Ancient Maya Salt Makers Worked From Home, Too

Archaeologists in Belize have found 1,500-year-old salt kitchens attached to workers’ homes

Researchers excavating a large wooden post
Researchers excavating a large wooden post Courtesy of C. Foster / Louisiana State University

Working from home may feel like a practice inextricably linked with the COVID-19 pandemic. But as it turns out, some ancient Maya salt makers were living and working in the same place, too.

That’s the conclusion of new research from southern Belize, where archaeologists have discovered structural remains indicating ancient Maya workers made salt in indoor kitchens attached to their homes. This setup allowed them to produce salt all year round, which resulted in a surplus that they traded with cities located farther inland.

Archaeologists recently shared the details of their find in the journal Antiquity. The researchers were studying at Ta’ab Nuk Na, the largest ancient Maya salt work site inside Paynes Creek National Park, a 37,680-acre nature reserve along the coast of the Caribbean Sea.

To learn more about people here who lived here, the team systematically mapped the remnants of ancient Maya structures that are now submerged in a coastal lagoon. In the process, they discovered hundreds of wooden posts that once supported the walls of Maya buildings.

Flags in the water
Archaeologists used flags to map the locations of the submerged wooden posts. Courtesy of Heather McKillop / Louisiana State University

By plotting the locations of the now-submerged posts, which date to the Late Classic era during the sixth century C.E., the researchers could then extrapolate how the Maya used each building, as well as how they lived and worked more broadly. Archaeologists believe the posts outlined three salt kitchens and various residential buildings.

The national park is home to more than 100 other submerged Maya sites dating to between 600–1000, but this is the first time researchers have excavated wooden buildings, which tend to decay over time, reports ARTnews’ Jesse Holth. The posts provide “a rare view of the architecture that once dominated most ancient Maya communities,” says study co-author E. Cory Sills, an archaeologist and geographer at the University of Texas at Tyler, in a statement.

Based on the discovery, archaeologists now suspect that Maya families worked at their homes, producing salt, cooking, doing woodworking, spinning cotton, grinding maize, fishing and performing other tasks. The saltworkers at Ta’ab Nuk Na could have produced more than a ton of salt each week, the researchers say. Along with other nearby saltworks, they estimate the residents could have created enough salt for 24,000 people.

Pottery remnants
Pottery remnants Courtesy of Heather McKillop / Louisiana State University

“The workers lived on site, which shows it was a ‘cottage industry,’ featuring families producing more than their needs [and supplying salt for] the nearby inland Maya,” study co-author Heather McKillop, an archaeologist at Louisiana State University, tells ARTnews.

When they created too much salt, they traded it with inland communities, where it was a rare, precious commodity. In exchange for the salt, the Maya families got stone tools, pottery and musical instruments, which archaeologists also found at the site.

The ocarina Courtesy of Heather McKillop / Louisiana State University

At Ta’ab Nuk Na, researchers also discovered a whistle in the shape of a woman called an ocarina. Residents likely obtained the ocarina while trading with the inhabitants of Lubaantun, an inland city where researchers have discovered similar whistles and the molds used to make them.

They also unearthed a ceramic spindle whorl, which the ancient Maya likely used to spin cotton for clothing or fishing nets, as well as small incense burners, a wooden paddle for preparing food, tools for whittling, a figurine and a model canoe.

Among the various pieces of pottery they found at the site, the archaeologists stumbled upon a clay funnel they believe the Maya used as part of the brine boiling method for evaporating saltwater over a flame.

“It’s very rainy in southern Belize so solar evaporation, like off the north coast of the Yucatan, doesn’t work,” McKillop tells Artnet’s Vittoria Benzine.

Archaeologists believe the workers stopped producing salt at Ta’ab Nuk Na around 800. Another salt kitchen, Ek Way Nal, then became the largest salt kitchen in the area.

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