The Classic Maya ascribed a number of meanings to jade, including maize, centrality, and rulership, as well as a material embodiment of wind and the vitalizing breath soul. Because of its close relationship to the breath spirit, jade was an important component of funerary rites and the ritual conjuring of gods and ancestors. Carved in floral form, jade earspools were considered supernatural sources or passageways for the breath spirit, frequently portrayed as a bead or a serpent emerging from the center of the jade flare. A common Classic Maya death expression, och b’ih, pertains directly to resurrection of the soul through the symbolism of earspools.
Karl A. Taube (Archaeologist, epigrapher, and ethnohistorian)
While “jade” is the common term for the mineral the ancient Maya considered “most precious,” technically the stone is jadeite, a mineral composed of sodium, aluminum, and silicates. The colors varied including green, blue, lavender, white, and black. Green was highly prized by the Maya, a color derived from the presence of chromium and nickel. On Moh’s scale of hardness, jadeite ranks 6.5 to 7, relative to diamonds that are 10. The Motagua River valley in Guatemala is one of only six known jadeite sources in the world. It is rare because it forms under high-temperature and low-pressure conditions associated with a tectonic fault.
Worn only by the elite, jade identified the wearer as having esoteric and ritual knowledge. Besides their use as adornments, they were sacred objects used to conjure the gods and ancestors, and open portals to the underworld (beneath the surface of the earth) and the celestial world, home to sky deities. Jade was the most precious stone in Mesoamerica. The Aztec king, Montezuma, told Cortés that jade pieces he would send to the king of Spain were valued at more than two loads of gold each.
Because it was extremely hard, it took weeks, months and years, sometimes generations to carve a single piece of jade. Tools consisted of chert and quartzite that had a hardness of 7, and jade itself. To saw it, one person would keep abrasive dust particles on the line while another pressed into it with a string, which was only good for about eight to ten strokes. Incising was done after polishing, often using the string-saw technique. Drills consisted of either quartzite or chert blades, some turned by hand, while others used a pump drill like the kind used to drill fire.
In 2015, archaeologist Jeffrey Braswell found a jade pendant in Nim Li Punit, a small site in southern Belize. Significantly, it’s unique in that it carries an inscription. The text reads: “This jewel was made for the king Janaab’ Ohl K’inich.” Its first use was in A.D. 672 for an incense-scattering ceremony. It talks about the king’s parentage, saying his mother was from Cahal Pech, a site in western Belize, and his father died before age 20, coming from somewhere in Guatemala. It also describes the accession rites of the king in A.D. 647 and ends with a passage that possibly links the king to the powerful and immense city of Caracol, also in Belize.
The 6” tall, deep green and highly polished jade piece weighs close to ten pounds. Highly carved, it represents the head of the Sun God, K’inich Ajaw. In some legends he descends to the earth each day as a macaw, so the head features a prominent beak. Found in Structure B-4 at Altun Ha, a mid-sized city in Belize, it has been dated to between A.D. 600-650. In the tomb where it was found were the remains of an adult male, who was about 5’ 6” tall.
Scroll down to see the jade mask and associated jewels. Imagine the time and labor investment in making all these pieces. And realize that for all the jade plaques to fit together in the round, there had to be a design that each of the lapidaries followed. It’s a staggering achievement. Notice how closely the sculptured head of Pakal, shown first on this site, matches the features of the jade mask. Pakal ascended to the throne at Palenque on July 29, 615 A.D. He died in 683 A.D. I highly recommend this site.
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 30 )
NINE HEAVILY LOADED DUGOUT CANOES PADDLED BY FIVE MEN each cut through the fog and pre-dawn darkness that blanketed Ahkha. The traders had gotten an early start in order to present Lord Flint Axe Macaw, the eight-year-old ruler of Ahktuunal, with the tribute he required in order to trade in his markets.
For a full season, the merchants had traveled down swift and muddy rivers, paddled through flooded, snake-infested jungle and had managed backbreaking portages around treacherous rapids. The challenge going south had been to trade perishable and household items—herbs and dried chilies, cording, logwood and other vegetal dyes, turtle carapaces, sharks teeth, and conch shells, fish hooks, sea-salt and honey from the north—for more durable goods and items of fine workmanship.
In addition to a sizable quantity of figurines, incised ceramic wares, and hand censers, the traders took on high-status items intended for the noble lords and underlords, ministers, holy men and chiefs. These included ceremonial items: copal incense wrapped in maize leaves and tied with a thin blue cord; dried tobacco leaves tied with hemp two hundred to a bundle. Toucan, parrot, macaw and hummingbird feathers were rolled in barkcloth and tied. Jade earplugs, tubes, and flares, including necklaces, carved beads and pendants were all kept in a bundle at the master’s feet. For noblewomen, there were shell bracelets and necklaces, incised tortoiseshell containers, bone needles and textile dyes, all packed with protective palm fronds, bound in wicker, and carried in back baskets fitted with forehead straps. The larger textiles hung over poles. Smaller ones were folded and carried in cotton stuffed with kazcat, an herb that protected them from moths and mildew. Heavier items including ceramic wares, censers and stone tools were tied securely to bamboo litters carried on the shoulders of two men.
For the highest-ranking lords, ministers and holy men the merchants traded for bloodletting instruments including bone lancets, shell perforators and stingray spines wrapped in strips of cotton and knotted at the ends. Tongue- and ear-piercing thorn-cords used in ancestor conjuring rites were coiled inside ceramic bowls and bundled in broadleaves for protection. Their most delicate and precious cargo, aside from jade and red shell beads acquired along the slopes of the great western sea, were the long and delicate blue-green quetzal plumes bound in lots of twenty and carried in bark tubes.
Ahktuunal, the largest settlement on the southernmost leg of their journey, sat on the eastern shore of a lake shaped like a turtle shell. Although it was a small center and ruled by a young underlord, it was the best place to acquire the finest, most colorful embroidered cotton in the region. In its market merchants could find the greatest variety of clothing and textiles and acquire them at favorable exchanges.
As the fore and aft torches penetrated the fog, Thunder Flute called to his men. “All boats! The ruler may be a sprout, but do not underestimate his power. He is the third son of Jaguar Tooth Macaw, Lord of Kaminaljuyu, one of the most powerful rulers who ever lived.”
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising p. 37
From a heavy basket, one of the raiders dumped a number of green stones onto a blanket. Thunder Flute wanted to get a closer look so he motioned for Pech to stay where he was while he went around to the back of the residence. Crossing to the council house under the cover of streaming black smoke, he crouched behind a stairway and watched as three of the raiders examined the green stones with their leader. Thunder Flute counted six hand-sized ceremonial celts, at least ten equally long belt danglers, two jade tubes as long as a finger, four jade earflares shaped like flowers, a dark greenstone the size of a fist and scores of jade bead necklaces. When an assistant held one up with the bulbous head of the sun god at the bottom, the leader snatched it out of his hand and stuffed it into his already bulging pouch. From another warrior, he snatched a jade turtle shell the size of a fist, a magnificent piece with three red spots painted on the carapace. With great force, he hurled it down the plaza. Thunder Flute gasped as it hit the pavement and rolled into the smoke.
After dumping some thorny oyster shells, red shell beads, and shell perforators onto a blanket, a warrior with a jagged scar down one arm gathered the ends and slung it onto his back. His brother warriors gathered up the other goods and the leader followed, all the while looking to see if there would be any resistance. There was none. Along the way, he stepped onto the back of a fallen Ahktuunal guard and struck a victory pose with his axe held high. Several of his men imitated the gesture, and together they howled like coyotes.
Thunder Flute took advantage of the distraction. He ran behind the retaining wall to where Pech was watching. Beside him, an assistant pointed to the temple of the Great Turtle. Through the smoke, high on the third terrace and hiding behind a fallen censer stand, a scout was signing: god bundle burned—six guards down. Warriors gone.
Gather their weapons, Thunder Flute signed. Return to the canoes. He whispered in Pech’s ear, “I want a man on the far side of the council house—to see where they will go. The leader threw a jade turtle down the plaza, a big one. I want it.”
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