A Late Classic Lime-Plaster Kiln from the Maya Center of Copan, Honduras

Article excerpt


At the ancient Maya kingdom of Copan, Honduras [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], a multi-year programme of settlement archaeology has addressed broad-ranging goals with concomitant results. Settlement distribution and concentration, defined for the Late Classic (AD 600-900) and early Post-Classic periods (AD 900-1200), show that the fragmentation of the Classic kingdom was not a sudden catastrophe but a more complex and protracted process (Freter 1988; 1992; 1994; Webster & Freter 1990a). A detailed methodology for generating population size was developed (Webster & Freter 1990b), and the extensive regional data provided the opportunity to refine obsidian hydration dating as a chronometric technique in the Maya region (Freter 1993).

Economic loci of production are often evident only through systematic random sampling within the context of regional settlement research. Too often, sites with sizable and conspicuous architectural remains are the exclusive subject of excavation. Yet production areas, especially in societies with relatively limited economic specialization such as the Classic Maya, are often located away from buildings and are thus overlooked (Freter 1991).

Among results from the large-scale settlement research at Copan is a lime-plaster kiln, published in this note (referred to previously in Abrams & Freter 1988; Abrams 1994). Although the presence of a lime kiln at the Maya centre of Tikal, Guatemala, has been supposed (Coe 1990: 877), the kilns themselves at Tikal have proved elusive. To our knowledge, the lime kiln described here is the only one discovered at a Classic Maya site.

The kiln

During the 1984 archaeological survey of the Copan Valley, a small mound - Site 70, Mound 32 - was test-pitted in the 15% stratified random sampling of the 1425 sites within the Copan Valley (Webster & Freter 1985; Freter 1988; 1992). It is located about 1 km east of the Sepulturas barrio, on the second terrace above the Copan River at approximately 596 m ASL [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 2 & 3 OMITTED]. At the time, the mound was in a ploughed field planted in tobacco, elevated only about 60-70 cm above the level of the field. Its area was about 16 sq. m. Late Classic period ceramic sherds and obsidian tools were collected from the surface. A 2-x-2-m excavation unit, in the southwest corner of the mound and straddling the rise and the level surface, extended to the centre of the mound. (This placement was dictated by the rural test excavation permit from the Instituto Hondureno de Antropologia e Historia, which required that no exposed architecture be trenched or removed unless it could be restored). Thus the goal of the test excavation unit was to uncover midden or floor contexts associated with the mound to reconstruct basic site function and chronology; it exposed about 20% of the total surface area and a sample of the mound's floor deposits.

Level 1, the top 20 cm, was the plough zone. Very few artefacts were recovered. However, towards the bottom of this level in the northeast section, burnt earth and charcoal were encountered; at this soil change, level 1 was terminated. In level 2, 20-40 cm below the ground surface on the exterior of the burnt earth, was an in-curving wall about 25 cm thick constructed of burnt earth (not adobe brick) tempered with grass, and pedologically distinct (10 YR 5/3) from the surrounding soil matrix. Pieces of burnt limestone were encountered in this level. The final excavation level 3 reached the exterior base of the kiln at a depth of 75 cm, at which point a burnt clay floor (7.5 YR 6/8) was encountered. Here the soil was very hard and reddened. In the wall of the kiln, 50 cm thick and standing about 60 cm high, was a small opening 20 cm in height. A reconstruction drawing [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4 OMITTED] sketches a domed or semi-enclosed kiln, about 4 m in diameter with a projected interior volume of perhaps 17 cu. …