Textile fragments associated with flaked stone symbols from the Maya site of Altun Ha, Belize

Jill Plitnikas


‘Flaked stone symbols’ or ‘eccentric lithics’ are a type of artifact unique to the ancient Maya world. Ranging in shape from abstract to anthropomorphic, these objects are often recovered from burial caches near tombs or within structures, such as the spectacular ones found at the site of Copán in 1991. Besides the high level of artistry and skill exhibited in the Copán lithics, they were also of note because of the small pieces of textile adhered to their surfaces. Archaeological textiles are rare finds at ancient Maya sites because of poor preservation conditions.

The 1964-1970 excavations at the Maya site of Altun Ha in Belize also produced a number of flaked stone symbol caches and interestingly, two small fragments of textiles found in association with them. A technical study of these fragments was undertaken as part of Ph.D. research being conducted by R. Meadows on flaked stone symbols from Altun Ha and Lamanai (University of Texas, 2000-01). This study would provide information on textile materials and technology, which could be linked to usage and ideology of flaked stone symbols. Additionally, it would add to the limited body of knowledge available on ancient Maya textiles.

The study of the two textiles involved examining yarn and weave, characterizing the fibers, and analyzing areas of green and pink color found on them. One of the most intriguing aspects of this project was the characterization of the textile fibers. Although their physical, optical, and chemical properties identified them as cellulosic, these same properties did not correspond to those of cotton or bast fibers as would be expected. Rather, they suggested the use of fibers from the Bombacaceae family, namely kapok (Ceiba spp.) or tree cotton (Bombax spp.). Although Bombacaceae fibres have not been previously identified in woven archaeological Maya textiles, archaeological, ethnobotanical, and cosmological sources support their usage.

2002 | Miami | Volume 9