Bowl tells the tale of Maya blue

Maya blue is an beautiful azure pigment used by the Maya in religious rituals and to decorate rarified pieces. Not only is it super purty, but it’s also remarkably tough. It’s impervious to heat, moisture, even acid and modern solvents. So how did the Maya make such a badass blue?

Scientists and archaeologists have known for a while that they combined a white clay mineral called palygorskite with indigo, but they didn’t know exactly how it was made.

Dr. Dean Arnold of Wheaton College has connected some of the dots by using new technology to examine a bowl that’s been lying around the Field Museum of Chicago for the past 75 years. The bowl contains a hard lump of incense, and Dr. Arnold noticed some palygorskite and indigo seemed to be burned into it.

Making [Maya blue], he said, requires fusing palygorskite and a small amount of indigo over a slow, low-temperature source of heat, and he began to suspect that, for the ancients, the heat source was burning copal incense. It was a process that could be done in ceramic bowls at religious sacrificial sites like the Sacred Cenote.

To confirm his thinking he enlisted the co-authors of the paper: Jason Branden of Northwestern University’s department of materials science and engineering, and Patrick Ryan Williams, Gary Feinman and J.P. Brown at the Field Museum’s department of anthropology.

They used a scanning electron microscope to study the hardened incense, confirming the presence of palygorskite and indigo.

So it seems like the priests were scaring up Maya blue right there on the edge of the Sacred Cenote, painting it on objects (and occasionally people) before throwing them in the pit as a sacrifice.

Tough as it is, the pigment needs time to cure, so the more hastily applied product ended up lining the pit with a 14-foot layer of blue silt.

Edward H. Thompson noticed the lining a hundred years ago when he dredged the cenote for goods and shipped everything he found/stole to Harvard, but he didn’t bother to ask why it was there or what it was.

Dr. Arnold is picking up his slack with fascinating results.

All of your beeswax…

are belong to Oregon.

Loretta LeGuee of Gold Beach, Oregan, came across a huge hunk of 300 year old beeswax while beach combing. It seems to have come from a Spanish shipwreck which has been known to toss up random chunks of beeswax over the years.

They suspect the beeswax is either from the Santo Christo de Burgos, which sank in 1693, or the San Francisco Xavier, which disappeared in 1705. In both were tons of beeswax from the Philippines bound for Mexico via the Manilla-Acapulco trade route, Williams explained. There is historic evidence one of the ships wrecked in Nehalem Bay, creating the beeswax bounty, according to the team that hopes to conduct archaeological research at the site.

“Where she (LeGuee) found it would be unusual, being so far south,” Williams said, noting the ocean currents off Oregon flow north, not south. “But we know the Indians were trading it prehistorically up and down the coast.”

Apparently there were no native honey bees in the Americas. I’m going to have to look that up, though, because it sounds weird to me.

Anyway, here’s the yuge chunk of wax. It’s totally cool.

For more about the Beeswax Wreck, check out The Beeswax Project.

America’s oldest urban site uncovered in Peru

It’s a circular plaza 5,500 years old.

A team of Peruvian and German archeologists uncovered the circular plaza, which was hidden beneath another piece of architecture at the ruins known as Sechin Bajo, in Casma, 229 miles north of Lima, the capital. Friezes depicting a warrior with a knife and trophies were found near the plaza. […]

Prior to the discovery at Sechin Bajo, archeologists considered the ancient Peruvian citadel of Caral to be one of the oldest in the Western Hemisphere, at about 5,000 years.

Scientists say Caral, located a few hours drive from Sechin Bajo, was one of six places in the world — along with Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, India and Mesoamerica — where humans started living in cities about 5,000 years ago.

There are even older layers underneath the structure they’ve uncovered, so this may be one of the oldest cities in the world, not just the Western Hemisphere.

They’ve had to fill in the site to keep it safe from, you guessed it, looters. It’s a miracle the site was discovered intact to begin with.

Earliest surviving heraldic roll blocked from leaving England

Margaret Hodge, UK Culture Minister, has put an export block on the Dering Roll, a beautifully illuminated roll of arms from the 13th century. Sotheby’s is looking to sell it out of country, apparently, although I can’t find out the details of the sale other than it was part of a lot listed for sale on December 4.

The Minister’s ruling follows a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, administered by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. The Committee recommended that the export decision be deferred on the grounds that the roll is of outstanding significance for the study of early English heraldry and is so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune. The Committee awarded a starred rating to the roll meaning that every possible effort should be made to raise enough money to keep it in the country.

The Dering Roll was produced in England in the last quarter of the 13th century. It is eight and a half feet long and contains the coats of arms of approximately one-quarter of the English baronage of the reign of King Edward I. As the earliest surviving English roll of arms it is a key document of medieval English knighthood. As a statement of the knights who owed feudal service to the constable of Dover Castle, it carries outstanding local as well as national significance.

The cost is $400,000 or so and all offers need to be submitted by April 19 (although there might be an extension until July). For an illuminated roll of such historical importance and such lush design, that seems eminently doable. I’m surprised it hasn’t been snapped up already, possibly by one of the families whose coat of arms are represented.

~ Thanks to John Harrison of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, for the picture. ~

Burmese govt: Do as I say, not as I do

The Burmese Ministry of Culture prohibits mining and excavation near archaeological sites. Unfortunately, that prohibition doesn’t extend to government-owned mining concerns. Cement Factory Accused of Destroying Antiquities.

The Kawgun cave—a natural lime stone cavern, 200ft high and 300ft long—is located near a village of the same name, two miles from Hpa-an. It contains many images and artifacts that historians say date from the Pyu era, spanning the period from the first century to the ninth century AD. […]

Residents say the blasting dislodges the Kawgun cave’s Buddha statuettes and other historical objects. “Buddha statues are broken day after day, and we feel very frustrated,” a monk told The Irrawaddy. “We want to repair the damage, but it should be the responsibility of the department of archeology.”

Beautiful cave. Here’s hoping the publicity shames them into stopping the destruction.