén was located on Flores Island. Polish team leader Magdalena Krzemień of Jagiellonian University suggested some of the artifacts had been used in religious rituals to the north of the island, perhaps to honor Chaak, a rain god. For example, divers found three stacked bowls that had been placed on larger three-legged vessels, one of which held a nearly eight-inch-long obsidian blade. “Its presence is clearly associated with ritual and sacrifice,” Krzemień said. The top bowl in the stack held fragments of burned wood and obsidian. “It is a mystery how the Mayans were able to deposit the offering so that the vessels did not scatter over a larger surface,” added underwater archaeologist Mateusz Popek of Nicolaus Copernicus University. “We suspect that they were dropped to the bottom in a net.” The main sponsors of the expedition are Sebastian Lambert and Iga Snopek.

 

Komkom / Baking Pot (Belize)

https://www.newsweek.com/royal-vase-hieroglyphics-collapse-maya-civilization-1403644?fbclid=IwAR2_GI2aiTHVyioGSftkqrSYKKO4-dbko-Of4z03kayF59Q8Y2QYQEsPYgI

NEWSWEEK,  April 27, 2019, by Hannah Osborne

Hieroglyphic Text on Royal Vase Reveals Clues About Mystery Collapse of Ancient Maya Civilization

Scientists have discovered a vase at an ancient royal palace in Belize with hieroglyphic text that gives an insight into the mysterious collapse of the Maya civilization. The stories on the vase relate to its owner—a King of Komkom—and a series of martial actions relating to him, including a “frog-like turtle dance” he performed after a military victory.

The vase, which dates to around 800 AD, was found in the Maya archaeological complex of Baking Pot by researchers led by Julie Hoggarth, assistant professor of anthropology at Texas’ Baylor University. She noticed one of the pieces had a hieroglyph referring to Yaxha, a Maya ceremonial center in Guatemala.

The vessel had been smashed into bits, so the team had to piece the 82 fragments they found together—eventually assembling what they believe to be about 60 percent of the original. It measured about nine inches in length and, in its entirety, would have been made up of 202 hieroglyphic blocks—unusually long for Pre-Columbian texts found in Belize.

After deciphering the text, Hoggarth and colleagues realized it provided an unusual insight into a period where there is little remaining written information. Hoggarth and her colleagues now published details of the vase in a book, A Reading of the Komkom Vase Discovered at Baking Pot, Belize. Co-authors include Christophe Helmke, from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Jaime Awe, from Northern Arizona University. 

At the time the vase was created, the Maya civilization had started to collapse. Cities were abandoned and by around 900 AD, they had stopped building monuments. Reasons for this are unclear, although experts believe multiple factors likely combined, resulting in a breakdown of the political system.

“Population growth at the end of the Classic period also meant that the Maya were clearing more of the landscape to grow food, which may have contributed—in some cases—to environmental degradation,” Hoggarth told Newsweek. “On top of all of this was a series of severe droughts that date to the mid-to-late ninth century (around AD 820-900) that likely impacted agricultural production. Since Maya divine kings were considered intermediaries with the gods, you can imagine how if they did not bring the rains that their legitimacy could have been diminished and the populace likely voted with their feet and left those cities.”

The story on the Komkom vase focuses on the warfare that was taking place during the period—providing a peek into the propaganda that was being sold to society at the time. “We know that the Classic Maya did not typically write about mundane topics,” Hoggarth said, adding that they normally focused on political histories, including births, deaths, ascensions, alliances and rituals. Few mention droughts or trade problems. “The unique aspect of the Komkom Vase is that it was written during this period of instability, and gives a perspective by the Maya themselves of the escalation of warfare during this time.”

 The Komkom vase, pieced together. Baylor University

The text on the vase provides information on the royal owner. While he is not named directly, it says his father is Sak Witzil Baah, the King of Komkom, and his mother is a royal from the kingdom of Naranjo. This suggests the owner was a later king of Komkom.

The story provides information about a series of martial actions led by the king. It says that in July, 799 AD, he “axed the middle of the Yaxa’ cave.” The cave, Hoggarth said, probably refers to the polity or settlement of Yaxha. “The text goes on to describe how the king of Yaxha, K’inich Lakamtuun, now powerless, fled from the city to a place ‘where mosquitos/flies abound.’  The text later describes how the owner of the vase performed a ‘frog-like turtle dance’ to celebrate the victory over Yaxha.”

She said it is hard to distinguish between political propaganda and fact—as with all written sources, history is recorded by the victors. “One interesting aspect of the Komkom Vase is that many of the events that are described on the vase are also detailed in written texts on carved monuments from the site of Naranjo,” Hoggarth said. “In those accounts, it is the rulers of Naranjo who led the martial attacks on Yaxha. Naranjo was a larger and a more powerful kingdom than Komkom, but the parentage statement describes the mother of the owner of the Komkom Vase with a royal title from that site, so there were clearly political and marriage alliances between the two kingdoms.

“The accounts in the Komkom Vase make it appear that the owner of the vase, assumed to be the King of Komkom, led the attacks against Yaxha. So, you can see here how easily historical accounts can be slightly changed as a form of political propaganda to enhance the reputation of the protagonist of the story.”

A fragment of the Komkom Vase. Baylor University

Elizabeth Graham, Professor of Mesoamerican Archaeology at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, U.K, who was not involved in the research, said the length of the text and the dating—at the time of the Maya collapse—means it provides an interesting insight into the period: “One ‘minute’ they are painting beautiful texts in the Classic tradition, and the next, collapse,” she told Newsweek.

“Much more can be learned from the vase,” Graham continued. “Translation of clauses in the text are aided by the fact that the same events or titles are recorded at other sites—in the case of the Komkom vase these sites are Naranjo, Tikal, and Yaxha.”

Hoggarth is now looking to develop a precise chronology in order to reconstruct the breakdown of political systems and the abandonment of Maya centers. At the moment, she is using radiocarbon dating to find out when royal palaces were abandoned and when ceremonial centers stopped being used. Her team is also looking at how the collapse corresponds to the severe droughts recorded at this time.

“In the past, archaeologists have noted how the timing of political and demographic changes broadly correlate with these climatic changes,” she said. “However, until recently we have been limited by imprecise chronologies based on ceramic phases that typically span several hundred years. This poor temporal resolution has made it difficult to identify clear relationships between drought and societal impacts. High-precision radiocarbon chronologies are now allowing us to identify the timing of political and demographic changes at finer time scales.”

This article has been updated to include more details on the researchers involved.

Aragón (near Kaminaljuyú, Guatemala)

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/04/archaeologists-unearth-largest-mayan-figurine-factory-date

Science, by Lizzie Wade, Apr. 18, 2019

Archaeologists unearth largest Mayan figurine factory to date

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO—Archaeologists working in Guatemala have discovered the largest known figurine workshop in the Mayan world, they announced at the Society for American Archaeology meeting here last week. The workshop, buried for more than 1000 years, made intricate, mass-produced figurines that likely figured heavily in Mayan political customs.

Finding the workshop was a stroke of luck: Brent Woodfill, an archaeologist at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, learned about it from friends in Cobán, Guatemala, who were doing construction on their property. A few months later, Woodfill and colleagues excavated the site, called Aragón, and surveyed it with a drone. Although the workshop was destroyed by the construction, archaeologists were able to recover more than 400 fragments of figurines and the molds for making them (above), as well as thousands of ceramic pieces—more than at any other known Mayan workshop.

These figurines played a key role in Mayan politics and economics; it’s thought that leaders gave them to allies and subjects to strengthen and publicize important relationships. The Aragón workshop was likely active from about 750 C.E. to 900 C.E., long before archaeologists thought there was an important city in the region. It also appears to have survived and even thrived, as nearby cities such as Cancuén succumbed to political turmoil that unleashed a 3-century-long “collapse” around the Mayan world. That means Aragón could hold important clues about how political and economic power transformed over that long—and sometimes painful—transition.


https://www.archaeology.org/news/7597-190419-guatemala-maya-figurines?fbclid=IwAR2o9aO2G_b2WgRMG0hLqsUgjgJowtKWCsiPF3u-HStTQUJVRM-oz_MbHMk

ARCHAEOLOGY, April 19, 2019

Kaminaljuyú / Aragón (Guatemala)

Maya Figurine Workshop Discovered in Guatemala

ROCK HILL, SOUTH CAROLINA—According to a Science Magazine * report, a large figurine workshop dated to between A.D. 750 and 900 was discovered in the highlands of Guatemala during a construction project on private property. Archaeologist Brent Woodfill of Winthrop University excavated what was left of the site, named Aragón, and recovered thousands of ceramic fragments, including pieces of figurines and the molds used to make them. Such figurines are thought to have been given by Maya political leaders to their allies in order to strengthen and publicize political ties. The presence of the workshop suggests there may have been a previously unknown powerful and prosperous Maya city in the region during this time period. For more, go to “Letter from Guatemala: Maya Metropolis.” **


 https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/04/archaeologists-unearth-largest-mayan-figurine-factory-date

Science

Archaeologists unearth largest Mayan figurine factory to date

By Lizzie WadeApr. 18, 2019

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO—Archaeologists working in Guatemala have discovered the largest known figurine workshop in the Mayan world, they announced at the Society for American Archaeology meeting here last week. The workshop, buried for more than 1000 years, made intricate, mass-produced figurines that likely figured heavily in Mayan political customs.

Finding the workshop was a stroke of luck: Brent Woodfill, an archaeologist at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, learned about it from friends in Cobán, Guatemala, who were doing construction on their property. A few months later, Woodfill and colleagues excavated the site, called Aragón, and surveyed it with a drone. Although the workshop was destroyed by the construction, archaeologists were able to recover more than 400 fragments of figurines and the molds for making them (above), as well as thousands of ceramic pieces—more than at any other known Mayan workshop.

These figurines played a key role in Mayan politics and economics; it’s thought that leaders gave them to allies and subjects to strengthen and publicize important relationships. The Aragón workshop was likely active from about 750 C.E. to 900 C.E., long before archaeologists thought there was an important city in the region. It also appears to have survived and even thrived, as nearby cities such as Cancuén succumbed to political turmoil that unleashed a 3-century-long “collapse” around the Mayan world. That means Aragón could hold important clues about how political and economic power transformed over that long—and sometimes painful—transition.


**  https://www.archaeology.org/issues/209-1603/letter-from/4152-maya-metropolis-kaminaljuyu-guatemala-kaminaljuyu

 ARCHAEOLOGY

Letter from Guatemala

(Kaminaljuyú / Aragón)

By ROGER ATWOOD, March/April 2016

Archaeologist Bárbara Arroyo and graduate student Jorge Méndez sift through the remains of the Maya city of Kaminaljuyú in her Guatemala City laboratory. (Photo: Roger Atwood)

Walk into any archaeologist’s laboratory and you’re likely to see bags of broken pottery. Walk into Bárbara Arroyo’s laboratory in a warehouse on the edge of the ruins of Kaminaljuyú in Guatemala City and you’ll find bags containing millions of pottery sherds, stacked almost to the ceiling. Millions more sit in the vaults of the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology a few miles away. Outside Arroyo’s laboratory, she and her team have dumped thousands upon thousands more ancient ceramic scraps into a large hole. “They can’t take any more at the museum,” she says with a shrug, gesturing out a window at the overflowing pit.

Long before archaeologists came to this area, visitors who had seen ancient Kaminaljuyú’s pyramids and platforms wondered what it had once been. In 1893, the British explorers Alfred and Anne Maudslay saw the city’s overgrown mounds—they mapped about 110 of them—and wrote that it must have been a “a fair-sized town” in the distant past but was now “a mere ghost town…without history or name.” In 1936, American archaeologists Edwin Shook and Alfred Kidder were amazed by the site’s “massive public buildings.” They counted more than 200 ancient structures and found that Kaminaljuyú, which means “hills of the dead” in the Mayan language K’iche’, stood at the center of an urban agglomeration that included some 35 more Maya settlements in the immediate vicinity.

An incense burner decorated with paintings of deities was made in Kaminaljuyú, a city with tremendous ceramic-producing capabilities. (Photo: Roger Atwood)

Yet what most struck Shook and Kidder, and what continues to impress archaeologists today, was the sheer quantity of ceramics they saw. The people of Kaminaljuyú made pots on an industrial scale. Excavating one burial mound, Shook and Kidder counted 7,000 sherds per cubic foot of soil and estimated that the whole mound contained the “astounding total” of 15 million fragments—the remains of some 500,000 once-intact ceramic vessels. Millions of pots were intentionally and systematically smashed by the ancient city’s own residents, or by invaders. The uncounted sherds throughout the site, excavated by Arroyo and earlier archaeologists, are physical evidence of both the city’s huge population and its turbulent history of collapse and revival.

Built alongside an ancient lake, Kaminaljuyú was once the most populous Maya city in the southern highlands. The lake dried up centuries ago, and all that’s visible of the ancient metropolis today are the grassy hills and overgrown pyramids of the Kaminaljuyú Archaeological Park, which Arroyo directs, along with a few other ancient mounds scattered around Guatemala City’s western barrios. Some of those ruins are no more than half-eroded humps, hemmed in by cinder block houses and parking lots. Others, such as the multilayered complex known as the Acropolis, where Arroyo is currently excavating, hold the remains of centuries of Maya history. “Underneath the modern city is another city that lived and died in the time of the Maya,” says Arroyo. “Not many people are aware of this, but it’s all there.

Arroyo has seen some—but not all—of the last remains of Kaminaljuyú swallowed up by urban sprawl. Some areas have been paved over for housing projects, others for shopping malls, while still others, she says, have undoubtedly been lost without anybody even knowing about them. One ancient pyramid, today a nondescript mound, sits in the garden of a private mansion. The owners of the house won’t let Arroyo look at the site, much less excavate it, so she hopes to inspect it with a drone. “It’s important to gather information about what’s left, even if you can’t dig,” she says. Nothing seems to faze her, not even the crime and blight in neighborhoods where some of Kaminaljuyú’s mounds still stand. At one, a group of homeless children have taken refuge. At another, nearby walls are covered in gang graffiti.

A few miles west, across a deep gorge, lies what used to be Naranjo, a city nearly as big as Kaminaljuyú. The early photographer Eadweard Muybridge visited Naranjo in about 1875 and photographed its ancient stone monuments, after which the site remained more or less unmolested until 2008, when it was completely paved over to make a gated community. Its houses now have whitewashed walls and red roofs like a fantasy version of a rural Spanish village. Arroyo was able to excavate and even move some of Naranjo’s monuments to a large traffic island in the middle of the new residential complex, but the rest of the site is lost forever. “Here we salvage what we can before it disappears,” she says, walking among the rescued stelas. “That’s a big part of what I do, salvage. And then it’s gone.”

About a mile south of Naranjo, Arroyo inspects a muddy vacant lot where a shopping center is soon to be built. She suspects the site might contain archaeological remains. With tractors and earthmovers grinding away nearby, she scans the ground for telltale scraps of ancient pottery. She doesn’t find any. The land may already have been so disturbed that nothing of the ancient city remains on the surface, she says.

Ruins are safe from encroachment in the Kaminaljuyú Archaeological Park, however. Although it covers less than 10 percent of the ancient city’s land area, the park is an island of tranquility among the modern capital’s congested streets, where Guatemala’s past and present mix uneasily. Under a grove of palms, shamans hold ceremonies with fire and aromatic spices, amid rings of chanting worshippers. Such rituals were violently suppressed under Guatemala’s former military regimes. Today they can attract hundreds of people. “The military said we were worshipping Satan, that we were satanic,” says the master of one ceremony, Apolinario González, who is dressed in a multicolored Indian tunic. “We are Maya and we worship as Maya,” he says. Nearby, a group of Christian evangelists walk on their knees in penitence across a lawn toward an open Bible. Under the same lawn, Arroyo once excavated the remains of two children killed in Maya sacrificial rites in about A.D. 100. Their tiny skeletons were found face down, surrounded by ceramic pots that would have contained food for the afterlife.

By digging at Kaminaljuyú’s surviving sites, Arroyo and earlier archaeologists have pieced together a thousand-year-long history of expansion and contraction, the rise and fall—and rise again—of a major city. The earliest known archaeological remains of Kaminaljuyú date from around 800 B.C. Within a few centuries, it became a trading center for salt and shells heading from the Pacific coast to the Petén lowlands, and for feathers, chocolate, and jade coming the opposite way.

Obsidian blades like these, made from raw materials taken from the El Chayal quarry near Kaminaljuyú, were traded and used all over the Maya world. (Photo: Roger Atwood)

Obsidian, used to make knives and axes, also contributed to the city’s early prosperity. The quarry at El Chayal, about 25 miles east, supplied raw material to the whole of the Maya realm, and its distinctive jet-black stone has been found at archaeological sites from El Salvador to the Yucatán. Arroyo has recovered thousands of chips from obsidian mined there all over Kaminaljuyú. “Most likely, the city controlled El Chayal,” she says, as one of her assistants washes a few dozen freshly excavated flakes and places them on a paper towel, each one a glistening black. “That brought great wealth to the city.

The remains of an elite Maya tomb excavated in the 1930s and 1940s lie under a grassy mound in the courtyard of a private archaeology museum in Guatemala City. (Photo: Roger Atwood)

Excavations have uncovered both high-status structures and humble dwellings, suggesting that different social classes lived side by side. The city, including its ceremonial centers, was built almost entirely with adobe and timbers, unlike other Maya cities with their lofty limestone temples. “Kaminaljuyú was like New York—not the oldest city or the prettiest, but the richest,” says Liwy Grazioso, director of the Miraflores Museum, which is devoted to the history of Kaminaljuyú and built partly atop one of its mounds. “It was a great nexus of people, technology, and goods.” Kaminaljuyú continued to grow until about 400 B.C., when, for reasons archaeologists debate, cities up and down the southern Guatemalan highlands saw a sharp decline in building and population. This “Middle Preclassic collapse,” as it is known, occurred around the same time as the fall of La Venta and other Maya cities in southern Mexico, with which Kaminaljuyú had lively trade ties. But unlike those places, Kaminaljuyú came back. Within a few centuries it was again seeing explosive growth in population, but also, more ominously, heavy erosion and deforestation as the city’s growing population cut trees for fuel and dwellings.

The skill of the artisans of Kaminaljuyú is evident in this striking ceramic pot depicting a sleeping dog. (Photo: Roger Atwood)

Using its new prosperity, the city constructed a web of canals, pools, and pipes that created what Arroyo calls an “aquatic landscape,” not unlike that of the Aztecs’ lakeside capital of Tenochtitlán about 1,000 years later. The canals ranged from narrow culverts to navigable channels 30 feet wide. Residents also installed plumbing and laid clay pipes, which Arroyo has found segments of, to carry water under the streets of the ancient city. A three-mile earthen aqueduct brought fresh water into Kaminaljuyú from a spring. These waterworks were built to last. After the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s, they constructed their own aqueduct on top of the original Maya one. The whole structure snakes through Guatemala City to this day, a mound dating to more than 2,000 years ago, topped by a line of Roman-style arches.

This complex system of hydraulic engineering was ultimately Kaminaljuyú’s undoing. The canals silted over and the water supply failed as the lake retreated due to drought, overuse, or both. Facing an acute water shortage, the city was again in upheaval by A.D. 150. Around that year, people deliberately chiseled away images that the city’s rulers had carved into stone monuments over centuries to mark the passage of time and to record history. They broke them and threw the pieces away like trash. Stone carvings of animals associated with water—mostly frogs and turtles—were smashed. Millions of ceramic pots were also intentionally broken and discarded. The city’s population plummeted, presumably due to mass migration.

Archaeologists speak of two possible causes for the iconoclastic spasm that hit Kaminaljuyú at this time. Federico Fahsen, a Maya epigrapher at the University of the Valley of Guatemala in Guatemala City, believes illiterate K’iche’ invaders swept in from the north, overwhelming the city’s cultured elite. “The early K’iche’ look down at this rich city in the valley, and say, ‘We want that for ourselves,’” Fahsen says, sitting in his office a short drive from the Kaminaljuyú ruins. “They enter the city, destroy the monuments, and erase the stone carvings in a frenzy of invasion and destruction.

Arroyo, however, leans toward internal upheaval as the cause of the unrest, perhaps triggered by anger over failing water supplies. There may have been other sources of resentment, too. For hundreds of years, the city’s literate elite had been using Maya script and artistic styles similar to those seen at San Bartolo, El Mirador, and other major Maya sites in the hot lowlands of northern Guatemala. After about A.D. 150, in Kaminaljuyú, those scripts and styles disappeared. They were erased from stone monuments and never employed again. It's possible," explains Arroyo, "that the destruction of monuments and broken ceramics that we're seeing were the result of a rebellion or rejection of some kind toward a governing elite that was linked by trade to the Maya lowlands. There was a return to local ways of doing things.

An indigenous woman lights a fire and burns aromatic wood and spices within Kaminaljuyú Archaeological Park echoing Maya traditions of worship. (Photo: Roger Atwood)

Judging from the quantity of new construction and ceramics being made two centuries after Kaminaljuyú’s second collapse, the city regained its population and trade ties for a time. In this period, a new cultural power also arrived in the region from the central Mexican metropolis of Teotihuacán. Exactly how Teotihuacán’s influence spread throughout the Maya realm to the south around A.D. 350—by invasion, mass migration, a shift in elite tastes, or, perhaps some combination—is poorly understood, but there was likely some movement of people. “When people from Teotihuacán arrive, they find a society still traumatized by the invasions of two centuries earlier, so the people of Kaminaljuyú easily took to the new culture,” says Sonia Medrano, a Maya specialist at Guatemala City’s University of San Carlos. A new style of architecture appeared, the talud-tablero style, typical of Mexican pyramids, with sloping walls and protruding ledges. Stone depictions of the city’s rulers also changed. No longer did they appear as supernatural beings, with jaguar fangs or bird wings, but as flesh-and-blood people. Similarly, the city’s governors no longer appeared as gods and instead became more earthly, mundane figures. All these shifts suggest less a conquest than a co-option by the Mexican cultural order, explains Arroyo. “I think what existed between Teotihuacán and Kaminaljuyú was an alliance between governing elites, a confluence of interests that allowed Kaminaljuyú to regain its trade ties and prosper again,” she says.

The new order did not last long, however. Around A.D. 700, Kaminaljuyú’s population declined once again as the Maya city of Copán, in present-day Honduras, rose in power and prestige. Kaminaljuyú was abandoned and never reoccupied, perhaps once again due to faltering water supplies. In some ways, the city’s fate foreshadowed the collapse of the wider Maya world around A.D. 900, which, say many archaeologists, may also have been triggered by widespread water shortages. Like the Maya world at large, Kaminaljuyú had its glory years before hitting hard times. Spanish conquerors made no mention of the site in their writings, and by the time Muybridge arrived, it was nothing but a vast cornfield. Only in the twentieth century did the area recover the population density it had had in antiquity, a new city once again built on top of the old. 

Roger Atwood is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

 

some more photos:

Under the streets of Guatemala’s bustling capital lies another, much older city: the Maya metropolis of Kaminaljuyú. A small sample of the ancient city’s mounds and plazas can be seen today in an “archaeological park” on Guatemala City’s north side. Since the 1930s, archaeologists have excavated pyramids, staircases, hundreds of ceremonial stone markers known as steles, and millions of ceramic sherds—all testament to a big town that waxed and waned over 1,500 years of history. Here are some scenes from the rediscovery of Kaminaljuyú.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monte Alto (Guatemala)

2000 Year Old Magnetized Giant Sculptures on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala Studied

http://mikeruggerismesoamericanews.tumblr.com

Mike Ruggeri’s Mesoamerica News on Tumblr, April 26, 2019

Artisans on the Pacific Coast of what is now Guatemala, at the site of Monte Alto, 2000 years ago, crafted huge human sculptures, many with potbellies, with magnetized foreheads, cheeks and navels. Lightning strikes magnetized sections of boulders that were crafted into the sculptures. The magnetized rocks were seen as the presence of ancestors.

The research will be published in the June Journal of Archaeological Science;

1. Science News has the report here with photos;
https://www.sciencenews.org/…/ancient-sculptures-guatemala-…

Doing a little research on this, I found that this phenomena was already known by earlier researchers.

2. Here is a report from 2018 in misfitsandheroes with more photos;
https://misfitsandheroes.wordprmon-al-3ess.com/…/fat-boys-magnetis…/

The researchers in this report believe the potbellies to be those of pregnant women representing fertility.


1.

https://www.sciencenews.org/article/ancient-sculptures-guatemala-magnetic-rocks-struck-lightning?fbclid=IwAR0Z7KT6ImH7BgIODNE0D5uuVJAKyV-iXHTFLZ9RMaEabr94ob8GDARZpbE

ScienceNews, by Bruce Bower, April 22, 2019

Ancient sculptors made magnetic figures from rocks struck by lightning

Guatemalan ‘potbelly’ sculptures suggest people knew about magnetism more than 2,000 years ago

MAGNETIC ANCESTOR  Ancient massive carvings from Guatemala such as this round figure include magnetized areas possibly intended to show the continuing power of deceased ancestors.

People living at least 2,000 years ago near the Pacific Coast of what’s now Guatemala crafted massive human sculptures with magnetized foreheads, cheeks and navels. New research provides the first detailed look at how these sculpted body parts were intentionally placed within magnetic fields on large rocks.

Lightning strikes probably magnetized sections of boulders that were later carved into stylized, rotund figures — known as potbellies — at the Guatemalan site of Monte Alto, say Harvard University geoscientist Roger Fu and his colleagues. Artisans may have held naturally magnetized mineral chunks near iron-rich, basalt boulders to find areas in the rock where magnetic forces pushed back, the scientists say in the June Journal of Archaeological Science. Predesignated parts of potbelly figures — which can stand more than 2 meters tall and weigh 10,000 kilograms or more — were then carved at those spots.

Potbellies represented dead but still revered ancestors of high-ranking families, suspects art historian Julia Guernsey of the University of Texas at Austin.  Sculptures that repelled magnetized objects would have been seen as demonstrating the presence and authority of deceased ancestors in rapidly expanding societies (SN: 6/1/13, p. 12), she suggests. Fu’s results also indicate that Mesoamericans attributed special powers to certain body parts, such as the face and midsection, Guernsey adds.

HEADS UP Colossal stone heads from an ancient Guatemalan site contain magnetic fields on the right temple and cheek, spots that apparently held special significance for makers of the sculptures.

The researchers studied 11 potbelly sculptures, six heads and five bodies, now displayed in a Guatemalan town. At least 127 such sculptures have been found at sites in Mesoamerica, an ancient cultural region that runs from central Mexico through much of Central America.

Handheld sensors confirmed a 1997 report that magnetic signals occurred over the right temple and cheek of three colossal heads from Monte Alto. Sensors also detected magnetism near the navels of four body sculptures. A portable, high-resolution magnetic sensor then precisely mapped magnetic fields on two head and two body sculptures.


2.

https://misfitsandheroes.wordprmon-al-3ess.com/…/fat-boys-magnetis…/    

misfits and heroes, Posted on January 15, 2018

“Fat Boys,” Magnetism, and Magic

The “fat boys” are sculptures usually associated with Olmec/Maya/Izapan sites in southern Mexico and Guatemala, especially near the Pacific coast.  They look very different from the sophisticated sculptures we usually associate with the ancient cities of that area.  They’re stumpy stone figures of very fat humans, with a big ball for the bottom and a smaller, flattened ball for the top.  The arms can barely stretch across the wide belly. 

I first saw one of these sculptures at Takalik Abaj (See photo), an Olmec/early Maya major trade site near Chocola, where I was part of an Earthwatch team helping with a dig.  The basalt figure stood about 4’ tall, with a flattened head and an enormous belly. Kaminaljuyu, just down the way from Takalik Abaj and now mostly absorbed by Guatemala City, had the greatest number of “fat boy” sculptures discovered at a single site.

Some of the fat boy sculptures are so worn, they look like blobs, with no indication of features.  Tourists often pass them by without a second glance.

Yet hundreds of large and small versions of the “fat boys,” as the sculptures became known after their discovery, have been found across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico, through modern Guatemala, and down into Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador.  Why were they so popular over such a wide area?

Some of the sculptures, also called “potbellies,” featured a collar around the figure’s neck, possibly a sign of wealth.  Many were situated on pedestals.  Some had a prominent navel.  None had specific genitals that would identify it as male or female, though a few had a bulge at the bottom.

Date

Dating stonework is always difficult, but researchers found the task even more difficult when they realized that many of these sculptures had been moved from their original location and reused or perhaps traded. The ones near La Democracia, Guatemala, (See photo with a fat boy, a fat boy-style head, and local traffic) had been moved and buried.  They were discovered when workers were digging up a sugarcane field.  Official guesses about their age have varied from 1500 BC to 500 BC.

 

Source

The stone itself may have come from the Pacific Piedmont area near the border of Guatemala and Mexico, or from the Tuxtla Mountains on the Gulf Coast side.

Meaning

Interpretations are varied and conflicting.  Some experts said the sculptures represented dead people with bloated bodies.  Or burial markers, although only three examples were found associated with burials.  Or rulers whose corpulence showed their wealth.  Or ancestors.

History

Although it’s hard to date these figures, it seems the earliest versions were numerous, quite small, and found in individual households, not public spaces.  The one found in Tikal (MS 81), which Michael Coe described as “an incomplete, minor pot belly sculpture,” is an example.  What purpose could this sculpture have had that made it important to have in regular households?

A new find provides a clue

In 1996, a previously unreported pot belly sculpture was found near Teopan, on an island in the caldera of volcanic Lake Cotepeque in western El Salvador.  What made this sculpture so important was its excellent condition that made it possible to see that the figure was clearly a very pregnant woman, probably engaged in giving birth. (See photo)  In a letter dated 1576, Spanish official Diego Garcia de Palacio described a “large stone idol in the form of a woman” on an island in the same lake.

Archaeologists are slow to change their minds, but the evidence seems to be piling up that the “fat boys” were neither fat nor boys, at least in some cases.  They were females embodying the concept of fecundity.  Perhaps they functioned as charms for safe and successful childbirth, or as an Earth Mother figures.  Certainly, figurines of pregnant women giving birth are quite common in ancient Mesoamerica and South America.  The Santarem pottery piece featured in the photos below shows a pregnant woman giving birth.

But there’s also a whole different side to the potbellied figures.

Magnetism

Some of the potbellies are lodestones!  A lodestone is a natural magnet, and like any magnet, is capable of attracting or repelling other ferrous metals as well as temporarily magnetizing other objects with iron content.

The lodestone “potbellies” are, like their non-lodestone cousins, carved out of magnetite, a kind of iron ore.  But only a small percentage of magnetite stones are lodestones.  Geologists do not completely understand how some stones become magnetized, but the most common theory is through a lightning strike. Perhaps a bolt of lightning is enough to align all the charges of the ions in the stone. (Interesting that the ancient Maya often pictured black stones at the bottom of lightning bolts.)

In 1976, Vincent Malmstrom and his assistant, Paul Dunn, discovered that when a compass was held up to one of the “potbellies” at Monte Alto, the needle reacted.  It swung away from true north and pointed to the stone.  When they tested others potbellies and giant heads on site, they found the needle was sharply attracted when they held a compass to the navel of some statues and to the right temple in others.  The magnetic force of the stone was far stronger than the magnetic field of the earth.

(Update: a 2019 study by Harvard University geoscientist Roger Fu of 11 “potbelly” sculptures confirmed the 1977 finds.)

Four of the five “potbellies” in La Democracia, Guatemala were found to have these magnetic arrangements, as well as four of the six giant heads. Though he searched, Malmstrom found no spot indicating material had been inserted into any of the sculptures he tested, so he concluded that the skilled carvers were aware of magnetism, could identify lodestones, were able to work them, and knew exactly where the poles were in the rock, so they carved the statues to take advantage of that arrangement.  He found other magnetic sculptures in the Soconusco region, including a turtle/frog head, a rearing jaguar, and two men seated on a bench. Malmstrom thought the sculptures were pre-Olmec in origin, dating them to 2000 BC.  That date has not held up well under scrutiny by archaeologists.

What has lasted is Michael Coe’s extraordinary 1968 find at the Olmec site of San Lorenzo, (photo by John B. Carlson) much closer to the Gulf of Mexico side of the Isthmus – a small, carefully-shaped, polished rectangular bar of hematite, dubbed M-160.  It was broken in ancient times and broken again in the course of study.  However, it showed remarkable refinement in its construction and, when floated in water or liquid mercury, it consistently aligned to the same point, west of magnetic north, the same orientation as the buildings in the Olmec sites of San Lorenzo, La Venta and others.

If M-160 indicates an Olmec understanding of magnetism as a direction finder, it predates the Greek discovery of magnetism (600 AD), perhaps by a thousand years.  Other groups claiming the first understanding of magnetism as a directional force include the Vikings, the Arabs, the Persians, and the Chinese.  If you read different sources, you’ll find widely different dates and accounts, and they all claim they’re the first.

The magic of magnetism

It’s interesting to guess how this knowledge might have been used.  In addition to direction finding, especially when combined with star lore, magnetism had to appear to be magic.  It still does.

For about ten dollars, you can get a set of small lodestones and do your own experiments.  You can magnetize pins and paper clips and make them move other pins without touching them.  Or make some move toward the lodestone and others scoot away.  (You can also ruin your electronics if you pass the lodestone over them!)  If you hold a paperclip on a string near a pole on the lodestone but not touching it, the paperclip will swing back and forth as if it’s frantic to reach the pole.  It doesn’t take much imagination to see all of this being used in a show of magic and power in ancient times.

In that sense, then, with the introduction of magnetism, the “potbellies” may well have morphed from a Mother Goddess/ birthing figure to a general power figure, one rulers would want to possess, display, and manipulate.  As Preclassic expert Julia Guernsey notes, “Importantly, rotund bellies were a frequent and long-standing attribute of Preclassic figurines, sometimes alluding to pregnancy and in other cases appearing to reference obesity.”

Unfortunately, we have very little data on how many of the figures were constructed to take advantage of magnetic poles and almost no information on their use.  It does seem that the cluster of finds near Soconusco/Monte Alto/ La Democracia suggests a large-scale production of the figures from lodestone magnetite found in the area, perhaps for trade.

Another theory

Some experts believe that the ability to find and use lodestones as well as how to use them came from Asia and the Pacific islands, carried across the sea by long-distance sailors who already knew about their uses as a navigational aid.  While the idea is often dismissed as far-fetched, it’s a possibility I pursue in Past the Last Island.

Sources and interesting reading:

Amarolli, Paul. “A Newly Discovered Potbelly Sculpture from El Salvador and a Reinterpretation of the Genre,” www.fundar.org.su/referencias/teopan.pdf

“Aztec ‘Birthing Figure’” Aztecs, Mexicolore, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/artifacts/birthing-figure

Barreto, Christina, ed. “Figurine Traditions from the Amazon,” Oxford Handbook of Prehistoric Figurines, Oxford University Press, 2016, https://www.reasearchgate.net/figure/Santarem-figurine-of-pregnant-woman-left-and-back-of-seated-figurine-with-perforated_273134801

Bower, Bruce, “Ancient sculptors made magnetic figures from rocks struck by lightning,” Science News, 22 April 2019, https://www.sciencenews.org/article/ancient-sculptures-guatemala-magnetic-rocks-struck-lightning?fbclid…

Carlson, J. B. “Lodestone Compass: Chinese or Olmec Primacy?” Science 189 (1975) p. 753.

Coe, Michael D. America’s First Civilization. New York: American Heritage/Smithsonian Library, 1968. New Word City e-book, 2017

Review of Coe, Michael D. America’s First Civilization. Science, 2 May 1969, 164:538-539.

Dill, J. Gregory, “Lodestone and needle: The rise of the magnetic compass,” Ocean Navigator, January/February 2003, http://www.oceannavigator.com/January-February-2003/Lodestone-and-needle-the-rise-of-the-magnetic-compass/

Guernsey, Julia, “Rulers, Gods, and Potbellies,” The Place of Stone Monuments: Context, Use and Meaning in Mesoamerica’s Preclassic Tradition. Dumbarton Oaks, 2010

Guernsey, Julia. Sculpture and Social Dynamics in Preclassic Mesoamerica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

“Izapa,” Mundo Maya.  http://mundomaya.travel/en/arqueologia/top-10/Izapa.html

“Izapa,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Izapa

“Enigma of the Ancient Magnetic ‘Fat Boys’ and Their Curious Magnetic Properties,” MessagetoEagle.com, 19 April 2014, http://www.messagetoeagle.com/enigma-of-the-ancient-magnetic-fat-boys-and-their-curious-magnetic-properties/

Jenkins, John Major, “Some Iconographic and Dosmological Observations of the Symbolism of the new Stela 48 from Takalik Abaj,” Alignment, 22 April 2008, http://alignment2012.com/Takalik48.html

“Kaminaljuyu,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaminaljuyu

“Lodestone,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lodestone

“Lodestone – 600 BC” Magnet Academy, History of Electricity, magnetism, National MagLab, the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, 2014

“Lodestone – Physical Properties and Healing Properties,” Kidzrocks. http://www.kidzrocks.com/v/education/LODESTONE

“Magnetite and Lodestone,” Geology.com, https://geology.com/minerals/magnetite.shtml

“Magnetism in the New World,” Second Look Magazine, 1979, p. 8.

Malmstrom, Vincent H. “Chapter 3, Strange Attraction: The Mystery of Magnetism,” from Izapa: Birthplace of Time.  Dartmouth College, 1997.

Mills, Allan A. “The Lodestone: History, Physics, and Formation,” Annals of Science, (61) 2004

“Olmec,” Encyclopedia Britannica online, https://www.britannica.com/print/article/427846

“Olmec,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olmec (an excellent source)

“Potbelly sculpture,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potbelly_sculpture

Selin, Helaine. “From Second to Third Age: Olmec Origin,” Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997.

Stern, David P. “The Lodestone,” Earth mag, http://www.phy6.org/earthmag/lodeston.htm

Thompson, Lauri McInnis and Fred Valdez, ” Potbelly Sculpture: An Inventory and Analysis,” Ancient Mesoamerica, Spring 2008, 13 – 27.

Wilford, John Noble, “Oldest Pottery in Americas Is Found in Amazon Basin,” The New York Times, 13 December 1991, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/13/world/oldest-pottery-in-americas-is-found-in-amazon-basin.html