According to scientist studies, the Mayas painted some of their ornate temples with mica which is a glittery mineral to make them sparkle in the sun.
They have taken flakes of paint from the Rosalila temple in CopÃ¡n, Honduras, and discovered traces of the shiny mineral in the analysis.
This particular temple was built in the sixth century A.D., today it sits “entombed” in a giant pyramid that has been built around it.
The sacred site was given a dazzling appearance by the sparkling paint, because the mica pigment would have had a lustrous effect, according to a doctoral student in physical sciences and the study’s lead author, Rosemary Goodall.
Presently Mica is used today in paints to create a shimmering finish.
The gleaming paint also appears to have been applied periodically, scientist believe this was perhaps in honor of important anniversaries or ceremonial events.
Goodall’s team used a new high tech infrared analysis technique to study red, green, and gray paint implemented on stucco masks that appear on the exterior of the temple that is very well preserved.
This technique reads the chemical “signature” of each particle it samples, she explained.
“We’ve been unable to differentiate the different particles that have made up the paint, but by using this technique, we are able to get an image of the surface of the material and spatially separate the different particles from that paint”.
“The new infrared analysis gives us more information much more rapidly.”
The mica from the paint most likely came from beyond the Maya realm.
The team of scientist believes that mica was available in what is now known as Guatemala, and the Maya would have had to trade for something like that.
The analysis of the materials used by the Maya offers an insight into their technology and knowledge exchange and trade networks. As well as give us an insight into how people in the southern periphery of the Maya realm interacted with people in the northern regions.
So far Mica has only been found on the Rosalila temple.
“We know the building was in use for one hundred years because the Maya dated the opening ceremony of the building, as well as the closing ceremony”.
“We also know the building was repainted somewhere between 15 and 20 times, it is estimated that mica was only used, in every fourth or fifth repainting. Because it’s not on every layer.”
“The next step for us is to look at the core of the paint layers and see if we can find out the frequency mica was used, which may give us an indication of whether or not it was applied to celebrate one of these period endings, or to mark some significant date.”
Cynthia Robin is an anthropologist and Maya expert at Northwestern University in Illinois.
“I think that’s a very interesting idea,” Robin said of Goodall’s theory, “because the Maya numerical system is a base-20 system, so their calendar is based on a 20-year period called a katun.
“We know from hieroglyphs that these katun endings, or these 20-year periods, were important times of ceremony in the life of the king.
“Obviously Rosalila would have been a very important place for CopÃ¡n’s royalty.”
for National Geographic News
February 7, 2008