A Story Of Salt: Ancient Maya Saltworks

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The researchers have found several clay figurines, most of which, like this example, depict women. These figurines have hollow areas, mouthpieces, and holes that enabled them to serve as whistles. They were primarily imported from Lubaantun and other inland sites. Credit: Heather McKillop.
The researchers have found several clay figurines, most of which, like this example, depict women. These figurines have hollow areas, mouthpieces, and holes that enabled them to serve as whistles. They were primarily imported from Lubaantun and other inland sites. Credit: Heather McKillop.

Spring 2017: By Elizabeth Lunday.

Salt is a substance so ordinary and inexpensive today that its ready supply is often taken for granted. Yet salt is essential: humans need salt to live and also crave it as a flavoring and rely on it as a preservative. For the ancient Maya residents of Nim Li Punit, Lubaantun, and other inland cities in Belize’s southern lowlands, there was a paucity of nearby sources. So archaeologists assumed they imported their salt from distant flats on the north coast of the Yucatan Peninsula

But Louisiana State University archaeologist Heather McKillop appears to have disproven that assumption. McKillop has uncovered evidence that the Maya produced salt on a large scale in workshops on Belize’s southern coast and transported it to the cities. McKillop has found pottery vessels that were used to collect salt from evaporated brine as well as the remains of workshops where the salt was produced. “Heather McKillop’s contribution, a major one, is that she has enhanced our understanding of the methods that the Maya used for exploiting marine resources,” said archaeologist Jaime Awe, the former director of Belize’s Institute of Archaeology and now a professor at Northern Arizona University. “Her research is contributing to the understanding of the complexities of trade before the arrival of the Spanish.”

McKillop began working in Belize as a graduate student in 1979 excavating coastal and island sites. In the 1980s, while working at Wild Cane Cay, an island on the coast of southern Belize, she discovered the Maya village she was excavating was partly submerged because the sea level had risen in the last millennium. McKillop decided to survey nearby lagoons for further evidence of sea-level rise. She immediately found artifacts littering the seafloor—vast quantities of thick jars and clay supports used to hold the jars above a fire. She identified the materials as the remains of salt-making equipment, based on their similarity with historic and ancient salt production artifacts. The Maya filled clay jars with brine, raised them above a fire, and heated them slowly until the water evaporated and salt remained.

Excerpt.

Read More in our SPRING 2017 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 4. Browse Content of this Issue: SPRING 2017. Browse Articles Excerpts from our last issue, WINTER 16-17.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Good stuff! Interesting to think of these sites as directly connected to large centers such as Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit. Seasonal intensive specialized centers attached to inland elites or independent local freelancing opportunists capitalizing on an open niche?

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