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Attapulgite and Maya Blue: An Ancient Mine Comes to Light

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This article is a description of the mine in the cenote in Sacalum, Yucatán that was a significant source of attapulgite (now called palygorskite) used in the creation of Maya Blue. Resulting from mining a one meter deposit of the mineral, the size of the mine indicated that prior to 1968 (when these measurements were made), the Maya had removed 305 cubic meters of palygorksite for medicinal purposes and for the creation of Maya Blue. If the collapsed area in front of the mine is added to the footprint of the mine and multiplied by the thickness of the mined deposit of palygorskite seen within the mine, then the Maya have removed a total of 589 cubic meters of palygorskite. The mine, the collapsed area, and the amount of palygorskite removed indicates that this source was a major source of the mineral used to make the pigment, and is probably many centuries old.
... The most important and best documented palygorskite source for ancient and modern Mayas from northern Yucatán is the deposit in the cenote of the village of Sacalum (13.5 km northwest of Ticul; Fig. 2a-b). Here, an ∼1.3 m thick conformable deposit was mined until recently at the bottom of the sinkhole (∼16 m below the surface) and facing the north wall of the cenote interior (see Fig. 2c; Arnold and Bohor, 1975). This mine is considered to have provided at least 307 m 3 of the mineral (Arnold et al., 2012). ...
... This mine is considered to have provided at least 307 m 3 of the mineral (Arnold et al., 2012). A thin ∼60-100 mm thick second layer of palygorskite in the same cenote occurs ∼1.5 m above the main excavation ( Fig. 2d) and may have been the alternative source of palygorskite during flooding of the cenote, that precluded mining from the main deposit at the bottom (Arnold and Bohor, 1975;Folan, 1969). Another important occurrence of palygorskite is the Yo' Sah Kab deposit located between the villages of Ticul and Chapab. ...
... Sketch profile of the Sacalum cenote interior with respective palygorskite deposits sampled in this study. Modified fromArnold and Bohor (1975). ...
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The provenance and nature of palygorskite clay used by Mayas for the creation of the outstanding Maya Blue pigment and pottery in the Yucatán peninsula has not been analyzed thoroughly. Especially the hypothesis of palygorskite being a diagenetic product of volcanic glass has remained uncertain. Here, we present a detailed study of zircon extracted from palygorskite-rich materials (sak lu'um) collected in the interior of the Sacalum cenote and near Chapab village, to evaluate the potential of zircon as an indicator mineral for tephra-derived palygorskite or clay-rich deposits intercalated with carbonate rocks. U-Pb zircon geochronology and correlative trace element analyses from stratigraphically different palygorskite-rich horizons indicate a restricted Eocene age range, which is coeval to the deposition of the host carbonates, and discrete airborne emplacement events of silicic tephra into warm and shallow waters at ca. 50 Ma and 41 Ma, likely derived from volcanoes in a continental magmatic arc. Our findings also indicate that palygorskite deposits in the Yucatán peninsula are not inherited from continental sources but rather formed in-situ partly from weathering of volcanic glass that sourced Si and Al required for palygorskite formation.
... The most reported mineral in the Yucatán Peninsula is palygorskite [36,37]; however, the presence of sepiolite has also been mentioned by multiple authors [35,38], but it has never been described in the deposits that emerge on the surface-those that were used by the Mayans in the manufacture of the Maya blue pigment. This is why sepiolite has never been identified in archaeological Maya blue to date and why the manufacture of this pigment has been exclusively associated with the mineral palygorskite [34,36,37,[39][40][41][42]. However, it is very interesting to mention that sepiolite was found in archaeological samples from The Great Temple in Tenochtitlan, corresponding to the Aztec Empire [43,44]. ...
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Maya blue is a well-known pre-Hispanic pigment, composed of palygorskite or sepiolite and indigo blue, which was used by various Mesoamerican cultures for centuries. There has been limited research about its continued use during the Viceroyalty period; therefore, the sixteenth century is the perfect period through which to study the continuity of pre-Hispanic traditions. The fact that the indigenous people were active participants in the construction and decoration of convents makes their wall paintings a good sampling material. X-ray fluorescence (XRF), scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and X-ray diffraction (XRD) were performed in samples of blue found in convents across Puebla, Tlaxcala and Morelos in order to identify whether the numerous hues of blue were achieved with Maya blue or with other pigments. We found no copper (Cu) or cobalt (Co) with the XRF, so several pigments, such as azurite, smalt or verdigris, were discarded. With SEM, we discovered that the micromorphology of certain blues was clearly needle-shaped, suggesting the presence of palygorskite or sepiolite. In addition, we found silicon (Si), magnesium (Mg) and aluminum (Al) by using energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDS) in all blue samples, which also suggests the presence of these magnesium-rich clay minerals. With the XRD samples, we verified that the blues were produced with these two clay minerals, thus confirming that several wall paintings were manufactured with Maya blue. These findings confirm that this particular manmade pre-Hispanic pigment, Maya blue, was an important pigment prior to the Viceroyal period.
... En el mismo sentido Arnold y Bohor (1975) reportan que los habitantes del poblado de Sacalum, cercano a Ticul (Yucatán), reconocían en los estratos del cenote del mismo nombre, estrechas bandas horizontales a las que llamaban sak lu 'um. Estas se componían de una tierra blanca que era efectivamente atapulgita, mineral utilizado en la confección de pigmentos prehispánicos. ...
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La alfarería Aconcagua ha demostrado un gran potencial para abordar y participar del debate de la organización social en la zona central de Chile siendo las materias primas arcillosas, el estilo y la iconografía los estudios principales para dicho objetivo. Es por ello que se plantea que los pigmentos (escasamente abordados en la literatura) poseen su cadena operativa propia y, por lo mismo, se pueden inferir otras características de la producción y una escala geográfica como de interacción social distinta al resto de las materias primas cerámicas. Estas características intrínsecas, son las que motivan a pensar que se puede aportar información nueva y complementaria a la discusión sobre el comportamiento de las comunidades alfareras de la región. Es por ello que se estudió la cadena operativa y las escalas socioterritoriales derivadas del estudio de los pigmentos a partir de distintos análisis arqueométricos aplicados a la cerámica Aconcagua Salmón de Chile Central durante el Periodo Intermedio Tardío. Se realizó una caracterización composicional a partir de las técnicas LA-ICP-MS y RAMAN; a las que se sometieron 122 fragmentos provenientes de doce sitios de la Zona Central. Los resultados reconocieron la existencia de cinco recetas, de las cuales tres se componen principalmente de cobre, hierro y arcilla, dos de plomo y una especial de manganeso y hierro. Los minerales detectados por RAMAN en asociación a la información de la geología regional permitieron establecer que los pigmentos son manufacturados localmente, y que su obtención y procesamiento permiten inferir dos escalas socioterritoriales: 1) a nivel de microrregión a partir de los minerales colorantes y 2) a nivel de sitio producto del aglutinante arcilloso. Sin embargo, se reconoce la existencia de un proceso tecnológico compartido respecto a la producción pigmentaria. A su vez, incorporando los resultados de investigaciones previas, se pudo inferir que las prácticas asociadas al procuramiento y preparación de las materias primas de la producción Aconcagua se expresan a nivel multiescalar: sitio, microrregión y región. En síntesis, las materias primas de la cerámica Aconcagua Salmón permite entender y discutir la tradición del Periodo Intermedio Tardío como fenómeno local y regional a la vez.
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Maya Blue is a pigment found in different archaeological sites of different cultures from Mesoamerica and also in colonial buildings in Mexico and Cuba. This pigment is made from a thermally treated mixture of indigo and palygorskite. In this paper, pigment samples from Aztec and non‐Aztec archaeological sites as well as reference Yucatecan palygorskites were studied to assess their differences. The characterization of the samples has been carried out by a combination of a crystal‐chemical point analyses using electron microscopy, to obtain the structural formulae of the palygorskite crystals, and studies using High Resolution X‐Ray diffraction. The data presented here show evidences that the palygorskite used by the non‐Aztec cultures, such as the Maya, is compatible with palygorskite from known sources in the Yucatan Peninsula, while the palygorskite used by the Aztec culture is different in its structure and has an origin that is still unknown.
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Investigations in the now-submerged cave systems on the Yucatán Peninsula continue to yield evidence for human presence during the Pleistocene-Holocene transition. Skeletal remains are scattered throughout the caves of Quintana Roo, most representing individuals who died in situ. The reasons why they explored these underground environments have remained unclear. Here, we announce the discovery of the first subterranean ochre mine of Paleoindian age found in the Americas, offering compelling evidence for mining in three cave systems on the eastern Yucatán over a ~2000-year period between ~12 and 10 ka. The cave passages exhibit preserved evidence for ochre extraction pits, speleothem digging tools, shattered and piled flowstone debris, cairn navigational markers, and hearths yielding charcoal from highly resinous wood species. The sophistication and extent of the activities demonstrate a readiness to venture into the dark zones of the caves to prospect and collect what was evidently a highly valued mineral resource.
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