Maya Blue: Painting from the Past in the Present

7th July 2021

The clay-dye composite 'Maya Blue' was made in Mesoamerica from as early as the third century CE until shortly after the conquest of the region by Spain in the 16th century. Codices, pottery, wall paintings and sculptures were painted with this pigment and today, Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists are recreating it using new practices.

The archaeological fascination with the ‘Maya blue’ pigment owes in part to its chromatic properties, which deteriorate little over time and are resistant to diluted mineral acids, alkalis, solvents, oxidants, reducing agents, moderate heat and biocorrosion.

Archaeologists and art historians have also pointed to the complex chemistry involved in its fabrication, as well as the aesthetic qualities associated with its application, particularly in wall-painting.

Although the colour was also used in the 16th century to decorate Franciscan churches in Yucatan, it ceased to be produced shortly thereafter and, as such, there have been no published studies of Indigenous methods in the process of making Maya Blue.


Some of the objects from the British Museum’s Mesoamerican collection still show traces of ‘Maya blue’.

Piece of plaster or stucco, Belize. Am1974,11.244
Mask made of pottery, Mexico. Am1856,0422.66
Stucco figure from Tulum, Mexico; Am1991,Q.3
Yaxchilan Lintel 24, Chiapas, Mexico. Am1923,Maud.4
Relief of maya glyph made of stucco, Belize. Am1938,1021.403
Pottery vessel in the shape of an inverted human-like head, Palenque, Mexico. Am1986,Q.78
Bird-shaped whistle made of pottery, Mexico. Am1844,0720.907

Maya Blue Palette

New perspectives

Scientists identified the characteristics of this pigment in the 1960s, defining it as a nanostructured material produced by heating palygorskite, a naturally occurring fibrous phyllosilicate mineral, with a needle-like structure together with a pre-Columbian species of indigo (either I.suffructicosa or I.guatalamensis, ch’oh in Yucatec Mayan).

Although they have long experimented with its fabrication, Indigenous and non- Indigenous artists in Southern Mexico are now producing the colour using Indigenous methodologies and artistic sensibilities.

Luis May y Eulogios añil Chemax
Muitle Plant ©Lorena Ancona

Muitle Plant ©Lorena Ancona

Maya Blue powder ©Luis May

Maya Blue powder ©Luis May

This project will overturn the interpretational frameworks that have, until now, been used to study this complex pigment, using an interdisciplinary framework comprising Indigenous epistemologies, artistic experimentation and materials science.

Not only will this politically engaged process elucidate aspects of the pre-Colombian pigment that have been ignored by scientists working in laboratories, it will also champion multivocal and local methodologies.

Pottery figure painted with Maya Blue ©Luis May

The contemporary artists affiliated to this project are currently adopting Indigenous methodologies to experiment with the pigment.

Preliminary ethnographic research has also shown that other blue dyes, such as those extracted from lonchocarpus spp. branches, may have been employed to produce Maya Blue.

These species are endemic to Mesoamerica and may have been used in place of indigofera spp. in certain regions; however, the Franciscan missionaries may have avoided their use because of their Indigenous religious significance: Lonchocarpus violaceus, for example, was (and continues to be) widely used to make the Maya alcoholic ritual drink, balché.


This project will analyse the molecular composition of contemporary Maya Blue alongside traces of the pigment on British Museum collections to compare Maya Blue made using contemporary Indigenous methods with those made in a laboratory.

The research group hypothesises that local processes and materials more closely resemble the blue in historical sources and pigments. These analyses on objects may also identify alternative sources of blue colourants to indigo and Maya Blue, such as the use of Justicia spicigera (muitle) and Commelina coelestis.

Moreover, this project aims to acknowledge the multi-temporality of heritage – as well as the importance of emphasising Indigenous culture continuity. The researchers, some of whom are Indigenous, are predominantly from the region and as such, the project constitutes an ontological appropriation of heritage interpretations by Indigenous and local people.

Publications related to women’s and maternal health with Wixárika communities by the author of this exhibition


Gamlin, Jennie B. (2013)
Shame as a barrier to health seeking among indigenous Huichol migrant labourers: An interpretive approach of the “violence continuum” and “authoritative knowledge”
Social Science and Medicine 97 75-81

Gamlin, Jennie B. (2023)
Wixárika Practices of Medical Syncretism: An Ontological Proposal for Health in the Anthropocene
Medical Anthropology Theory 10 (2) 1-26

Gamlin, Jennie B. (2020)
“You see, we women, we can’t talk, we can’t have an opinion…”. The coloniality of gender and childbirth practices in Indigenous Wixárika families
Social Science and Medicine 252, 112912

Jennie Gamlin and David Osrin (2020)
Preventable infant deaths, lone births and lack of registration in Mexican indigenous communities: health care services and the afterlife of colonialism
Ethnicity and Health 25 (7)

Jennie Gamlin and Seth Holmes (2018)
Preventable perinatal deaths in indigenous Wixárika communities: an ethnographic study of pregnancy, childbirth and structural violence BMC
Pregnancy and Childbirth 18 (Article number 243) 2018

Gamlin, Jennie B. and Sarah J Hawkes (2015)
Pregnancy and birth in an Indigenous Huichol community: from structural violence to structural policy responses
Culture, health and sexuality 17 (1)