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Ancient Maya Vase Tells Story of Trade, Power, and Politics

An intricately decorated marble vase offers tantalizing clues to a story of trade, power, and politics in the ancient Maya world.

Fragments of the marble vase were found in a desecrated burial site in a palace courtyard at Pacbitun, Belize. But an analysis of stable carbon and oxygen isotopes identifies the source of the marble as Travesia, Honduras, 150 miles away. Those details suggest a regional trade and political network that may have ended with a shift in power.

The findings were described in an article in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports co-authored by Pacbitun field director Sheldon Skaggs.

Skaggs, who is also a Bronx Community College chemistry professor, uses his background in chemistry, archaeology, and geology to analyze the age, composition, and design of excavated material.

The white vase found at Pacbitun is decorated with a grid of swirls, crescents on the rim and base, and markings suggesting an animal’s face and feet. It’s roughly 10 inches tall and 6 inches wide. It dates to the 8th or 9th century, shortly before Pacbitun was abandoned after 2,000 years of habitation by thousands of people.

The authors said these types of vases are “incredibly rare” in this location. They speculate that the artifact didn’t come directly from the Ulua Valley, but through indirect exchange with other settlements.

These types of vases are also believed to have been given as gifts between rulers. The vase’s discovery in an “elite burial” site in a palace courtyard adds evidence to “the exchange and political use of these iconic vessels.”

The desecration of the burial site also tells a story. Soil was disturbed, skeletons were left in odd positions, the area was burned, and vase fragments were strewn across a 6-foot area. Perhaps the grave was desecrated after a political faction fell from power, highlighting “the potential for either warfare or political change as the trade network broke down at the site in the 9th century.”

Grave goods, including numerous vase fragments, two jade beads, obsidian centipede shaped eccentric, two marine shell atlatl finger loops, three marine shell tinklers, a limestone spindle whorl, and a limestone disk. Photo courtesy of Jeff Powis.

Objects found at the gravesite included vase fragments, jade beads, obsidian centipede, atlatl finger loops, shell tinklers, a spindle whorl, and limestone disk. Photo courtesy of Jeff Powis.

The skeletons’ gender could not be determined. Other objects found in the grave — the uppermost of two graves stacked on top of one another — included small bells made from shells, an obsidian flint carved into a centipede, a spindle whorl used for cloth-making, and finger loops from a spear-throwing device.

A CUNY Research Foundation grant allowed two Bronx Community College students, Peter Cherico and Brian Gil, to attend the excavation, and mapping of the dig was supported by the Bronx Community College Geospatial Center.