Maize, salt and daily life on Mayan murals

Mayan murals, Calakmul, MexicoMurals found inside a pyramid at the ancient Maya site of Calakmul, Mexico, cast a whole new light on Mayan daily life and language.

Researchers excavated a tunnel into what looked like a burial mound from the outside, but turned out to be a buried pyramid. Inside they found multiple layers of pyramids built on top of each other, with a set of excellently preserved paintings of quotidian Mayan activities.

The images on the mural show people engaged in mundane activities, such as preparing food. Hieroglyphic captions accompany each image, labeling each individual. In each case the term “aj,” meaning “person,” is used and followed by the word for a foodstuff or material. For example, the terms “aj ul” (“maize-gruel person”) shows a man with a large pot, dish and spoon with another man drinking from a bowl, and the term “aj mahy” (tobacco person) depicts two men, one holding a spatula and the other a pot that likely holds a form of the tobacco leaf.

Newly discovered hieroglyphs "aj ix'im" (maize-grain person) and "aj atz'aam" (salt person)Such scenes have never been seen in surviving Mayan paintings before, though some parts of quotidian Mayan culture have survived through the ages with the remaining Mayan populations) and the hieroglyphs for some words (such as “tobacco” and “maize-gruel”) were already known. Other hieroglyphs, though, were new to researchers — of particular importance were finding the words for maize itself and salt, which were known to be key staples of the Mayan diet.

There are also a woman selling tamales and a man eating one, a woman selling clay pots, a man bearing a heavy pot with a patterned tie around his head. Fortunately for us, these murals were covered with a layer of protective clay which has kept them in excellent condition despite the many subsequent layers built on top of them.

Based on the style of pottery in the paintings, researchers date the paintings to sometime between 620 and 700 A.D.

Decorative painting on Mayan monuments is usually devoted to major political and religious figures and themes, so these murals may be unique. University of Pennsylvania Museum researcher Simon Martin knows of no similar Mayan paintings. Central American jungles do not provide a hospitable environment for the preservation of artifacts. The high humidity has destroyed a great deal of Mayan art and hieroglyphs.

So far only two sides of the pyramid walls have been excavated. Perhaps we’ll learn more new words once the other two are revealed.

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