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How the Maya lived

Courtesy of Nat'l Academy of Sciences / PNAS
The southeast corner of a painted pyramid excavated at a site in Mexico shows

scenes from everyday Maya life in the A.D. 620-700 time frame.

Murals found on a buried Mexican pyramid reveal how the average Maya lived about 1,350 years ago - shedding light on aspects of Maya society that are "virtually unknown," researchers say.

Almost all of the artifacts associated with the ancient Maya civilization have to do with the ruling class and religious life: the secrets of the Maya's ritual blue paint, or their monumental religious panels, or the arrangement of their temples, or even their controversial calendar.

In contrast, precious little has remained from the everyday lifestyles of ordinary Maya. Some hints have emerged in recent years. For example, archaeologists analyzed the chemical residues of Classic Maya settlements to determine that the Maya had a functioning market economy. But when it comes to visualizing how that market worked, the murals found at Mexico's Calakmul site provide the best picture yet.

The murals are "quite stunning," said William Saturno, an archaeologist at Boston University who was not involved in the Calakmul project but has found a few Maya treasures of his own.

One painting shows a man wearing what appears to be a colorful, broad-brimmed sombrero as he mixes up a big pot of maize gruel (think of thin corn soup). Another man with an ornate headdress and fancier garb drinks from a bowl of the stuff as a female server looks on.

Courtesy of Nat'l Academy of Sciences / PNAS
This black-and-white rendering of a painted scene from the Calakmul pyramid

shows the serving and drinking of "maize-gruel."

In a different mural, a female tamale-vendor offers her wares on a platter, to a man who is already munching on one of the tamales.

Other pictures show how the foodstuffs went to market:

  • A bearer carrying a heavy pot on his back wears a patterned headband to help him distribute the load.
  • A man with a basket and spoon is designated in Maya hieroglyphs as a "salt person." (Salt was a staple of the Maya diet.)
  • A group of figures gather around bowls and a tied sack in a picture labeled with the hieroglyphs for "maize-grain person."
  • A "tobacco person" holds a spatula and a pot that presumably contains a processed form of the leaf.
  • A woman wearing a sombrero sits alongside a basket holding ceramic pots. You guessed it: She's labeled as the "clay-vessel person."
Courtesy of Nat'l Academy of Sciences / PNAS
A mural reproduced in black-and-white shows a woman with ceramic cylinder vessels in a basket. The hieroglyphs above the pots identify the woman as "clay-vessel person."

The paintings and their meanings are laid out in a research paper appearing online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper's authors include Ramon Carrasco Vargas of Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, Veronica Vazquez of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and Simon Martin of the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

The site where the murals were found is on the Mexican part of the Yucatan peninsula, near the Guatemalan border. Archaeologists have known about the Calakmul site since 1931, and it's been under study for more than 15 years. Over the past five years, Carrasco Vargas and his colleagues have been digging into an arrangement of 68 buried structures known as the Chiik Nahb complex.

The tallest feature in the complex, called Structure 1, looked like a collapsed mound from the surface. But it was actually a buried pyramid that measured about 36 feet (11 meters) on each side and once rose to a height of 15 feet (4.7 meters).

The researchers dug a tunnel to explore the interior, and found that the pyramid had been remodeled several times over as much as 600 years. They were amazed to find that one of the remodelings included the addition of murals on panels and sidewalls of the pyramid's three tiers. Based on the style of pottery depicted in the paintings, the researchers estimate that the paintings were done sometime between the year 620 and 700.

About 30 pictures have been documented so far. To create the murals, shades of blue, green, yellow, red and brown were applied to a gray-white stucco background, and each panel was framed with red lines. The paintings were apparently done in two phases, with the more skilled artwork created during the second phase.

"Costumes range from simple loincloths and tied-cloth headbands to more elaborate headgear and clothing decorated with painted or woven designs," the researchers reported. "Such distinctions probably reflect different social status. ... Women often wear face-paint, sometimes extending below the neckline, and both sexes wear ear ornaments, necklaces and pendants."

The pictures help flesh out our mental pictures of everyday life during the Maya's heyday, but mysteries remain: For example, several of the murals include hieroglyphs that denote the name or title of a female. Who was she? And why were such common but lively scenes painted on the pyramid? Was this the central monument for a Maya marketplace?

So far, the answers to those questions are far from clear.

"The full implications of these finds will take time to evaluate and requires the exposure of all the paintings," the researchers wrote. "Ongoing excavations will more fully situate Structure 1 within the wider archaeological context of the Chiik Nahb complex and aid its interpretation."

At least one thing is clear, however: The Calakmul murals could well open up a new archaeological frontier.

"We have very little hard information about the social processes by which foodstuffs and goods circulated within Maya polities and the varying roles of festivals, gift-giving, communal feasting and exchange, all of which are attested in ethnohistorical sources," the researchers said. "These murals evidently depict one or more of these activities and thereby portray an ancient social mechanism that has left no other evidence of its existence."

Update for 7 p.m. ET Nov. 10: Boston University's William Saturno had more to say about the Calakmul research after he read the published paper. He agreed that the murals are significant and reveal a side of Maya society that has been seen only rarely.

"In terms of the work of public art, I don't know of others that show nondescript people," he told me in a follow-up phone call. "They're not nobility. You have titles like 'He of the Corn Gruel.' In that sense, they show a part of Maya life that is not commonly seen in public art."

He also agreed that the report raises further questions that have yet to be answered.

"I have to say I'm puzzled as to why the art is not being discussed as market scenes as opposed to scenes of everyday life," he said. "Some of the things I think are really neat about this are things that are not being emphasized."

Saturno noted that the murals almost exclusively show market transactions rather than, say, the actual production of the goods being traded.

Other researchers have surmised that Structure 1 and its surroundings were the site of an ancient Maya marketplace, Saturno said. "There are all these little, low-walled, stall-like structures that are unprecedented in other Maya sites," he observed. The implication, then, is that the pyramid indeed served as a public monument with a market theme.

"Maybe we're finally looking at a Maya market," Saturno said, "and if we're looking at a Maya market, that's really cool."

More about everyday life in ancient times:

While we're on the subject, I'll take this opportunity to mention a book that was written about everyday life in not-quite-ancient times: "The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium." This readable volume, by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, delves into such topics as how to fasten your clothes in a world without buttons, or the recipe for a medieval form of Viagra. It's this month's selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, a collection of books on cosmic themes that you should be able to find at your local library or secondhand-book shop.

And while we're talking about millennial matters, I'll note that Penn Museum's Simon Martin, one of the authors of the Calakmul study, also has some choice things to say about the "2012" Maya apocalypse claims

Join the Cosmic Log team by signing up as my Facebook friend or following b0yle on Twitter. And pick up a copy of my new book, "The Case for Pluto." If you're partial to the planetary underdogs, you'll be pleased to know that I've just set up a Facebook fan page for "The Case for Pluto."