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White Gold of the Ancient Maya

Heather McKillop

Publication Year: 2002

In Salt: White Gold of the Ancient Maya, Heather McKillop reports the discovery, excavation, and interpretation of Late Classic Maya salt works on the coast of Belize, transforming our knowledge of the Maya salt trade and craft specialization while providing new insights on sea-level rise in the Late Holocene as well.

Salt, basic to human existence, was scarce in the tropical rainforests of Belize and Guatemala, where the Classic Maya civilization thrived between A.D. 300 and 900. The prevailing interpretation has been that salt was imported from the north coast of the Yucatan. However, the underwater discovery and excavation of salt works in Punta Ycacos Lagoon demonstrate that the Maya produced salt by boiling brine in pots over fires at specialized workshops on the Belizean coast. The Punta Ycacos salt works are clear evidence that craft specialization took place in a nondomestic setting and that production occurred away from the economic and political power of the urban Maya rulers, thus providing new clues to the Maya economy and sea trade.

McKillop also presents new data on sea-level rise in the Late Holocene that extend geologists' and geographers' sea-level curves from earlier eras. Likewise, she enters the environmental-versus-cultural debate over the Classic Maya collapse by evaluating the factors that led to the abandonment of the Punta Ycacos salt works at the end of the Classic Period, synonymous with the abandonment of inland Maya cities.

Published by: University Press of Florida


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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p. vii

List of Figures

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pp. ix-xii

List of Maps

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pp. xiii-xiv

List of Tables

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pp. xv-xvi

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pp. xvii-xx

The Maya have fascinated scholars and lay-public alike since their ruined jungle-covered cities were brought to the world’s attention by explorers in the mid nineteenth century. Today hundreds of thousands of tourists visit these once remote archaeological...

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pp. xxi-xxii

The 1991 and 1994 fieldwork upon which this study is based was made possible by permits from the Belizean government’s Department of Archaeology and the Department of Forestry, through Archaeological Commissioner Harriot Topsey...

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1. Salt as a Maya Trade Good

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pp. 1-28

Although basic to daily human existence, salt was scarce in the southern Maya lowlands of Guatemala and Belize where the Classic period civilization developed between a.d. 300 and 900 (map 1.1). The prevailing interpretation is that salt...

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2. The Punta Ycacos Salt Works: A New Source of Salt for the Late Classic Maya

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pp. 29-50

Three sites in Punta Ycacos Lagoon, submerged by a rise in sea level, were hidden from modern view until they were discovered by underwater reconnaissance in 1991 (figures 2.1– 2.3). They are Stingray Lagoon, located 300 m in the middle...

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3. Salt-Production Equipment

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pp. 51-114

By analogy with the modern Maya in the highlands of Guatemala and elsewhere, the assemblages of artifacts at the Punta Ycacos Lagoon sites were interpreted as evidence of salt production, in which brine was boiled in a dozen or more...

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4. The Organization of Salt Production: Occupational Specialization among the Late Classic Maya

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pp. 115-134

Craft production, often correlated with complex societies, has been difficult to identify archaeologically for the Classic Maya (Adams 1970; Becker 1973; Foias and Bishop 1997; Fry 1980; McKillop 1995a; Rice 1987a; Shafer and Hester...

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5. Salt Production and Sea-Level Rise

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pp. 135-174

The Punta Ycacos salt work shops were submerged by a sea-level rise that inundated the Yucatan coasts of Belize and Mexico. The excavation of 10 inundated sites dating to the Classic period in the Port Honduras region documents this late Holocene sea-level rise for the first time in southern Belize. The evidence has...

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6. Salt Production, Trade, and Late Classic Maya Society

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pp. 175-186

Seasonal salt works were set up along the coast of Belize during the Late Classic period to meet the growing inland demand for salt. At these salt works, lagoon water was preprocessed by pouring it through salty soil in large wooden containers. This process enriched the salt content of the brine before the brine...

Appendix 1. Catalog (Location) Numbers for Artifacts from the Salt Work Shops

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pp. 187-188

Appendix 2. Weights and Counts of Fired Clay from Salt Work Shops

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pp. 189-192

Appendix 3. Catalog Numbers for Artifacts Illustrated in the Text

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pp. 193-216

References Cited

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pp. 217-216


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pp. 217-222

About the Author

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pp. 246-257

E-ISBN-13: 9780813045825
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813025117
Print-ISBN-10: 0813025117

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 88 figures, 26 maps, 30 tables
Publication Year: 2002

OCLC Number: 801848051
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Salt

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Mayas -- Belize -- Economic conditions.
  • Salt industry and trade -- Belize.
  • Mayas -- Belize -- Antiquities.
  • Mayas -- Commerce.
  • Belize -- Antiquities.
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