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The use of Firewood in Ancient Maya Funerary Rituals: A Case Study from Rio Bec (Campeche, Mexico)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017

Lydie Dussol
UMR 8096 Archéologie des Amériques, University of Paris, 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, Nanterre,,,
Michelle Elliott
UMR 8096 Archéologie des Amériques, University of Paris, 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, Nanterre,,,
Grégory Pereira
UMR 8096 Archéologie des Amériques, University of Paris, 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, Nanterre,,,
Dominique Michelet
UMR 7041 Archéologie des Sciences de l'Antiquité, University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, Nanterre,


In this paper, we examine wood charcoal assemblages that were recovered from ash layers in Terminal Classic (A.D. 800–950) burials at the Maya site of Rio Bee to understand the use of fuel wood in funerary rites. Compared to charcoal deposits from domestic and non-funerary contexts, the spectrum of wood taxa used in the burial deposits is unique, which suggests specific fire-related practices. Members of the Sapotaceae family and Cordiasp. dominated all contexts and were clearly primary fuels. In contrast, the use of pine (Pinus sp.), which does not grow locally today, was limited to ritual practices. In addition, it seems that a deliberate effort was made to maximize the taxonomic richness of the fuel wood used in burials. Funerary charcoal deposits appear to have been carefully and intentionally “composed” for burning during funerary rites. We propose that this practice materialized the relationship between fire, ash, and the cycles of life and death, which are often symbolized by plant life cycles in the worldview of ancient Maya societies. This study also emphasizes the contribution of anthracological (wood charcoal) analysis to the reconstruction of human behavior and the importance of systematic paleoethnobotanical sampling in funerary contexts.



En este artículo se presentan los resultados del estudio de los carbones procedentes de depόsitos de cenizas encontrados en contextos funerarios del Clásico Terminal (a.D. 800-950) en el sitio maya de Río Bec. Dichos vestigios son indicadores relevantes del uso de combustibles vegetates en los rituales funerarios. La comparacion de estos materiales con los que proceden de contextos domesticos y rituales no-funerarios muestra que los taxones usados varian notablemente en funciόn del tipo de actividades con las cuales se relacionan. Las leñas pertenecientes a la Familia Sapotaceae y a Cordiasp. fueron los principales combustibles, ya que predominan en todos los contextos. En cambio, el pino (Pinus sp.), que hoy no existe localmente, parece haber sido reservado a las prdcticas rituales. Por otro lado, se observa una notable variedad taxonόmica en los depόsitos funerarios, la cual parece indicar una verdadera intencionalidad. Dichos depόsitos fueron probablemente “compuestos” con cuidado y estuvieron expresamente destinados a ser quemados durante las ceremonias fúnebres. Se propone que este acto pudo haber simbolizado la relaciόn entre elfuego, las cenizas y los ciclos de vida y muerte expresados a traves de la metáfora del ciclo vegetal en uso entre los antiguos mayas. Este estudio hace hincapie en el potencial de los materiales antracologicos para la reconstrucciόn de los comportamientos humanos y demuestra la necesidad de tomar muestras arqueobotdnicas sistemdticas en contextos funerarios.

Copyright © Society for American Archaeology 2016

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