Washington, April 17 : An analysis of textile fragments excavated from a 5th century Mayan tomb in Honduras has revealed high quality fabrics, which suggests that the Mayans were highly skilled spinners and weavers.
The tomb, one of three excavated by archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania, was of a woman of high status who was buried during the 5th century.
Located at the Copan ruins in Houndras, it has so far revealed a treasure trove of fabrics since the 1990s.
Textiles conservator Margaret Ordonez, a professor at the University of Rhode Island, spent a month at the site in 2004 examining 100 textile samples found in a tomb.
Since then, Ordonez has been analyzing tiny fragments of 49 samples she brought back to her lab to see what she could learn from them.
She pulled out about 30 plastic containers the size of a film canister, and inside each was what looked like a rock or bit of compressed mud about an inch in diameter. Within each piece were flecks of what only an expert could tell are tiny fragments of fabric.
Handling each piece very carefully so it doesn't crumble, Ordonez used a stereomicroscope to examine the yarn structure, the fabric structure, and the finish on each sample.
She then brought the sample to the URI Sensors and Surface Technology Laboratory to use a scanning electron microscope to look in more fine detail at the plant material from which each piece of yarn was made.
"I can look at the cell structure of the yarn and compare it to reference materials to identify the kind of plant each thread is made from," explained Ordonez. "We've found threads made from cotton, sedge grasses, and all kinds of other plant fibers," she added.
"What was most amazing was that there were as many as 25 layers of fabrics on an offertory platform and covering pottery in the tomb, and they all had a different fabric structure, color, and yarn size," said Ordonez.
According to her, it's likely that the tomb was reopened - perhaps several times - and additional layers of textiles were laid there years after the woman's death.
One fabric in particular had an especially high thread count - 100 yarns per inch - which is even considered high for modern textiles.
"It speaks to the technology they had at the time for making very fine fabrics. It's gratifying that we've been able to document that the Mayans were quite skillful at spinning and weaving," said Ordonez.