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Sourcing the Palygorskite Used in Maya Blue: A Pilot Study Comparing the Results of INAA and LA-ICP-MS

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Dean E. Arnold
Department of Sociology-Anthropology, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois 60187-5593 (Dean.E. Arnold @
Hector Neff
Department of Anthropology, California State University, Long Beach, CA 90840 (
Michael D. Glascock
Research Reactor Center, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211 (
Robert J. Speakman
Smithsonian Institution Museum Conservation Institute, Museum Support Center (MCI), 4210 Silver Hill Road, Suitland, MD 20746 (


Maya Blue is an unusual blue pigment consisting of a clay-organic complex of indigo and the unusual clay mineral palygorskite (also called attapulgite). Used on pottery, sculpture, and murals from the Preclassic to Late Colonial periods largely in Mesoamerica, blue was the color of sacrifice and ritual. Did the palygorskite used to make Maya Blue come from a restricted source in Yucatán like Shepard, Arnold, Arnold and Bohor believed, or from widespread sources like Littmann argued? This report presents the results of a pilot study comparing INAA and LA-ICP-MS analysis of 33 palygorskite samples collected from different parts of the Maya area. These data reveal that it is possible to discriminate mineral source locations, and that it should be possible to determine whether the palygorskite used to make Maya Blue came from widespread sources or was traded widely from one or a few sources. Consideration of contextual information such as agency, landscape and language suggest that the Shepard/Arnold/Bohor hypothesis is more plausible than that of Littmann. No matter which hypothesis is supported, however, each has significant implications for the relationship of the diffusion of Maya Blue (or the knowledge of its production) to Maya social organization.



El azul maya es un inusual pigmento que posee una estructura molecular que combina la tinta añil y la arcilla palygorskita, también llamada atapulgita. Utilizado en cerámica, escultura y pinturas murales desde el Pre-clásico hasta tiempos coloniales en la mayor parte del sur y centro de Mesoamérica, el azul era el color litúrgico y de sacrificio. ¿La procedencia de la arcilla palygorskita estaba limitada a una fuente en Yucatán como Shepard, Arnold, y Arnold y Bohor sugeríen; o a un espectro de fuentes ampliamente distribuidas como sugiere Littmann? Presentamos un estudio piloto en el que comparamos los resultados de los análisis de 33 muestras de palygorskita realizados por INAA y LA-ICP-MS, procedentes de diferentes lugares del área maya. Estos datos indican que se pueden discriminar distintas fuentes de palygorskita. Así mismo, es posible determinar si se utilizó palygorskita para fabricar el azul maya de una fuente limitada, o de varias -quizás por intercambio. Considerando la información lingüistica, de agencia social y del paisaje, se sugiere que la hipótesis de Shepard/Arnold/Bohor es más plausible que la de Littman. Sin embargo, y más allá de cuál es la más adecuada, cada una de ellas brinda implicancias significativas para entender la difusión del azul maya (o el conocimiento de su producción) en la organización social maya.

Copyright © Society for American Archaeology 2007

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