Initial investigation into a resinous Maya burial shroud

Candis Griggs


During the excavation of an elaborate crypt burial at the Maya site of Buenavista del Cayo, Belize, archaeologists encountered a pail, flake-like debris of unknown origin. The material was found above, around and immediately below the skeleton and encircling some long bones and fingers. During a fellowship in archaeological conservation at the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education, the author undertook a technical study of these flakes and determined them to be the remains of a previously undescribed burial practice.

The samples were pale, brittle fragments with the general appearance and dimensions not unlike flake cereal (leading the author to refer to them, at least privately, as “Special K”). Many had parallel undulations as if following the forms of a pleated or bunched cloth. Present on the surfaces of the flakes were several distinct adherents, including up to five different textile types. Various analytical techniques were used to study the components of the samples, including optical microscopy, PLM, FTIR, SEM-EDS, XRD, firing/heating tests, microchemical tests and exposure to ultra-violet light. The principal component of the flake material was determined to be a natural resin or gum-resin, possibly copal, of which the ancient Maya made extensive ritual use. An inorganic clay-like component may have been the result of post-depositional contamination or may have been an intentional additive. Analysis of the most prevalent textile type, a 1:1 plain weave, showed it to also have a strong resinous component. It appears that this textile or some other cloth was coated with the resin, then wrapped around the body of the deceased prior to interment.

Further study of these flakes, and others like them, if found, will enhance our understanding of elite Maya mortuary practices. It is hoped that an awareness of the potential importance of such unassuming fragments will prevent their future loss or omission from the archaeological record.

2002 | Miami | Volume 9