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Study Reveals that Elite of Yaxchilan Produced Exclusive Handcrafts
Little Acropolis of Yaxchilan, in Chiapas. Photo: DMC INAH/H. Montano.

MEXICO CITY.- Analyses conducted to objects made out of mollusk shells found at the Little Acropolis of Yaxchilan, in Chiapas, reveal the possibility of specialized handcraft workshops at the interior of Maya palaces. Apparently, members of the elite created the crafts and not members of the lower classes or foreigners as it was the custom.

Researchers Adrian Velazquez Castro, Belem Zuñiga Arellano and Norma Valentin Maldonado, from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) conduct the study of a 76-elements collection of mollusk-shell objects recovered by archaeologist Daniel Juarez at the palace area of Yaxchilan.

According to Doctor Adrian Velazquez, who works at Templo Mayor Museum, the aim of the work is to contribute, based on the study of shell material, to help defining activities developed at the interior of the Maya courts.

“It is probable that many elements produced at the Little Acropolis of Yaxchilan can be found in the rest of the site, in nobility funerary contexts. If this part of the city was really a production center in charge of the secondary elite, it is probable that many of the produced items were used in other Maya palaces”.

Yaxchilan is located in a wide meander at the left bank of Usumacinta River; apparently the city was formed following the trajectory of the river, having its peak between 550 and 900 AD. Little Acropolis was drafted to be kept isolated from public areas, its main access opening to the river.

The Little Acropolis lies on the top of a rock hill adapted with the terrace system and a great platform to lodge 16 buildings organized around 3 open spaces: a terrace at the front, a wide central patio at the most elevated position and a small patio open to the west.

Velazquez explained that the mollusk-shell collection is rich in its variety, since they proceed from the Pacific coast (from Baja California Bay, Mexico, to Cabo Blanco, Peru), as well as the Caribbean region.

The collection includes samples from Spondylus princeps and Spondylus calcifer that must have been collected by divers, since they are found in depths of up to 30 meters.

“The selection of material shows that the intention was to conserve characteristic ornamentation and color of the mollusks, such as the violet tone of Spondylus calcifer”, mentioned the INAH specialist.

Shells include local bivalves from Usumacinta River as well as regional snails, and were used to create utilitarian and ornamental artifacts, such as small trumpets, beads, earrings, pectorals, ear spools, rings, as well as circular and squared inlays, as the one of the glyph-emblem of Yaxchilan. The use given to some of the items has not been determined yet.

The shell artifacts have been analyzed to determine the kind of tools and processes used to create them, employing electronic microscopes to search for superficial marks.

“A great technological homogeneity was found in the studied collection. Tools used to manufacture the shell material were identified thanks to the marks, and correspond to those found at the archaeological site: artifacts made out of local materials such as sandstone mills and lint polishers; only 2 pieces had marks of lint drills”.

“Foreign raw material was found too, such as obsidian, mainly at the Little Acropolis. Igneous rocks such as basalt and andesite were located, so it is not unusual that volcanic ashes were used as drilling abrasive, since material was brought from volcanic zones”, concluded Velazquez Castro.

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