Shell artifacts

Shell artifacts dating to the Late Classic (750 – 800 A.D.), excavated from Aguateca, that were in the process of being crafted into beads called “tinklers” that were worn on clothing and tinkled with movement. The specific shell species, Oliva porphyria, is known to occur in the Pacific Ocean and is an unusual find for the lowland Guatemalan areas since most shell products from this region were crafted from Caribbean shell species. These are probably of the same species reserved for adorning royalty, according to Emery. © Photo by Kitty Emery

It’s easy to get carried away romanticizing the cushy lives of the fabulously wealthy, even those who lived in exotic ancient cultures. We may pin all sorts of stereotypes to them: that they employed servants to perform their mundane chores, bought or bartered for everything they needed and never lifted a pinky finger.

But that wasn’t the case with the ancient Maya political elites, according to Florida Museum of Natural History environmental archaeology curator Kitty Emery, who discovered evidence that this elite social group crafted their own bone and shell products for domestic use. Emery said this counters previously held beliefs in her field that the elite depended on domestic servants or lower classes for producing everyday household items such as sewing pins, spatulas and shell bowls.

The study also provides new insight into how elite status groups used and controlled animal bone and shell resources, Emery said.

bone shaving artifacts

Scholars call the excess shavings and chips from the process of crafting bone “debitage.” These white-tailed deer bone fragments are debitage from different stages of bone production. The two on the outsides are pieces that were removed first in the process of creating a product, known as “early stage reduction.” The one in the middle is likely an early stage reduction for the creation of an awl – note the “tip” at the bottom. This would be smoothed and sharpened in a later stage of finishing, according to Emery. © Photo courtesy of the Aguateca Archaeology Project.

“It is extremely difficult for archaeologists to establish strong links between the artifacts we excavate and the specific people who made or used them, but the unique preservation at this site provided us a rare break,” Emery said. “Because the city was abandoned so rapidly we’ve been able to pinpoint, for the first time, exactly who was doing what with bone and shell products among the upper classes and rulers of the Maya world.”

The study included extensive analysis of more than 20,000 bone and shell craft items and the stone tools used to make them. Scientists excavated the artifacts from elite homes in the core of the medium-sized ancient Maya city of Aguateca, located in the Petén region of modern-day Guatemala’s lowlands.

Aguateca was one of the most politically-important cities of the Petexbatún region. An invasion of the city in about 830 A.D. set in motion a series of events leading to its very unusual preservation, Emery said. Despite stone-wall reinforcements around the region where the elite lived, the invasion was so sudden that the powerful ruling class fled for their lives. In their haste, they left belongings scattered in their homes.

“The invaders burned the homes and as the structures caved in and the walls collapsed, they encapsulated a snapshot of the elite’s daily activities,” Emery said. “Conditions for preservation are normally poor in these lowlands, so this is unique. This is the first time we’ve been able to link a specific status group with the actual stone tools used to make individual bone and shell products.”

Kitty Emery

Environmental Archaeology Curator Kitty Emery working in the field in Aguateca, in Guatemala. Specimens are carefully tagged with exact location information before being taken from the field for analysis and curation. © Photo by Kazuo Aoyama.

Based on glyphs in ancient Maya writing and artistic scenes depicted on vases, most archaeologists accept that the Maya elite were likely involved at some level in luxury craftworks, such as body and clothing adornments. But Emery’s study is the first to assert they also were making everyday household bone and shell crafts for their own use — or that of the community, or their rulers — such as awls, needles, pins, disks, plaques, carved-bone segments, tubes, rasps, paintbrush holders, bone hooks and grinders.

The site was excavated between 1989 and 1996 by the Aguateca Archaeology Project, directed by Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan of the University of Arizona. Emery analyzed the bone and shell items and their distributions between 1991 and 2004, in large part at the Florida Museum. Emery collaborated with Kazuo Aoyama, of Ibaraki University in Japan, who analyzed the stone tools. All the artifacts were returned to Guatemala.

Emery’s prior research at Dos Pilas, an ancient Maya community near Aguateca, produced detailed records of the stages of bone and shell craft production, which she used to interpret the remains excavated in Aguateca. Colleague Aoyama’s prior studies of tell-tale microwear patterns etched into stone tools from repeated use aided their interpretation. Microwear patterns can be produced from actions such as cutting leather, skinning and butchering animals, or shaping stone, bone or shell.

ceramic vessels

Compete ceramic vessels were abandoned and crushed during the building collapse that occurred when Aguateca was attacked. There is evidence that these specific chambers belonged to the king and his family, Emery said. These vessels were later reconstructed by Dr. Daniela Triadan, project co-director and ceramicist. Information about their function, size, and decorations were used in the reconstruction of activity areas in the Palace. © Photo courtesy of the Aguateca Archaeology Project.

“Without this backdrop of comparative evidence, and without linking Aoyama’s previous research with mine, we wouldn’t have been able to interpret the Aguateca elite activities in such detail,” Emery said. “Critics may counter our arguments, suggesting instead that the elite could have had domestic servants or independent artisans doing these activities, but the weight of the cumulative contextual evidence points to crafts being produced at every level of the elite class. Even the king’s family was working on final-stage production of things like shell adornments and leatherworking.”

Excavation work at Aguateca has produced no evidence that other parts of the city were attacked before its ultimate abandonment. This was typical of Maya warfare tactics, Emery said.

“The ancient Maya saw cities as animate beings, and if you wanted to kill a city you went straight for its spirit, or its leaders,” she said. “Once the leaders were dead, the political power of the city was defeated. They considered it unnecessary to kill the lower classes.”

The ancient Maya also considered residences and buildings as animate beings and their spatial layouts often symbolically reflected the left-right dichotomy of the human body. Modern ethnography indicates that past and modern Maya cultures associate the left side of residences with women and the right side with men.

Daniela Triadan

Daniela Triadan, co-director of the Aguateca Archaeology Project, and an archaeology professor at the University of Arizona, carefully excavated the fragments of another complete ceramic vessel. She documented each crushed piece to aid in its eventual reconstruction, and she “mapped” the objects location within the overall site map. © Photo courtesy of the Aguateca Archaeology Project.

Emery’s team consistently excavated certain craft activities in right- and left-side auxiliary chambers a djacent to a central room, leading her to hypothesize that women were executing the early stages of bone and shell crafting. Evidence for final-stage crafting, such as nearly finished adornments, was found in chambers associated with men, Emery said.

This study is one component of Emery’s more extensive research at Aguateca and other sites in Guatemala and Honduras detailing the courtly and humble lives of the ancient Maya throughout the Classic Maya time period.

Emery is interested in tracing pathways of how animal products such as meat, bone, and shell entered Maya communities, how they were circulated and who controlled their production and distribution. Answers to these questions will help Emery and other scientists better gauge human impact to the lowland Maya environment, including effects on animals from hunting.


Emery’s study published the week of Aug. 13, 2007 in the print edition of “Ancient Mesoamerica.”

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By DeLene Beeland | More articles by DeLene Beeland

• Learn more about the Environmental Archaeology Collection at the Florida Museum.

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