Archaeologists excavate rare Mayan “Death Vase”

December 4th, 2007 - 6:25 pm ICT by admin  

Washington, December 4 (ANI): Archaeologists have discovered an extremely rare and intricately carved “death vase” in the 1,400-year-old grave of a member of the Maya elite.

The vase was discovered during excavations of a small palace in Northwestern Honduras in 2005. This is the first time that such a relic has been found in modern times.

The archaeologists behind the dig, funded by the National Geographic Society, say that the contents of the vase are opening a window onto ancient rituals of ancestor worship that included food offerings, chocolate enemas, and hallucinations induced by vomiting.

They have revealed that soil samples collected from in and around the vessel contained pollen from corn, cacao and false ipecac, a plant that causes severe nausea when eaten.

Christian Wells, an anthropologist at the University of South Florida who lead the excavation, said that such traces indicated that the vase might have been used in ancient rites the Maya practiced to produce trancelike states through intense physical purging.

“The way to have contact, to communicate, with ancestors is to have visions. And you have a vision either by cutting yourself and bloodlettingwhich there’s really no evidence for in this caseor by having some very powerful chocolate enema, or by drinking your brains out and throwing up,” the National Geographic quoted Wells as saying of the Maya rituals.

“We think this beverage (in the vase) may have contained ipecac, which would have made the person who’s drinking it throw upa lot. Then, by throwing up a lot, they could’ve had visions that would have allowed them to talk with the ancestors,” he added.

The anthropologists believe that the white marble vase contained a corn-based gruel laced with the stomach-churning herb. Cacao, from which chocolate is made, might have been added for flavour, they say.

According to them, the new finding might be helpful in understanding what purposes the ornamental vessels called Ulua-style vases served.

Wells revealed that most of the vases that the scientists are familiar with were either looted from graves or unearthed long before modern archaeological methods were available.

“It’s really the first one that has ever been excavated (scientifically). Until this case, we hadn’t really had any idea about how these items were used,” Wells said.

However, the archaeologists are yet not sure where exactly they found the vasebeneath a pyramid-like palace they discovered in a small, remote Maya settlement in Honduras’ Palmarejo Valley.

“It’s a terraced building, and it had a single room on topa long, narrow, rectangular room. It was like a house, but a very nice one,” Wells said of the newfound structure.

It is believed that the person buried beneath the palace might be of historic importance to local residents, likely an ancestor figure whose death marked the end of an era.

“An ancestor is an important person who could’ve been a founder of the community or a founder of the lineage of the ruling family,” Wells said.

According to him, the palace was built over the grave very soon after the burial took place, around A.D. 650.

He further said that the vase was added to the grave about a hundred years after the burial, probably to commemorate the ancestor’s death.

“You typically see people digging up original ancestor figures and taking a relic bone or adding things to the (grave) and honouring them many years after they’ve died,” he said.

Wells said that the nausea-inducing gruel likely held by the vase might have been drunk by a worshipper at such a ceremony, or it might have been left as an offering to the dead.

However, according to him, the most valuable gift might have been the vase itself.

The vessel is a little larger than a coffee mug, and it is inscribed with sculpted scrolls and overlapping tiles that resemble serpent scales. Each of its two handles is carved to resemble the head of a leaf-nose bat.

“These things were super labor-intensive to produce, and they had imagery that was very cosmically significant,” Wells said.

He suspects that the ornate vase might have found its way to the remote community through a valuable link to craftspeople who made such vessels in the Ulua Valley, about a two-day walk away.

“It could be that these kinds of marble vases ended up all over the place, and we just don’t know because we haven’t excavated them. But I suspect that there’s something else going on here,” he said.

“There’s some special relationship that somebody had in this community with the producers of these vases over in the Ulua Valley. This is something you would find in a Maya king’s tomb. This is not something you would find in a very rural, backwater community,” he added.

The findings were presented at the Southeast Conference on Mesoamerican Archaeology and Ethnohistory in Columbia, South Carolina, last month. (ANI)

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