Maya Blue and Palygorskite: A Second Possible Pre-Columbian Source


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January 2005


Maya Blue is an unusual blue pigment used on pottery, sculpture, and murals from the Preclassic to the Colonial period. Until the late 1960s, its composition was unknown, but chemists working in Spain, Belgium, Mexico, and the United States identified Maya Blue as a combination of indigo and the unusual clay mineral palygorskite (also called attapulgite). A source of palygorskite in the Maya area was unknown for years; then ethnoarchaeological research in the mid-1960s demonstrated that the contemporary Maya recognized the unique physical properties of palygorskite and used it as an additive for pottery temper and for curing certain types of illnesses. Because of its importance in Maya Blue, pre-Hispanic sources of the mineral were then suggested based on ethnoarchaeological data. One of these sources was the cenote in the town of Sacalum, Yucatan. This paper briefly reviews the history of the Maya Blue research from an anthropological perspective and presents evidence of a second possible pre-Hispanic mining site for palygorskite at Yo' Sah Kab near Ticul, Yucatan. Archaeological and technological approaches have demonstrated the use, distribution, composition, and characteristics of Maya Blue, but ethnoarchaeology has related it to Maya language and culture and to possible pre-Hispanic sources of one of its constituents, palygorskite.

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Ancient Mesoamerica, Vol. 16, no. 1 (2005).