URI Textile Expert: Mayans Produced Fine Fabrics

Fabric fragments found in the 5th century tomb of a female member of Mayan royalty rival today’s textiles in their complexity and quality, according to textiles conservator Margaret Ordoñez, a professor in our College of Human Science and Services.

Few textiles from the Mayan culture were known to have survived, so considerable excitement was generated when a treasure trove of fabrics was found in the tomb at the Copán ruins in Honduras, one of three excavated by archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania during the 1990s.

Ordoñez spent a month at the site in 2004 examining 100 textile samples found in a tomb. She brought back tiny fragments of 49 samples to her lab, which she has since analyzed.

“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, so it’s likely that the tomb was reopened—perhaps several times—and additional layers of textiles were laid there years after her death,” said Ordoñez.

One fabric in particular had an especially high thread count—100 yarns per inch—that Ordoñez said is considered high even in 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.”