Pacbitun (Belize) and Ancient Maya Use of Slate

Article excerpt


The ancient Maya built and maintained their numerous population centres with large-scale masonry architecture and intensive agriculture, using a technology limited to stone tools. They created masterpieces in cut stone which ranged from impressive monumental sculptures, of limestone, sandstone, and andesite, to extraordinary small, portable objets d'art and jewellery, particularly of jade.

The lowland Maya produced chipped stone artefacts of chert and obsidian, both utilitarian tools and symbolic items, and used core-and-blade technology with obsidian from at least 650 BC (Awe & Healy 1994). They worked granites, limestone, and basalts by grinding (Hester & Hammond 1976; Hester & Shafer 1991).

Another important material exploited by the ancient Maya was slate. Artefacts of slate, or slate-like materials, have been recorded at sites scattered over a wide portion of the Maya sub-area of Mesoamerica ([ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], TABLE 1). Slate and related argillaceous stone occurs in several restricted parts of the Maya region where it can be quarried.

Between 1984 and 1987, excavations at the medium-sized Maya center of Pacbitun, in western Belize, revealed evidence of slate-working, varied artefacts, quantities of debitage, as well as a probable slate workshop and storage facility. Much of the evidence there indicates an elite interest in slate, and it seems likely that the site produced slate objects for exchange with other lowland Maya centres.

Slate and its composition

The raw material which Maya archaeologists call 'slate' may not always be slate, as geologically defined, since it may derive from related geological materials, argillites or phyllites (Fenton & Fenton 1940: 189-90, 309-11). Phyllite, for example, 'resembles slate in appearance and cleavage' (Fenton & Fenton 1940: 311).

Slate, a fine-grained rock consisting mainly of phyllosilicate minerals, chlorite and muscovite, is created when shale, tuffs, mudstones, or siltstones are subjected to heat and/or pressure (Moorhouse 1959: 366; Turner & Verhoogen 1960: 453). Frequently, it is produced by a regional metamorphism in association with fold mountains and Precambrian shield deposits (Turner 1968: 22-3).

In Belize, slates can be found in the Santa Rosa Group of beds, at locations skirting the Maya Mountains, including the vicinity of Pacbitun. Elsewhere in the Maya subarea of Mesoamerica, slate occurs within the El Tambor Formation, part of the Chiquimula pluton in southeastern Guatemala (Clemons & Long 1971); sediments overlying the formation include phyllites. Similar granitic plutons extend into northern Honduras. And phyllites, part of the Santa Rosa Group, can be found in western Guatemala between the Chixoy-Polochic and Motagua-Jalapa fault zones. This is the same Santa Rosa Group as in the Maya Mountains. In the Altos Cuchumatanes of western Guatemala, slate and phyllite occur as the basement rock and as exposed outcrops (Anderson et al. 1973: 805-6).


Table 2. Excavated slate (artefacts and debitage fragments) at
Pacbitun (by structure or area).

core zone               quantity

Structure 1                146
Structure 2                 48
Structure 4                 30
Structure 5                 19
Structure 6                 21
Structure 14                10
Structure 15                48
Structure 23               238
Structure 38                70
other                       46

sub-total                  676

periphery zone          quantity

NE & SE Transects           78
NW & SW Transects          238
Quadrants                  275
Terrace Mounds              94

sub-total                  685

grand total               1361

The slates of the Maya Mountains of Belize appear of similar age to those of the Guatemalan highlands, and the Santa Rosa Group of Belize is 'lithologically similar' to the Santa Rosa Group of Guatemala (Kesler et al. …