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Sacred Maya Blue | Chichén Itzá, Mexico
This bowl may have been used in sacrificial rituals to make Maya blue--a pigment that has not lost its brilliance on the murals at Bonampak. (Courtesy of The Field Museum)

Maya blue, the brilliant and long-lasting paint that graces scores of Maya sites, is one of just a handful of man-made pigments known to the ancient world. It had special significance, and was associated with sacrifice and Maya deities, including the rain god Chaak. While scientists have long known that it is produced by chemically binding indigo to a clay mineral (palygorskite) with heat, it's not clear exactly how the Maya made it. Dean Arnold, an anthropologist at Wheaton College in Illinois, now believes that making Maya blue was an integral part of the ceremonies in which it was used.

Arnold examined a bowl at the Field Museum in Chicago that had been retrieved from Chichén Itzá's Sacred Cenote, a flooded sinkhole that was a site of countless ritual offerings and more than 100 human sacrifices (many of which had been painted with the distinctive blue). He and his team found that the bowl contained traces of indigo, palygorskite, and copal incense, a tree sap burned as an offering to the gods and used for medicinal purposes. "It doesn't seem to me to be much of a jump to say that one of the ways that Maya blue was created was in the act of ritual itself," says Arnold, through the heat of burning copal. The resultant offering to Chaak would have held both the copal's healing properties and the pigment's mystical power.

Not everyone is sold on the theory. Scientists who study ancient pigments believe that the presence of copal and Maya blue together doesn't indicate that one was burned to create the other, or that producing the pigment had any ritual significance. "They're not anthropologists and they don't understand perhaps how ritual works," says Arnold in response to his critics. "I'm just surprised there was so much interest in this. It just bowls me over." Well, anything that relates to human sacrifice will certainly turn a few heads.

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