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Mayans Used Glittering Pigments On Their Buildings

March 2008 - Rosemary Goodall from Queensland University of Technology has found that ancient Mayans used lustrous pigments to make their buildings glitter in daylight. Using a novel technique, analysis of tiny shards of paint from the Rosalila temple in the Mayan city of Copan, Honduras showed traces of two new pigments including mica applied over red-painted stucco masks on the corners of the building.

Rosemary Goodall commented:

"The Rosalila would have been one of the highest buildings of the valley in its time, built by the Maya ruler to exhibit his power and impress his subjects. I discovered a green pigment and a mica pigment that would have had a lustrous effect. I'm sure that when the sun hit it, it must have sparkled. It must have had the most amazing appearance."

The researcher explained that Copan was first occupied in 1600 BC, but the Rosalila temple dates from AD 400-800. It is a fine example of buildings at this site, which were painted in red and white, with beautiful masks and carvings in additional colours. The temple was coated in stucco then filled with rubble and a larger pyramid constructed around it, contributing to its excellent state of preservation. The fate of the Maya people is still not well-understood, but they had largely disappeared by about AD 900.

Rosemary Goodall explained:

"I used an infrared analysis technique, called FTIR-ATR spectral imaging, which has not been used for archaeology before. Using this technique and Raman spectroscopy I found the 'signature' of each mineral in paint samples only millimetres in size. The Rosalila has more than 15 layers of paint and stucco. Knowing the mineral make-up of the pigments tells us what colours were painted on each layer. I also found the stucco changed over time. It became more refined and changed in colour from grey to white."

"The next step of my research will be to take a portable Raman spectrometer to Copan to undertake more paint analysis. The research will help determine the best ways to conserve the Copan ruins - by understanding what's there, you can suggest ways to stop damage, and the tests do not destroy the samples."

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