U.S. archaeologists have unearthed dozens of rounded clay pieces from a site in Mexico, which they believe were used by ancient Maya for cooking.
The excavation of a kitchen at Escalera al Cielo in Yucatan, which was conducted with the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) and Millsaps College's financial support, revealed 77 complete balls and 912 smaller fragments.
The clay balls, about 1-2 inches in diameter and more than 1,000 years old, contained microscopic pieces of maize, beans, squash and other root crops, Discovery News reported.
The finding supports the hypothesis that the balls "were involved in kitchen activities related to food processing," archaeologists Stephanie Simms, Francesco Berna, of Boston University, MA, and George Bey of Millsaps College, MS, wrote in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
"This is the first time fired clay balls have been studied in the Maya area and, to my knowledge, no one has documented the use of clay balls in modern Maya cooking," Simms told Discovery News.
Located in the Puuc Maya hills of Yucatan, Escalera al Cielo was an elite residential settlement that was rapidly abandoned sometime near the end of the Terminal Classic period (800-950 A.D.), as shown by ceramic vessels, stone tools, personal adornments, and other materil assembled on the floors.
"We know much about the nature of ancient Maya kings and queens, but this type of study helps see how the Maya worked in the kitchen, what kinds of tools they used and the ways they might have prepared their cuisine," Bey, the project co-director along with archaeologist Tomas Gallareta Negron and anthropologist William Ringle, told the channel
To better understand the meaning of the fired clay balls, the researchers used a suite of microscopic techniques and experimental replication. The tests revealed that the balls were produced from local clay in a standardized set of sizes.
"They were fired at a fairly low temperature and were used repeatedly in the kitchen," Bey said.
Most likely, the fired clay balls were either placed directly into pots of food to cook or heat it, or used in pit (pib in Mayan) oven cooking installations.
"This cooking method involves digging a shallow pit, lining it with stones or clay balls, building a fire on top and waiting until it is reduced to embers," Simms said.
The process continued by placing whole roots, squash fruits or packets of food wrapped in maize on the hot stones. Everything was then covered with earth and leaves to seal in heat. Cooking took from one hour to up to a day or more.
The experimental tests showed "how the ancient Puuc Maya manipulated materials available to them to produce objects that potentially represent a staple of every Puuc Maya kitchen inventory, maybe even representing a local cooking technique and cuisine," Simms said. (ANI)