Rare Mayan architecture revealed under 1,500-year-old salt work
Excavations uncovered the ruins of multiple buildings from the sixth century C.E.
Archaeologists have discovered a rare cluster of submerged Mayan structures at Ta'ab Nuk Na, the main salt works site in Paynes Creek National Park in southern Belize. Their findings, published today in the journal Antiquity, reveal enormous residential complexes, as well as three salt cookers submerged in the coastal lagoon.
“[We found] hundreds of wooden posts that define the walls of Classic Maya ‘pole and thatch’ wooden buildings,” E. Cory Sills, a co-author of the study, said in a statement. “Since wood normally decays in the tropical landscape of the Maya area, the wooden buildings provide a rare view of the architecture that once dominated most ancient Maya communities.”
Excavations uncovered the ruins of several buildings from the Late Classic Maya civilization dating back to the 6th century C.E., including salt cookers and a large residence built around 650 C.E. Over 600 flags identified the sites of key objects uncovered on the lagoon floor by underwater archaeologists. The flags were then digitally mapped.
“Mapping individual artifacts on the sea floor allowed us to see their distribution in relation to the 10 pole-and-thatch wooden buildings and to reconstruct the activities in the different buildings,” said co-author Heather McKillop in a statement.
Not only did the Maya "work from home" by manufacturing salt in their garden, but they also engaged in household chores such as fishing, food preparation and cooking, woodworking, and cotton spinning.
The home dwellers would have manufactured salt for themselves before trading the surplus with other communities, according to academics. Salt was a scarce commodity inland, where Maya civilizations were thriving, and the majority of those places were supplied by salt mills located along the shore. Ta'ab Nuk Na and other places in the lagoon may have given enough salt for 24,000 people.
McKillop described the discovery as "startling" in an email to ARTnews, saying the structures are the only ancient Maya timber buildings that have survived to this day, as opposed to the more usual stone temples and palaces of the wealthy Maya found in city centers.
“Ta’ab Nuk Na had 10 wooden pole-and-thatch structures known from the 500+ wooden posts that had been driven into the ground, which was highly-organic mangrove peat,” she explained. “The workers lived on site, which shows it was a ‘cottage industry’, featuring families producing more than their needs [and supplying salt for] the nearby inland Maya.”
Workers traded the salt surplus for other commodities found at the site, including as pottery and stone tools. A variety of pottery was discovered, as well as a rare ocarina—or figurine whistle—depicting a woman. “The ocarina from Ta’ab Nuk Na is a rare discovery at the site,” added McKillop. The instrument has “a woman on the front with a sound chamber on the back [and] a mouthpiece and two holes so it can be played.”
Lubaantun, an inland city, had numerous such ocarinas, as well as molds for creating them, and a modern community whose citizens required salt, making them a logical trading partner.
A ceramic spindle whorl, used to spin cotton for fishing nets or garments, was also discovered, as well as cohune nuts, candeleros (little incense burners), a small wooden paddle for stirring pots of food, and tools for whittling wood, grinding maize, and processing fish and meat. There was also a figurine and a miniature canoe with four suspension holes that could have been children's toys.
Belize Red, a service ware brought from the upper Belize Valley, was included in the ceramic collection, along with Warrie Red, imprinted jars, vases, orange-slipped bowls, and a red-slipped tobacco pot. A clay funnel, which researchers assume was used to concentrate the saltiness of the brine, was also discovered at the site, as kitchens employed the "brine boiling" method to evaporate saltwater over the fire.
Ta'ab Nuk Na's salt manufacture appears to have ceased around 800 C.E., during the Terminal Classic era, when another salt kitchen in Paynes Creek, known as Ek Way Nal, took over.
“Our research at Ta’ab Nuk Na provides a model for other salt production sites along the coast of Belize and the Yucatan [where] they likely also had wooden buildings, making them a more tangible and permanent part of the landscape in antiquity,” McKillop said.