Largest Ever Maya Figurine Workshop Discovered Accidentally in Unexplored Mound
In May 2018, heavy machinery excavating outside the city of Coban, in the highlands of Guatemala , sliced into a large earthen mound that was found to contain millions of parts from Classic Maya figurine molds, figurines, and incense burners. It’s being called the largest Maya figurine workshop ever encountered in the Maya world .
Situated beside an ancient lake that dried up several centuries ago, Kaminaljuyú once contained the largest Maya population in the southern highlands. Today, all that remains of this once thriving ancient metropolis are grassy overgrown pyramids within the Kaminaljuyú Archaeological Park. After cutting into the mounds the contractors immediately stopped their machinery and contacted local authorities who called on Dr. Brent Woodfill of Winthrop University to investigate and assess the site, named Aragón.
Ruins of Kaminaljuyú, Guatemala, where the Mayan ceramics were discovered.. (Agencia de Viajes Turansa / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Maya Figurine Workshop
Dated to between 750 and 900 AD, the archaeological site was found to be a major center of ceramic figurine production. According to a paper published in the National Science Foundation , having been discovered in a largely undisturbed state, scientists studying the workshop hope they’ll be able to relate “figurine production and exchange to other economic activities that occurred here, and the relationships the producers maintained with local and far-flung Mesoamerican groups.”
A report in Science Magazine talking of the “sheer quantity of ceramics” details that in one single burial mound “7,000 sherds per cubic foot of soil” were discovered. What’s more, the entire mound was found to contain the “astounding total of 15 million fragments” including the remains of some “500,000 once-intact ceramic vessels .”
These quantities inform scientists that millions of pots were smashed into fragments by either the ancient city’s own residents, or by invaders, and each one serves as physical evidence of not only the region’s huge population, but they also speak of its turbulent pattern of collapse, rebuilding, and revival.
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Mayan ceramics discovered in mound outside of Coban, Guatemala. Source: W.Scott McGill / Adobe.
What Do All These Mayan Ceramics Tell Us?
Academically, despite its centrality in the ancient Mexican and Central American economy of the Maya, Aztec, and other Mesoamerican cultures, the region in which the workshop was discovered has never been formally investigated by archaeologists. Currently, the understanding of Mayan culture in this area is taken from limited Spanish writings after the Spanish conquest of the Maya people, but through examining these figurines scientists will learn of the “cultural continuity” both before and after the arrival of gold hungry European conquistadors .
Dr. Woodfill has been given an emergency RAPID award (Improved Understanding of Regional Trade and Development from the Emergency Salvage of a Late Classic Site) that will enable him to “conduct an emergency salvage of a vital archaeological site collecting critical but ephemeral data.”
The project includes testing which trade routes the Spaniards were using before the collapse of the Maya, which will in turn provide detailed models for Classic Maya figurine production and exchange, reveling insights into the development of regional trade.
It is known that Maya political leaders offered their allies figurines in efforts to strengthen political ties and the presence of such a vast workshop suggests there may have been a previously unknown powerful Maya city in the region in the mid-16th century when the Spaniards arrived. And, enticingly, an Archaeology.org article says that some of the other “half-eroded humps, hemmed in by cinder block houses and parking lots” hold the remains of “centuries of Maya history.” Underneath the modern city is an entirely different, and much more ancient set of habitations, that hold unknown tons of evidence of one of the world’s most advanced civilizations - the Maya .
Unrestored mound in the Kaminaljuyu archaeological park, Guatemala City. (Simon Burchell / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Top image: Mold used by the Maya to make figurines. Credit: Dr Brent Woodfill, Winthrop University.
By Ashley Cowie