The Maya used iron pyrite to make mirrors

In 1965 I discovered three iron pyrite mirrors in the tomb of a member of the royal family of Tikal. One of these pyrite mirrors is possibly the largest one ever found in Guatemala.

These mirrors tended to consist of mosaic-sized pieces of bright shiny iron pyrite glued on top of slate or clay disk.

14 Tikal-Burial-196-Tomb-of-the-Jade-Jaguar Structure-5D-73 Peten-Guatemala 100

Burial 196, deep under the pyramid of Structure 5D-76, also had mercuric sulfide (cinnabar) and hematite. This specular hematite, Fe2O3, appeared to have been in wooden boxes, as burial offering). The entire list of minerals inside this Tomb of the Jade Jaguar is available in the three-volume edition of my Harvard thesis (about 193 pages of text and about 200 pages of illustrations, so a roughly 400 page labor).

The underside of this mirror was painted with stucco. The stucco painting was stuck to the plastered floor of this 9th century AD tomb. So to be extra careful, I had the excavation team dig out a rectangular chunk of the floor (the bench actually) and carry it by hand to the lab. The lab technicians of the University of Pennsylvania were able to rescue parts of the stucco painting. I believe this is still exhibited in the Sylvanus Morley Museum near the former airfield at Tikal.

The other two mirrors had no decoration so they would have been put into storage.

What is iron pyrite?

At Tikal we spoke of it as iron pyrite. This is iron sulfide, FeS2. Indeed with all the humidity of the Neotropical seasonal rain forest the material disintegrates into a raised fluffy crust. On the three mirrors which I discovered at Tikal, most of the iron pyrite had disintegrated during the thousand years of burial.

Where can you find iron pyrite?

Some materials in the elite Maya tombs are traded in from far away. Cinnabar (mercuric sulfide) is one such product. I have not yet found an archaeologist or geologist who can tell me where cinnabrio can be found in Guatemala. We all shrug our shoulders and suggest Honduras as a source.

Sources are listed for Guatemala, but I do not know anyone who actually knows a real source.

I hope to find cinnabar, or liquid mercury at least, somewhere in Guatemala. In the meantime I was speaking with a local person in a village and he showed me a sample of stone from an old mine which had been destroyed during the construction of a modern housing complex. He said nothing is left of the mine (because it is covered with concrete block houses). But he did have one sample: and it had segments of bright reflective material which could be iron pyrite (or specular hematite, another relative of iron).

So if there was a mine in this site, surely there must be even more iron related material elsewhere. The next time I visit this village I will try to take a snapshot of the stone sample. We ourselves do not wish to mine anything, but it would help archaeologists know where iron-related material was traded from.

The Classic Maya did not smelt or otherwise work “iron.” They only used the raw minerals to make jewelry or pigment colorants. Or, in the case of iron pyrite, to make mirrors. Gold and silver were also not worked by the Maya of the Classic period. So when gold is found (such as at Copan) it would have been imported from other civilizations elsewhere in the Americas. However gold was indeed mined and worked in the Post Classic, before the arrival of the Spanish.

It would be helpful to have more dissertations on geology of the Maya (and Olmec, and Teotihuacan)

A dissertation on mercuric sulfide, cinnabar, would be helpful.

A dissertation on iron pyrite and specular hematite would be useful.

And in general, it would be beneficial to Maya studies if students and professors have initiative to undertake studies of geology of Maya archaeology in general.

Since the Maya are one of many civilizations of Mesoamerica, would he good to have more work on geology of greater Mesoamerica. Geology of obsidian is fairly well advanced, for example. Sources of jadeite are also well known.

Although we tend to look for new Maya archaeology discoveries in the terms of burials, tombs, palaces, and temples, it would also be good news to be able to read about discovery of sources of cinnabar as well.

Burial 196 is a good example of what needs to be worked on.

  • Flint or chert (offerings in the fill over the burial)
  • Obsidian (sometimes found in fill, or as offerings over the top of a tomb; ironically no memorable obsidian or chert artifacts in the burial itself; most was jadeite).
  • Jadeite (Burial 196 had the (then) largest carved jade object yet found (the burial was discovered in the late autumn, early winter, 1965)
  • Specular hematite (used as red powder)
  • Cinnabar (scattered thickly over the body)
  • Iron pyrite, “fool’s gold,” three mirrors in the burial offerings

Sources of the first three are well documented; the last three need the most research.  Obsidian is well known throughout Guatemala and Mexico and elsewhere in Mesoamerica. I enjoyed driving through the green obsidian area of  Pachuca (where Teotihuacan got their green obsidian). And everytime you drive between Guatemala and El Peten or Alta Verapaz you pass through tons of visible obsidian below El Chayal (km 21-25, CA9). Much of the road fill is obsidian.

Burial 116, under nearby Temple I, also had pretty much the same minerals as in Burial 196 (which was under pyramid Structure 5D-75 which faced the south side of Temple II).

Plus it would be helpful to expand this list of minerals. And for geology it is also useful to look for the specific sources of the “alabaster” container in this burial.


First posted August 1, 2014

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