Brent Woodfill

Archaeologists unearth largest Mayan figurine factory to date

ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO—Archaeologists working in Guatemala have discovered the largest known figurine workshop in the Mayan world, they announced at the Society for American Archaeology meeting here last week. The workshop, buried for more than 1000 years, made intricate, mass-produced figurines that likely figured heavily in Mayan political customs.

Finding the workshop was a stroke of luck: Brent Woodfill, an archaeologist at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, learned about it from friends in Cobán, Guatemala, who were doing construction on their property. A few months later, Woodfill and colleagues excavated the site, called Aragón, and surveyed it with a drone. Although the workshop was destroyed by the construction, archaeologists were able to recover more than 400 fragments of figurines and the molds for making them (above), as well as thousands of ceramic pieces—more than at any other known Mayan workshop.

These figurines played a key role in Mayan politics and economics; it’s thought that leaders gave them to allies and subjects to strengthen and publicize important relationships. The Aragón workshop was likely active from about 750 C.E. to 900 C.E., long before archaeologists thought there was an important city in the region. It also appears to have survived and even thrived, as nearby cities such as Cancuén succumbed to political turmoil that unleashed a 3-century-long “collapse” around the Mayan world. That means Aragón could hold important clues about how political and economic power transformed over that long—and sometimes painful—transition.