Colours

The Mysteries of Maya Blue

There are a lot of colours that tell a story of the past. The mystery of the creation of Maya Blue lasted centuries after the Mayan civilization. The long-lasting colour showed the technological advancements of their time. Maya blue is a colour that has not faded, weathered or biodegrade on the objects with the paint. This is a colour compound that has eluded many scientists, historians and artists for centuries. Traces of the blue can be seen in museums’ artifacts made by the Mayan people.

The Mayans were one of the most successful civilizations that succeed in technology, art and architecture. The Mayan civilization existed in 300-900 C.E. between modern day Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, and the western part of Honduras and El Salvador, close to the Yucatán peninsula. The Mayans built huge stone temples such as the pyramidal buildings in Tikal in Guatemala. They show the stone cravings and stucco plaster reliefs. The Mayan cities had open plazas, palaces, terraces and ball courts where they played their sacred ball game.

Mayan mask made with clay by ancient natives of Mexico. By Mardoz at Dreamstime.com

They developed a sophisticated writing system that used 800 characters and a complex calendar system with a 260-day sacred year and a 365-day solar year. There is very little known about the Mayans before their writing system was developed and deciphered. Cities like Tikal and Palenque were unknown for centuries. There are many theories of how the Mayan civilization suddenly collapsed. Mayan city-states like the lowlands during the 800’s had deaths from natural causes, diseases from climate change, soil exhaustion, war or loss of control of the ruling class.

They had multiple Gods and various rituals they practiced. They practiced “auto-sacrifice” in which the Mayans would pierce their body to bleed blood as an offering to their Gods.

What is Maya Blue

The indigo plant has grown in different places in the world even in Mesoamerica between 300 to 1500 AD. The colour that was created by processed of indigo leaves and clay minerals. When chemists studied the blue compound in the 1960s, the compound was called palygorskite. It can be heated together to create the pigment. It was a durable, fade-resistant and vivid blue. Maya blue is little green because of the combination of indigo blue and yellow dehydroindigo which is yellow. Therefore, the presence of both compounds make slight variations of Maya blue to be greenish blue to sky blue.

HEX Code for Maya Blue #73C2FB

According to Livescience interview with anthropologist of the Field Museum in Chicago, Gary Feinman, believe that copal incenses were the third ingredient in the Maya Blue mixture to make it an everlasting colour. Copal incense is a resin that could have been used to fuse the clay minerals and indigo extracts and make it so durable.

It was called one of the greatest achievements in technology and artistically for the Mesoamericans for their time. It’s resistant to weathering, biodegradation, age, acid (nitric acid) and chemical solvents (alkalis and solvents). The recipe for the pigment was decoded by Mexican historian and chemist Constantino Reyes-Valerio in his 1993 paper by using chemical composition.

The blue pigment was used on murals, pottery, wood, rubber, insense, and anything that the Mayans could paint even people. This was a sacred pigment that humans sacrificed for ceremonies in temples painted in the same blue colour.

Earthenware effigy urn (an incense burner) of Chaac, 12th-14th century. Source: Wikipedia

Some pottery was discovered in a naturally-formed sinkhole where remains of human sacrifices at an important pre-Columbian Maya site called Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. The pottery dates back around 900 A.D. – 1500 A.D. The sinkhole was called the Sacred Cenote based on the bones of the remains. Most of the bodies of the human sacrifices were male. One of the pottery bowls were analyzed by researchers and it had evidence of burned incense with traces of Maya Blue.

The colour was to honour the Mayan Rain God, Chaak. He was also the god of human sacrifice. In times of drought, the Mayans would choose a person to be sacrificed to the God. It was when the sky was cloudless, dry and looked like Maya Blue. They would paint the person the blue pigment in sacrificial ceremonies in hopes the rain would fall soon. They would sacrifice the person to Chaak for rain. The person sacrificed would have their heart cut out of their chest while it’s still beating.


Resources:

ScienceDaily – Centuries-old Maya Blue Mystery Finally Solved

Thought Co. – Maya Blue: The Color of Mayan Artists

Livescience – Maya Blue Paint Recipe Deciphered

New York Times – The Grim Story of Maya Blue

EurekAlert! – New clues in the search to rediscover the mysterious Maya Blue formula

Banner Credit: Ancient murals in Temple of Paintings of Bonampak, Mexico – ID 196416988 by Byelikova at Dreamstime.com

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