Ancient Mayans farmers, builders and servants left records of their daily lives with the objects they embedded in the floors and walls of their homes during rituals in which their houses were burned down and then rebuilt, giving archaeologists today a window into everyday Mayan life.
Many of the more famous records of the Mayan civilization come from the writing and images about royals carved into monuments.
"But the commoners had their own way of recording their own history, not only their history as a family, but also their place in the cosmos, " said Lisa Lucero, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois who led a new study of objects embedded in the floors of Mayan homes occupied more than 1, 000 years ago in central Belize.
Even though the records differed between the classes, the buried artifacts Lucero found support an idea that many of the elaborate rituals performed by Maya rulers and elites had a basis in the domestic rituals of their subjects. The elite versions were just scaled-up.
Termination and rebuilding
In the Classic Maya period (from about the year 250 to 900), commoners regularly "terminated" their homes, razing the walls, burning the floors and placing artifacts and occasionally human remains on top before burning them again. These practices were rituals of rebirth and renewal that correspond with the cyclical view of life and nature that the Maya, and many other ancient Mesoamerican cultures, held, said Astrid Runggaldier, a visiting professor at the University of Illinois who took part in the study.
After the termination of their abode, a Mayan family would build a new home on top of the old foundation, using broken and whole vessels, colorful fragments, animal bones and rocks to mark important areas and serve as ballast for a new plaster floor.
"These things are buried, not to be seen, but it doesn't mean people forgot about them, " Lucero said. "They are burying people in the exact same spot and removing bones from earlier ancestors to place them somewhere else, or removing pieces of them and keeping the pieces as mementos."
Evidence suggests that these "de-animation" and reanimation rituals (so-called because the Maya imbued all objects, living or not, with living qualities and a soul) occurred around every 40 to 50 years, likely coinciding with important dates in the Mayan calendar.
Anthropologists have known about these termination rituals for decades, but Lucero looked more closely at how the arrangement, color and condition of buried artifacts lent them their symbolic meaning.
Red and rebirth
Lucero and her crew found about a dozen human remains and other objects in two homes they excavated in a small Maya center called Saturday Creek in central Belize. The homes were occupied from about 450 to 1150.
The team found partial skeletons of men, women and children, with artifacts arranged around and even on top of the bodies.
Colors, such as red, which represented the east, life and rebirth, were commonly used in these burials. Sometimes an unbroken red vessel was inverted over a skull or kneecap. Red items were generally found on the east side of the body or group of artifacts. The use of this color, instead of black, more associated with death, could be a reflection on how the Maya viewed death.
"The Maya believed in a cyclical way of living, " Lucero said. "So to their way of thinking, people don't die as much as become ancestors."
Other artifacts — including groups of obsidian or chert rocks — represented the Maya belief in the nine levels of the underworld or the 13 levels of heaven.
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