Mercury, Cinnabar, and Honduran Archaeology

When the international press covered the news that researchers at Teotihuacan had encountered liquid mercury in their excavations of a tunnel associated with the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, I was called by a reporter interested in knowing whether similar finds existed elsewhere in Mesoamerica.

Luckily, I knew the answer: ancient Honduras (and adjacent Guatemala) were central locations for Mesoamerican use of liquid mercury. Here’s why.

Cinnabar, the red powdery mineral mercuric sulphide, was in use in Central America by the time when people in Formative Honduran sites like Puerto Escondido, Copan, Los Naranjos, and the Cuyamel Caves created pottery with deeply carved designs rubbed with red pigments. While red pigments on early pottery from Honduras have never (to my knowledge) been tested chemically, cinnabar has been reported from sites in Mexico, including La Venta, Chalcatzingo, and Izapa, and museums often describe the red pigment on ceramics similar to those from Honduras as cinnabar.

A long time later, liquid mercury appears in archaeological sites dating to the Classic Period (between 400 and 800 AD). The majority of reported finds are from the highlands of eastern Guatemala and western Honduras, at Lake Amatitlan, Kaminaljuyu, and Quirigua in Guatemala, and Copan and El Paraiso in western Honduras.

Outside of this area, two sites in Belize– Caracol and Lamanai— and now, Teotihuacan, in Mexico, have yielded liquid mercury dating to the Classic Period.

A major point of disagreement among archaeologists writing about finds of liquid mercury has been whether it was collected from naturally occurring deposits, or produced by processing cinnabar, burning it in closed vessels.

David Pendergast, excavator of a ballcourt cache at Lamanai, Belize described the liquid mercury there as likely collected in the highlands of Honduras or Guatemala as native drops of liquid mercury in cinnabar deposits.

USGS reports from the 1950s do describe some liquid mercury in Honduran cinnabar deposits near Tegucigalpa. Some of these deposits were exploited by Spanish colonial miners who used mercury in processing silver ore.

However, these geological resources are far from the zone where archaeological finds of liquid mercury are reported, and no archaeological sites in this area have produced evidence of contact with places like Copan or Quirigua, let alone sites in Belize.

Other cinnabar deposits are present in the Department of Santa Barbara, much closer to the archaeological locations where liquid mercury has been found. There are no reported incidences of native mercury in these deposits. But liquid mercury can be produced by burning cinnabar under certain conditions.

At Copan and Quirigua, there is evidence that this was how liquid mercury found there was actually produced.

A cache associated with carved stone Monument 21 at Quirigua contained a deposit burned in place. The excavator, Professor Wendy Ashmore of UC Riverside, argued that the burning of cinnabar in this cache produced the liquid mercury found there.

At Copan, a deposit in the Margarita tomb similarly includes signs of burning, with both unconverted cinnabar and liquid mercury present. Harriet Beaubien of the Smithsonian Institution commented that she

was involved in the excavation of a cache associated with the Margarita South Offering Platform at Copan in 1993, which produced a large quantity of liquid mercury. The stone “box” had, among other items, a large lidded ceramic bowl containing the remains of a turkey. Everything was very very heavily burned (blackened), and I believe that quantities of cinnabar were included in the deposit, transformed to liquid mercury in a reduction environment. Yellowish stains (not tested) suggest sulfur-rich products, the leftover component of cinnabar’s decomposition.

So, did the people of the ancient southeastern Maya area invent this process, and innovate the use of liquid mercury?

Dating of the Teotihuacan cache suggests not.

The deposits being explored by the current Teotihuacan project under the Temple of the Feathered Serpent predate 400 AD. Sergio Gomez, the lead archaeologist on the team slowly excavating the contents of the ancient tunnel below the pyramid, has suggested that the tunnel might have been sealed off as early as 200-250 AD.

That would make the presence of liquid mercury substantially earlier at Teotihuacan than in the caches from Copan, Quirigua, and other nearby sites. Only the cache from Caracol has similarly early dates.

With the new discovery at Teotihuacan, we can now say with certainty that mercury was used in ritual before 400 AD in Mexico. The technology required to produce mercury from cinnabar was entirely within the reach of people in this area as soon as they were able to fire pottery (long before 1000 BC).

In Honduras and bordering Guatemala, the practice of burning offerings was an important part of ritual. The red pigment cinnabar, locally available, may have originally been burned as a ritual gesture– producing a model of transformation in color and texture from red powder to silvery liquid.

It may be no accident that this practice became important at the same time, and in the same area, where other burial practices, cache and burial contents, and imagery suggest that Teotihuacan was an important point of reference in political and religious life.

Early Ancestral Mountains? Yarumela and Los Naranjos

Along the shore of Lake Yojoa in Honduras lies the Parque Eco-Arqueológico Los Naranjos. A legacy of the energy of the archaeologist, George Hasemann, the park preserves a rich habitat for birds. Following one of the paths through the park, visitors arrive at a clearing where they face a monumental platform, 100 meters on the side, about 20 meters tall.

Structure IV, the unglamorous name of this platform, is one of three similar, monumental platforms at Los Naranjos. Constructed primarily of earth, with stone used for areas of facing such as the paving of a monumental ramp on Structure IV, these are the tallest individual constructions made in Precolumbian Honduras outside the small zone in the extreme west of the country where Classic Maya sites, including Copan, are found.

The monumental platforms at Los Naranjos are much earlier than the Classic Maya occupation of Copan as well. French excavators who published a book about their investigations of the site obtained a radiocarbon date from fill in Structure IV, and suggested it was built around 700 BC. That date, consistent with findings of work at the site from 2002 to 2004, makes the building of the monumental platforms at Los Naranjos contemporary with monumental platforms built across an area stretching from Mexico’s Gulf Coast to El Salvador and Honduras, where at least two sites saw such early buildings. In addition to Los Naranjos, the site of Yarumela, in the Department of Comayagua, also includes a monumental earthen platform of similar size and equally early date.

The development of this kind of monumental architecture is often interpreted as emulation of the Olmec archaeological site of La Venta in the Gulf Coast of Mexico. And it is true that Los Naranjos and Yarumela both had objects with imagery related to Olmec sites on the Gulf Coast, ranging from cylinder seals to monumental sculpture. Archaeologists specializing in the archaeology of Mexico identify the pyramid at La Venta as a sacred mountain, part of a built environment presenting a sacred landscape.

There is good reason to think that Honduran people regarded caves in the mountains as powerful places already by the time the platforms at Yarumela and Los Naranjos were built. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we can assume they originally built these platforms as images of sacred mountains.

At Los Naranjos, in fact, the original platform was not as much tall, as broad. It would have elevated people standing on it above the heads of others, who would then be able to see what was done on the platform: perhaps dances or ritual performances, by people dressed in special jade costumes, like the one worn by a person buried in Structure IV.

It was only after the first, broad platform that builders at Los Naranjos piled earthen fill higher, creating a tall platform. If we pay attention to the sequence of construction, then what we see is the building of a broad platform followed by the conversion of that platform into the base of a taller earthen mound.

We could even see the conversion of the original platform into the base of a small “sacred mountain” as a case of unintended consequences when the original platform, built of the same materials as everyday houses but at much larger scale, resisted erosion that would have eliminated the kind of low platform that supported everyday houses.

By paying careful attention to the archaeological traces, we can follow the historical unfolding of the creation of monumental architecture, instead of assuming that we know why people built these platforms. We can get a little bit closer to the decisions made by people more than 1700 years ago, and allow for the possibility that different people had different reasons to do things. We come a little closer to seeing the ancient people of Honduras as authors of their own destiny, instead of imitators of others living far away.

And that may help us begin to think more carefully about the local reasons people in Honduras might have begun to produce stone sculpture similar to sculptures in the Gulf Coast of Mexico, what they wanted to do with those platforms and plazas ornamented with unique images.

Ballcourts in Honduran archaeology

Ballcourts– formally constructed spaces for the playing of games using rubber balls– are found across much of the territory of modern Honduras, although not every settlement, or even every large settlement, has a ballcourt.

Finding ballcourts was unexpected when settlement pattern research was conducted in Yoro and the Mosquitia in the 1990s.

In 1939, Samuel Lothrop had used ballcourts as a key to defining the “frontier” of Mesoamerica that he thought ran through western Honduras. His frontier went through the Ulua River valley on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, and the eastern edge of the Comayagua valley in central Honduras. It included all the sites then known that had ballcourts, which he thought were evidence of a Mesoamerican identity.

When ballcourts were found east of this line, along the Cuyumapa River in the modern Department of Yoro, and even further east, in the Mosquitia, those findings challenged the traditional model. What were ballcourts doing “outside” Mesoamerica? What were they doing?

Answers to these questions in modern archaeology don’t involve trying to trace the boundary of a “civilization”: they involve trying to think about why people living in these particular places went to the effort to build these stone courts; how the courts they built compare to those known from neighboring areas; and what they were actually doing in these courts.

Because ball games require two teams, each ball court implies two sides, either two factions within the local town, or locals and visitors. Ballcourts can be seen as indications of friendly competition, contained by being channeled into a sport. They were also opportunities for individual participants to stand out through their athletic abilities. In addition to playing ball games (which can only be inferred from the ball court itself), excavations around ballcourts in Yoro found evidence that people were drinking together during the events held at the ballcourts.

In Yoro, ballcourts were built in two different kinds of sites: smaller and larger, the larger more centrally located on main rivers, the smaller upstream. These smaller and larger ballcourts were turned in slightly different directions: some roughly at the part of the eastern horizon where the sun rose in the winter, others at the area on the eastern horizon where the sun rose in the summer.Seasonal

This gave a pattern where some ballcourts were located in locations that would have been gathering places in summer, and others in locations that would have been visited in winter.

The summer ballcourts were located upriver, near where most of these farmers had their agricultural fields. The winter ballcourts were on the main rivers, convenient for visitors coming along the rivers from farther away, but requiring local farmers to leave behind their own villages if they wanted to witness, or compete in, ball games.

The different orientations of ballcourts in Yoro not only associated them with different seasons: they emphasized that ballcourts and ballgames were tied to beliefs about the origins of the world, about supernatural beings and the relations of the living to the dead. The sun’s rising and setting every day, replayed the first sunrise of legend, and its seasonal movement related the ballcourt to cycles of growth of plants, and through them, of people. It was not surprising to find evidence around ballcourts that people burned resins, a gesture used to honor ancestors and gods.

Ballcourts in other areas of Honduras would have had their own local significance, not necessarily similar to those in Yoro. But in each area, the presence of ballcourts implies playing a game with two teams, in which the outcome of the game created a hierarchy between the teams. That hierarchy at the same time showed that both teams shared a level of identity sufficient to allow them to follow the same rules.

When visitors played ballgames in the Mosquitia, they would have used the same techniques of play as those playing ballgames in Yoro, and at other places like Copan, Tenampua, Los Naranjos, La Sierra, Travesia, and Cerro Palenque. Playing ballgames in courts of similar size, shape, and construction created an identification among the people from these and other ball-game playing sites across wide regions, much like today, international players who learn the rules and manner of play of soccer, baseball, or basketball can compete with each other without any other form of connection. Ballcourts, which required certain manners of playing, helped shape players from different areas who could recognize each other as sharing this one practice, even if in many other ways, from language to political authority to family ties, they were quite different.