In A Nutshell
Maya blue is one of the few dye pigments that has survived almost 15 centuries. The blue color, long a mystery to scientists and chemists, has finally had another piece of its creation decoded: dehydroindigo. The chemical makeup probably mattered little to the people who created it, though, as the color had a major religious significance and was used to paint the naked bodies of human sacrifices before their hearts were torn from their chests.
The Whole Bushel
While other colors have long since faded, Maya blue remains to give us a brightly colored look into one of the most important aspects of Mayan life: religious sacrifice.
What we know about Maya blue has slowly developed over decades, and it started with a rather puzzling discovery that quickly turned gruesome. In 1904, an archaeological excavation was sent to explore a natural well outside of Mexico’s Chichen Itza. The well was called the Sacred Cenote, and it was a spot of supreme religious importance. The excavation found a number of religious artifacts, including pottery, bowls, incense burners, and the bones belonging to 127 skeletons.
At the bottom of the natural well was, as expected, mud. But the top layer of mud, about 4.2 meters (14 ft) of it, was a distinctive blue color. It was the same blue that had been found surviving on other artifacts: Maya blue. The earliest samples of Maya blue were dated to about A.D. 300, and, disturbingly, it’s not just a pretty color.
When the skies turned the same shade as Maya blue, that meant there was no rain in sight. There was no sign of clouds, no relief, no rain for the crops, no lifeblood for the Maya. So, they would need to shed a little of that blood.
Maya blue was also the color that was associated with Chaak, the rain god, and it was Chaak that was honored with many, many human sacrifices. According to European accounts, sacrifices were first painted Maya blue, then put onto an altar where their still-beating hearts were cut out of their living bodies.
Sacrifices were thrown into the Sacred Cenote, and that’s where the 4 meters of blue sludge at the bottom came from: the incredibly durable pigment washed off the bodies of the sacrifices, remaining behind while the unfortunate sacrifices decomposed over the centuries. Sometimes, it was painted pottery offerings that were thrown into the well, but the uncovering of more than 100 human skeletons leaves no doubts that it was the sacrifices described in the journals of European explorers that were thrown in there, too.
Maya blue presented another mystery to those that had found the brightly colored artifacts. Just how was a pigment made that could survive time and weathering, where all others had long faded?
And it wasn’t an easy answer to find.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that chemists finally figured out the components. Indigo dye was somehow combined with a mineral called palygorskite, but that’s all they knew . . . until 50 years later.
Technology finally caught up to the Maya enough to detect another component of the mysterious color. Dehydroindigo is an oxidized form of indigo. Indigo is blue (the same color we use to dye jeans today), and dehydroindigo is yellow, which would combine to give Maya blue its distinctive soft, greenish tinge.
But it’s still a mystery how the Maya actually got the color to adhere so permanently to the pottery and clay that it’s on today. At one point, it was put forth that resin also used in the creation of incense may have been used in creating the color, but that’s up for debate.
It’s also been put forth that the recipe was a trade secret, held by the same priests who would decide when it was time to appease Chaak with a sacrifice, hoping that he would return the rains to the land and bring life to others. What we do know is that this bright, beautiful color meant death for so many.