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Salt workers’ residences discovered at Ek Way Nal, an underwater Maya site in Belize

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Posted: Thursday, November 25, 2021. 11:44 am CST.

By Rubén Morales Iglesias: Archaeologists from Louisiana State University (LSU) located submerged salt-workers residences in Belize’s underwater Maya site at Ek Way Nal in Toledo, according to an LSU study.

The study entitled ‘Briquetage and Brine: Living and Working at The Classic Maya Salt Works of Ek Way Nal, Belize’ was published in Ancient Mesoamerica by LSU archaeologist Heather McKillop and associate professor at the University Texas-Tyler Cory Sills.

The LSU archaeologists knew that the Maya produced salt through brine-boiling “in clay pots over fires in pole and thatch buildings preserved in oxygen-free sediment below the sea floor” after excavating the ancient Maya Paynes Creek at Ek Way Nal. However, McKillop and her team wanted to know how the inland Maya were able to maintain a salt supply.

Though field work at Ek Way Nal has been at a standstill since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, McKillop and her team of researchers decided to do radiocarbon dating material they had sent to the LSU Archaeology lab, “including hundreds of wood samples from pole and thatch buildings, as well as pottery sherds”.

“The underwater site of Ek Way Nal is located in the main channel of Punta Ycacos Lagoon, a large salt-water system ranging in depth from a few centimeters to over 2m,” according to the Cambridge University Press.

“I decided to submit a wood post sample for radiocarbon dating from each building at Ek Way Nal to see if they all dated to the same time, which was suggested by the visibility of artifacts and buildings on the seafloor,” said McKillop. Based on the results, McKillop “identified a building construction sequence that began in the Late Classic at the height of Maya civilization and continued through the Terminal Classic when the dynastic leaders of inland city-states were losing control and eventually the cities were abandoned by A.D. 900,” said the LSU statement.

Through the analysis of the results, McKillop was able to conclude that an estimated 10 salt kitchens operated at a time at the Paynes Creek Salt Works, which she reported in her book “Maya Salt Works” (2019, University Press of Florida).

McKillop said the research “suggests the Maya living permanently at the community were engaged in surplus household production of salt that was well integrated into the regional economy, allowing them to acquire a variety of nonlocal goods,” she said.

With the mass production of salt at places like Paynes Creek in Ek Way Nal, McKillop was able to conclude that the salt was then taken inland providing the Maya with enough salt for their diet.

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