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Ancient Submerged Factory Reveals A Maya Salt Currency

Ancient Submerged Factory Reveals A Maya Salt Currency

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Long-term analysis of a submerged salt plant in Belize has revealed extensive and surprising details about the salt making practices of the great Maya civilization during its Classic Period, which lasted from 250 to 900 AD.

In an article appearing in the most recent edition of the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology , Louisiana State University professor Heather McKillop summarizes the results of her 17-year study of the Paynes Creek Salt Works, a sprawling salt-producing complex she found preserved at the bottom of a saltwater lagoon in a mangrove forest just inland from the seacoast in southern Belize.

Through her exhaustive research, she has demonstrated that salt was a highly-prized commodity in Classic Period Maya civilization , and that those who knew how to process it would have been able to leverage their skills for profit.

"I think the ancient Maya who worked here were producer-vendors and they would take the salt by canoe up the river,” McKillop hypothesized. “They were making large quantities of salt, much more than they needed for their immediate families. This was their living."

Salt as a Form of Money?

Carrying the title of Thomas and Lillian Landrum Alumni Professor in the LSU Department of Geography and Anthropology, Heather McKillop specializes in the study of Mesoamerican trading networks and commodity exchange practices. She is perhaps the world’s foremost expert on the salt making habits of the Maya, having made that the focus of her field research for the last three decades.

Over the course of her career, McKillop has unearthed the remains of more than 100 Maya salt kitchens that were distributed throughout the lowlands of southern Belize. But the submerged salt works she found hidden in the depths of a mangrove forest provided her with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to expand her knowledge of Maya salt-producing practices and to discern more about their ultimate purposes.

LSU archaeologists discovered in 2004 the first remnants of ancient Maya salt kitchen buildings made of pole and thatch that had been submerged and preserved in a saltwater lagoon in a mangrove forest in Belize. (Image: Heather McKillop, LSU)

McKillop’s work began at the Paynes Creek site began in earnest in 2004, when she found the first remnants of the salt-making compound while exploring beneath the surface of a lagoon she knew had been created by a relatively recent (post-Maya) rise in sea level. Her most significant initial discovery at that time was a massive collection of wooden poles, which she recognized as support columns of the type that were typically used in Maya salt-making structures.

Sharpened end of wooden post from a building at Ek Way Nal (Site 60) at the Paynes Creek Salt Works, Belize. Image:  PNAS

Over the years, McKillop and her team have found more than 4,000 of these poles, which have been protected from rapid decay by their saltwater cover. Some of the other artifacts she has found submerged at the site include a wooden canoe, an oar, stone scraping tools that had been used to prepare fish for salting, part of thatched roofs, and hundreds of pieces of partially intact ceramic pottery.

Overall, McKillop and her students and colleagues have located 70 interconnected rooms and buildings within a three-square-mile (five-square-kilometer) underwater area, which highlights how massive and productive the Paynes Creek Salt Works must have been when it was functioning at its peak.

"It's like a blueprint for what happened in the past," McKillop said of her discoveries. "They were boiling brine in pots over fires to make salt."

LSU archeologist Heather McKillop's research team has discovered at the Paynes Creek Salt Works, 4,042 submerged architectural wooden posts, a canoe, an oar, a high-quality jadeite tool, stone tools used to salt fish and meat and hundreds of pieces of pottery. (Image: Heather McKillop, LSU)

Curious to learn more about that last practice, McKillop assigned two of her graduate students to perform an unusual task. With scanned images of 449 ceramic pottery lids found at the Payne Creek site acting as their guides, the students produce plastic replicas of ancient Mayan ceramic boiling pots, with the assistance of a 3D printer located in the Digital Imaging and Visualization in Archaeology (DIVA) lab at LSU.

After completing this procedure, it became clear that Maya salt makers had used boiling pots that were uniform in size. This meant they were making salt cakes that were equal in size as well, and by extension also equal in value.

"Produced as homogeneous units, salt may have been used as money in exchanges," McKillop theorized.

Salt would have been highly valued at the time, primarily because of its meat-preserving abilities. The need for it would have been universal, and therefore it would have made sense for people to use salt cakes produced to standardized specifications as a form of money.

A pot 3D printed in the LSU Digital Imaging & Visualization in Archeology Lab by archeology students based on scans collected at the ancient Maya salt works field site. (Image: LSU)

The Discovery of a Peak Industry in its Prime

"Our research gives clear evidence that the coastal Maya were an integral part of the Mayan economy because they produced and traded a basic commodity, salt. Since everybody needed salt, the coastal Maya really contributed to daily life," McKillop said in a 2018 interview discussing her ongoing work.

The various Maya kingdoms, which occupied the Yucatan Peninsula and its surrounding areas, were interconnected in a loose confederation that was strained by political rivalry but bound together by highly-organized trade networks that facilitated the exchange of products and services over long distances. At the height of its glory the Maya population may have been as high as two million, which obviously created profitable opportunities for entrepreneurs who could make valued products in bulk quantities for distribution along those vast trade networks.

Running at full capacity, the types of kitchens discovered by McKillop and her cohorts would have been able to produce enough salt to meet the needs of several thousand people each day. It is clear the demand for salt as a commodity, for direct use or exchange, was extremely high during the prosperous Classical Period, which explains why McKillop has been able to discover such an impressive volume of evidence about the salt-producing activities of the Maya who lived during that vibrant era.

The same claims have been made about other commodities being used as standard units of exchange in Maya society, for example chocolate.

Top image: The earliest known record of salt being sold in a marketplace in the Maya region depicted in a mural at Calakmul, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.           Source: Rogelio Valencia, Proyecto Arqueológico Calakmul / LSU

By Nathan Falde

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