Megan Gannon, News EditorDate: 02 April 2013 Time: 05:42 PM ET

The Mayan King found on the Xultun murals.
A Maya king, seated and wearing an elaborate head dress of blue feathers, adorns the north wall of the ruined house discovered at the Maya site of Xultún. An attendant, at right, leans out from behind the king’s head dress. The painting by artist Heather Hurst recreates the design and colors of the original Maya artwork at the site.
CREDIT: Heather Hurst, copyright National Geographic Society

The ancient Maya used a vivid, remarkably durable blue paint to cover their palace walls, codices, pottery and maybe even the bodies of human sacrifices who were thrown to their deaths down sacred wells. Now a group of chemists claim to have cracked the recipe of Maya Blue.

Scientists have long known the two chief ingredients of the intense blue pigment: indigo, a plant dye that’s used today to color denim; and palygorskite, a type of clay. But how the Maya cooked up the unfading paint remained a mystery. Now Spanish researchers report that they found traces of another pigment in Maya Blue, which they say gives clues about how the color was made.

“We detected a second pigment in the samples, dehydroindigo, which must have formed through oxidation of the indigo when it underwent exposure to the heat that is required to prepare Maya Blue,” Antonio Doménech, a researcher from the University of Valencia, said in a statement.

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