Ancient Maya Buried Relatives, Artifacts Under Homes

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An excavation of ancient Maya homes belonging to lower class families revealed they buried relatives and artifacts under their own floors.
Lisa J. Lucero

THE GIST:

- Ancient, illiterate Mayans buried their family and items under their homes.

- Archaeologists believe this was the people's way of recording their histories.

- Every 20-30 years, families destroyed and rebuilt their homes with new burials.

Illiterate Maya people recorded their history by burying their domestic universe under their floors, according to excavations of modest Maya homes in central Belize.

Analysis of objects and human remains embedded beneath these ordinary Maya houses from the Classic period (250-900 A.D.) revealed that farmers and servants cached objects and buried relatives within their residences.

"Commoners may not have had the written word, but they had the means to record their own history under their feet, within walls and under their roof," Lisa Lucero, anthropology professor at the University of Illinois, wrote in the Journal of Social Archaeology.

Lucero examined the arrangement, color and condition of several Maya artifacts excavated at two commoner residences in a small Maya center called Saturday Creek, in central Belize.

Occupied from about 450 to 1150 A.D., the two homes revealed about a dozen human remains of men, women and children with artifacts arranged around and on top of the bodies.

According to the researcher, those who were domestically interred were family members who died closest to calendrical rites every 40 or 52 years or at the time, every 20-30 years, in which houses needed to be re-roofed.

Indeed, burial in the home was a major event.

"After the funeral rites, the house and what it contained were destroyed and burned. The ceremonial destruction provided the basis for the new house," Lucero said.

To provide ballast for a new plaster floor, the Maya used broken and whole vessels, colorful ceramic fragments, animal bones and rocks. All items were symbolically arranged.

"The Maya deposited items that had a particular history with the family. Once placed and buried, the objects disappeared from sight, not memory," Lucero said.

In order to enter the domestic underground museum, things that were used in life had to be "de-animated." The Maya would render these items useless by breaking them. In this way the artifacts could enter the next stage of their life history.

The archaeologists found several vessels and jars which underwent de-animation rites, as they lacked bases or necks and had their rims broken off. Other vessels were de-animated with a "kill hole" drilled through their bottoms.

Lucero also found bowls and jars that were buried in perfect condition. They were specifically manufactured to represent "re-animation" rites for the new house built over the old.

Some artifacts -- including groups of obsidian or chert rocks -- represented the Maya belief in the nine levels of the underworld and the 13 levels of heaven.

Lucero found that colors such as red and orange, which symbolized sunrise and life, were commonly used in burials. Black represented death and the underworld, but no black objects were found in or near a burial.

"Perhaps the Maya only wanted to use colors that were associated with the realm of living," Lucero said.

Cynthia Robin, an anthropological archaeologist at Northwestern University, Illinois, agrees with Lucero's conclusions.

"Although ancient Maya commoners didn't write anything down, they 'wrote' their history in many other ways. The burial of ancestors is a history of the families that lived there. In a sense you could compare this to a written deed or census," Robin, who specializes in the study of ancient, everyday Maya society, told Discovery News.

"In a similar vein, objects buried in homes often recorded religious ideas: rather than reading a religious text, you can 'read' the meaning of the objects buried in houses," Robin said.