It’s the world’s largest Mayan figurine workshop ever found — and it was discovered by accident


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Before the Mayan culture was destroyed by the arrival of the Spaniards, it was considered one of the world’s most advanced civilizations. Figurines crafted by ancient sculptors are evidence of that cultural sophistication.

And recently, the archaeological world was gifted with a beautiful find: The largest Mayan figurine workshop ever found, situated in an enormous mound just outside the city of Coban, in the Guatemalan highlands, Ancient Origins reports.

The site of Kaminaljuyú, Guatemala. Photo by Agencia de Viajes Turansa. License CC NC 2.0 via Flickr

Sitting along the shores of an extinct lake that dried up hundreds of years ago, Kaminaljuyú was once home to the largest Mayan population in the southern highlands. Sadly, little is left of the thriving metropolis. Grassy, overgrown mounds within the Kaminaljuyú Archaeological Park were all that remained, until building contractors cut into the ancient mounds, revealing their treasure. The contractors stopped immediately and contacted local authorities.

That’s when Dr. Brent Woodfill of Winthrop University, in South Carolina, was called to the site, now named Aragón. And what he found was astonishing. The mound contained millions of pieces of Classic Maya figurine molds, figurines and incense burners.

The workshop dates to between 750 and 900 AD, and it was the place to be if you were looking for figurines. According to a paper published by the National Science Foundation, the site is largely undisturbed, and scientists hope to compare “figurine production and exchange to other economic activities that occurred here, and the relationships the producers maintained with local and far-flung Mesoamerican groups.”

There is much mystery surrounding this Mayan figurine. Dating between 600-900 AD, it depicts a man carrying a rope. Found at a site near Veracruz, Mexico it’s thought the figurine is associated with kings and warriors. Image by the Walters Art Museum. License: Public Domain U.S. via Wikimedia Commons.

They’ll have plenty of material for their comparisons. Just one burial mound “containing 7,000 sherds per cubic foot of soil” was unearthed. Additionally, the mound harbored “the astounding total of 15 million fragments.” This included the remains of roughly “500,000 once-intact ceramic vessels.”

Scientists surmise that millions of pots were intentionally smashed into fragments but whether this was done by civilians or invaders is unclear. They tell of the region’s immense population, and that, in turn, reveals clues to tempestuous patterns of collapse and rebirth.

Woodfill has been granted an emergency salvage award that will allow him to “conduct an emergency salvage of a vital archaeological site collecting critical but ephemeral data.” This project will provide clues to trade routes used by the Spanish before the collapse of the Maya culture. And that, in itself, will provide detailed models for reconstructing figurines of the Classic Mayan culture and will provide insight into the development of regional trade.

Seated figurine from the Tiquisate region, Guatemala, circa 400-600 A.D. by Wikipedia Loves Art participant. License: CC Attribution 2.5 by Wikimedia Commons.

The location of this remarkable discovery makes it especially significant. It is, in fact, the center of the ancient Mexican and Central American economy, and tantalizingly, for archaeologists, it’s an area that has never been formally studied. The limited understand that we do have of the Mayan culture in this area comes from the somewhat limited writings of the Spaniards who conquered the Mayans.

Therefore these figurines will open up a window for scientists who hope to examine the “cultural continuity” before — and after the arrival of the greedy and destructive conquistadores.

Dwarfs were significant members of royal Maya courts. They served food, played musical instruments and were considered diviners and scribes. Photo by Walters Art Museum. License: Public Domain, the United States via Wikimedia Commons.

These intricate figurines were offered by Mayan politicians as a way to strengthen ties. The fact that such an enormous workshop exists in this region suggests there may have been a powerful but unknown city in the area where the Spaniards invaded in the mid-16th Century. But perhaps the best news about this find is that there are more mounds — “half eroded humps, hemmed in by cinder-block houses and parking lots. These mounds may hold centuries of Mayan history within them.

Buried underneath the modern city lie even more ancient habitations that offer untold clues into the mysterious world of the Maya.

Featured image by Brent Woodfill, ScienceMag.org


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