LSU anthropologist Heather McKillop discovered this high-quality jadeite tool at the site of an ancient salt works in Belize that has been submerged in water due to sea level rise. This high-quality jadeite tool shows the importance of salt and Maya salt workers among the Classic Maya economy more than 1,000 years ago. (Photo : Heather McKillop, LSU.)
The jadeite tool LSU anthropologist Heather McKillop discovered is the first of its kind recovered with its wooden handle intact. The handle is made of high-quality Honduras rosewood. (Photo : Heather McKillop, LSU.)
Anthropologists discovered a tool made out of high-quality translucent jadeite with an intact rosewood handle at a site where the ancient Maya processed salt in Belize. The discovery of these high-quality materials--jadeite and rosewood--used as utilitarian tools, demonstrates that salt workers played an important role in the Classic Maya marketplace economy more than 1,000 years ago.
"The salt workers were successful entrepreneurs who were able to obtain high-quality tools for their craft through the production and distribution of a basic biological necessity: salt. Salt was in demand for the Maya diet. We have discovered that it was also a storable form of wealth and an important preservative for fish and meat," said lead researcher and anthropologist Heather McKillop, who is the Thomas & Lillian Landrum Alumni Professor in the LSU Department of Geography & Anthropology.
Jadeite is a hard rock that varies from translucent to opaque. During the Classic Period of A.D. 300-900, high-quality translucent jadeite was typically reserved for unique and elaborate jadeite plaques, figurines and earrings for royalty and other elites. However, McKillop and colleagues recovered the jadeite tool at the site of an ancient salt works in southern Belize called Ek Way Nal. This site is part of a network of 110 ancient salt working sites covering a 3-square-mile area McKillop discovered in 2004.
These sites are located in a saltwater lagoon surrounded by mangrove forest. Sea level rise has completely submerged them underwater and the soggy mangrove soil, or peat, preserves wood, which normally would decay in the rainforest of Central America.
"This jadeite tool is the first of its kind that has been recovered with its wooden handle intact," McKillop said.
Analysis of the wood's structure shows that the handle is made from Honduras rosewood. The jadeite gouge was analyzed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York to determine the object's chemical composition and mineral phases. This study was published in the journal, Antiquity, last month.
Although the jadeite tool was probably not used on wood or hard materials, it may have been used in other activities at the salt works, such as scraping salt, cutting and scraping fish or meat, or cleaning calabash gourds, McKillop said.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
Qab-nab Taab, a Tropical Solar Salt. This Tropical sea salt formed from ocean water trapped in man-made ponds. The mangrove sanctuaries are located next to nurtured mineral-rich volcanic soil deposits. Pure ocean water is captured in the salt ponds and evaporated, imparting great flavor and high mineral content. The salt is hand harvested to remove only the top layer, the best salt. The production methods protect the local environment and improve the local ecosystem. The tropical sun and wind leave behind snowy white crystals of crunchy, flavorful sea salts full of vital minerals and trace nutrients.
This cultivation carries on ancient sea salt harvesting traditions. The earliest evidence of the Mayan sea salt harvesting is dated at about 1000 BC. Scholars looking at ancient trade routes estimate that 3 to 6 tons of sea salt or "White Gold" per day were transported by canoe and on human backs into the interior to supply the Mayan people whose population then is estimated to have been greater than the population of the same region today. Sea salt was produced on both sides of Central America in what is now Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, and even into Honduras and El Salvador. Recently discovered archaeology sites (many now underwater) attest to the vastness of this ancient enterprise. The great Mayan civilization rose by controlling salt production and prospered on the ability to trade salt, flourishing in spite of constant conflict over control of salt sources.
Straight from the sea to you, pure unaltered flavor!
"Pliny rightly distinguishes three different base materials for salt production: rock-salt, brine waters and sea-water. It would seem that the quarrying of rock-salt is the oldest form of salt production and that man then turned to concentrated brines from wells or saltmines and finally produced "solar-salt" from sea-water in salterns on the shores of the sea and ocean."