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Salt: A Mover and Shaker in Ancient Maya Economy

January 29, 2020 @ 7:00 pm

University of Colorado, Boulder, Hale Science Building
1350 Pleasant Street
Boulder, CO 80302 United States

AIA Society: Boulder

Lecturer: Heather McKillop

Surplus production at the household level helped underwrite the Classic Maya economy through marketplace trade. Salt played an important role because it’s a storable commodity, a biological necessity, and useful for drying fish and meat. Salt was as a storable commodity in the form of salt cakes, salted fish, or containerized salt.  As tribute payment, commodities could be warehoused by the dynastic Maya for acquiring other commodities, paying ransoms, or alleviating local food shortages. Salt cakes, along with standardized lengths of woven cloth, copper bells, and cacao beans were currency equivalencies in marketplaces. Marketplaces are known at Tikal, Caracol, and other cities, but they also were likely common at most towns during the Classic period. Both commoners and elite Maya households were engaged in surplus production. Surplus commodities were sold at markets, where vendors acquired obsidian, jadeite, and other non-local goods and resources, as indicated by the wide distribution of trade goods throughout Maya communities.

Two methods of salt production were used in the Maya area, including solar evaporation and evaporation in pots over fires. Solar evaporation produced loose salt that was gathered and hardened in place on the salt flats, but needed to be containerized for transport and sale. Brine boiling in pots yielded standard sizes of salt cakes according to the size of pots used in production. The preservation of wooden salt kitchens at the Paynes Creek Salt Works provide a model for salt production elsewhere using the brine boiling method. Excavation of salt kitchens at 10 sites yielded 90-98% briquetage, with little other material apart from charcoal, indicating activities were focused on salt production. Estimates of salt production at the Paynes Creek Salt Works and overall in the Maya world are compared with population estimates.


Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:

Field research, 3D imaging, and more on the Paynes Creek Salt Works (see “Publications” at bottom of page 1 for articles to download):

Link to interview on Science Friday, NPR:

PNAS Science Session, National Academy of Sciences: Heather McKillop, Nov 5, 2018

2019      Maya Salt Works. University Press of Florida, Gainesville (May 2019).

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January 29, 2020
7:00 pm
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University of Colorado, Boulder, Hale Science Building
1350 Pleasant Street
Boulder, CO 80302 United States
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