Archaeologists in Guatemala have discovered an ancient Mayan “figurine factory” that they say is the largest ever found. The workshop, called Aragón, which mass produced ceramic figurines of important political and social figures in Mayan society, was buried for over 1000 years. The site contains fragments of over 400 of the figurines and provides a glimpse into one of the world’s most mysterious and puzzling ancient civilizations. This particular region has never before had any archaeological excavations, and most of what is known is based off of the limited Spanish writing from after their conquest.
According to Science, the discovery was by chance. Brent Woodfill, an archaeologist at South Carolina’s Winthrop University was tipped off to the site by friends living in Guatemala. They were doing construction on their property in Cobán, Guatemala and accidentally smashed into a treasure trove of ancient Mayan action figures. Much of the workshop was destroyed during the construction and Woodfill was given a grant for the “emergency salvage” of the location.
Despite the damaged state of the workshop, Woodfill and colleagues were able to recover over 400 fragments of the ceramic figurines and the molds for making them. Researchers believe that these figurines served an important political and economic purpose for the Maya. it is believed that they were exchanged by leaders as a way to strengthen alliances and bolster their own reputation. they also acted as a sort of propaganda tool, publicizing important relationships between leaders and informing the public of alliances or political turmoil.
Aragón was likely active between 750 C.E. to 900 C.E. This is well before archaeologists previously believed their were any large cities in the region. Intriguingly, the figurine factory appears to have survived and continued operations through 300 year collapse of the Mayan empire. That the figurine factory was active throughout this time leads researchers to believe there could be a detailed record of this collapse in the figurines that they find there.
It’s not just a record of the collapse that researchers hope to find, either. Such a large scale and long lasting figurine workshop probably holds important clues to other mysteries of the Mayan civilization too. Archaeologists hope to use the figurines they find in conjunction with the data from the Spanish conquest to paint a more detailed picture of the Mayan empire in Guatemala: how trade routes progressed, how cities rose and fell, how ancient Mayan politics worked. With such limited knowledge of the region, this figurine factory could dramatically increase archaeologists understanding of the region.
Now, just think about what happens a thousand years from now when some future archaeologist finds a complete collection of Star Wars action figures, in their original packaging and alphabetized. What spurious conclusions will they draw from that?