Archaeologists in Belize discovered ancient Maya salt workers who worked from home. The discovery was made while excavating Ta’ab Nuk Na, the country’s largest known Maya salt works, which is submerged in a coastal lagoon. The archaeologists discovered a residential structure showing that a household lived and worked at the site.
The find was made in Paynes Creek National Park in southern Belize, where over 100 other submerged Maya sites dating from 600 to 1000 AD rchaeologists working in Belize have found ancient Maya salt workers worked from home.
The find was uncovered in Paynes Creek National Park in southern Belize, where over 100 other submerged Maya sites dating from 600 to 1000 AD had already been unearthed.
This includes a number of other salt works spread along the shore.
“The inland Maya needed salt—a basic biological necessity—which was scarce inland and most was supplied from salt works along the coasts,” said study author Professor Heather McKillop of Louisiana State University and A&M College.
As a result, Professor McKillop and Associate Professor E. Cory Sills of the University of Texas at Tyler set out to study how this important industry was organized. Their findings have been published in the journal Antiquity.
We had excavated salt kitchens at other Paynes Creek Salt Works sites, but we wondered if the workers lived on site, which has implications for understanding the organization of salt production at the height of Classic Maya civilization,” Professor McKillop explained. However, the majority of the excavations at other Paynes Creek sites were focused on salt production.
To explore this question, the team conducted a comprehensive survey of Ta’ab Nuk Na, Paynes Creek’s largest salt works. Underwater archaeologists marked the location of key finds on the lagoon floor, leaving a forest of over 600 flags marking their location in the water. Many of these traits are rarely preserved outside of a submerged setting.
“We found was finding hundreds of wooden posts that define the walls of Classic Maya ‘pole and thatch’ wooden buildings at Ta’ab Nuk Na,” said Professor Sills, “Since wood normally decays in the tropical landscape of the Maya area, the wooden buildings provide a rare view of the architecture that once dominated most ancient Maya communities.”
These were digitally mapped, and key elements were excavated. The data revealed the footprint of several buildings. Radiocarbon dating shows that they were built in several phases.
In the 6th century AD, there were only a few of those residential buildings, with no traces of salt production. This began to change around 650 AD, when three salt kitchens and a large residential complex were built at the site.
“Mapping individual artifacts on the sea floor allowed us to see their distribution in relation to the 10 pole and thatch wooden buildings and to reconstruct the activities in the different buildings,” Professor McKillop explained. Fishing, food preparation and cooking, woodworking, and cotton spinning are among the household activities described in the residential building.
The evidence of these activities indicates that the huge structure was a residential structure, confirming that salt production was carried out by people working from home. The household would have made salt for themselves initially, then traded the surplus with other communities.
“The surplus was transported inland to marketplaces where it was exchanged for other commodities, including pottery and stone tools found at the salt worker’s residence,” said Professor Sills.
This would have been a large surplus, with estimates showing that Ta’ab Nuk Na produced more than a ton of salt every week. Ta’ab Nuk Na and the other contemporary salt works at Paynes Creek could have provided enough salt for 24,000 people.
The fact that the workers lived at the site and worked in indoor kitchens meant that salt could be produced all year. This arrangement would have helped meet the demands of inland Maya cities, which were rapidly expanding during this period.
After 800 AD, production at Ta’ab Nuk Na stopped, and the large site of Ek Way Nal, in another part of the lagoon, became the largest salt kitchen in Paynes Creek. Analysis of previously studied Ek Way Nal findings shows there were also residential structures are the site.
Together, this shows that ancient Maya salt workers were working from home for centuries, with the salt kitchens being attached to residential sites. This setup was capable of supplying the large amount of salt required by the developing Maya towns of the time.
Provided by Antiquity
More information: Heather McKillop et al, (2022). Household salt production by the Late Classic Maya: underwater excavations at Ta’ab Nuk Na, Antiquity. DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2022.106