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UT Tyler Professor Publishes New Findings on Salt Industry in Classic Mayan Civilization

E. Cory Sills, PhD, assistant professor of geography at The University of Texas at Tyler, has published a paper about the discovery of salt workers’ residences at an underwater Maya site.

The ancient Maya built stone temples and palaces in the rainforest of Central America, along with dynastic records of royal leaders carved in stone, but they lacked a basic commodity essential to daily life: salt. The sources of salt are mainly along the coast, including salt flats on the Yucatan coast and brine-boiling along the coast of Belize, where it rains a lot.

The article, “Briquetage and brine: Living and Working at the Ek Way Nal Salt Works, Belize,” was published in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica.

Sills worked with Louisiana State University (LSU) archaeologist Heather McKillop, whose team excavated salt kitchens where brine was boiled in clay pots over fires in pole and thatch buildings were preserved in oxygen-free sediment below the sea floor in Belize. Where these salt workers lived has been elusive, leaving possible interpretations of daily or seasonal workers from the coast or even inland. This gap left nagging questions about the organization of production and distribution according to McKillop.

McKillop and Sills began this new project in search of residences where the salt workers lived and to understand the energetics of production of salt with funding from the National Science Foundation. Although field work at Ek Way Nal, where the Paynes Creek Saltworks is located, has been postponed since March 2020 due to the pandemic, the researchers turned to material previously exported for study in the LSU Archaeology lab, including hundreds of wood samples from pole and thatch buildings, as well as pottery sherds.

In the Ancient Mesoamerica article, they report a three-part building construction sequence with salt kitchens, at least one residence and an outdoor area where fish were salted and dried. The archaeologists’ strategy of radiocarbon dating each building produced a finer grain chronology for Ek Way Nal that they are using for more sites.

The article is available at:

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