Unmasking an artifact technology: Textile/clay composites from Ancient Mesoamerica

Harriet F. Beaubien


Two sites, both part of the Petexbatún Regional Archaeological Project in Guatemala, have recently yielded fragments of an artifact material type that has not been previously reported in the Maya archaeological record. In 1993, several “sherds” were excavated by James Brady from ceremonial cave deposits at Cueva de los Quetzales. Analyses carried out in 1994 at the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education (then the Conservation Analytical Laboratory) indicated a composite material formed by multiple layers of clay-covered woven textile. While the limited sample did not permit the original form(s) to be ascertained, it appeared that the object(s) may have been shaped by draping the wet composite material over a mold until dry. In 1998, excavations of the elite center at Aguateca, under the direction of Takeshi Inomata (Yale University), yielded significant examples of the same material as part of fragmented, burned but otherwise undisturbed floor assemblages dating from the end of the late Classic period (9th c. AD). Through on-site conservation and reconstruction efforts, two skillfully crafted objects have been identified with features that suggest mask and headdress elements. A textile/clay composite would have been a highly suitable material for such a purpose – easily shaped, thin, lightweight, yet rigid – much as papier-mâché has been used more recently in Mexico for elaborate ceremonial paraphernalia.

Replication studies, as well as technical analysis using molds taken from Aguateca fragments, are underway at SCMRE and are yielding information about the textile component and technological aspects of these objects. While incomplete at this writing, results will be used to hypothesize a fabrication sequence for this previously unknown, yet possibly widespread, artifact material.

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