‘Belly Sculptures’ Suggest Mesoamericans knew about magnetism 2,000 years ago

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Ru et al. 2019

Over 2,000 years ago, an unknown sculptor carefully examined certain rocks in present-day Guatemala. Using pieces of natural magnetic minerals, such as magnetite, he selected large rocks attracting his improvised magnetometer. The selected rocks were then used to carve “pot belly sculptures”, sculptures of obese human figures reaching up to two meters in height and weighing over 10,000 kilograms. Belly-shaped carvings have been interpreted in a variety of ways, such as depictions of dead ancestors, babies, or the misunderstood “Fat God” or other supernatural entities from Mesoamerican mythology. Already in 1997, it was noted that some statues and sculptures from Mesoamerica and elsewhere in the New World are slightly magnetic. However, archaeologists were unsure whether this sighting was a coincidence or whether the ancients were aware of the magnetic properties of the rocks used. New search, published in the Journal of Archaeological Sciences, suggests that partially magnetized rocks were indeed selectively used by ancient sculptors. The researchers mapped the magnetic properties of the rock used to sculpt eleven statues in high resolution, noting that parts of the body, such as the navel, forehead and cheeks of human figures, appear to have magnetic anomalies. The researcher suggests that the magnetized spots on the statues are not randomly distributed, and it is almost certain that they were deliberately sculpted to use their magnetic properties. Ancient sculptors could have used magnetic minerals or pulverized magnetic ore to find the stains. Just as the significance of ventral statues in ancient Mesoamerican culture remains uncertain, so too is the significance of magnetic points in the carving process. Perhaps the magnetic properties, invisible to the human eye and yet present, symbolized the presence and authority of deceased ancestors or the magical powers of the gods.

The sculptures studied are in basalt, a volcanic rock with a high content of iron minerals. Researchers believe that the iron minerals were magnetized in localized places by lightning that predated the carving process.


D. Bressan


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