Thursday, January 5, 2012

Jade -- A Precious Stone of the Maya

Dating from the 200s AD to 800s AD, this is a
pendant. It's meant to look like a ruler's head with
a headdress. From The Metropolitan
Museum of Art.

Jade is the name we use for two stones: nephrite and jadeite. Rarer than nephrite -- which has yet to be found in Mesoamerica -- jadeite is the type of jade that the Maya civilization enjoyed. The ancient Maya liked a host of green-colored stones, such as zoisite, serpentine, jasper, and amazonstone, but jade (as jadeite will be called in this post) was the one, like other cultures in Mesoamerica, that they liked the most. 

Name Origin
The word "jade" comes from a phrase used by the Conquistadors. When talking to the Aztecs about green-colored stones, the Aztecs said these stones were supposed to heal liver, kidney, and spleen problems. So the Conquistadors started to call green-colored stones "piedra de ijada," which you might see spelled other ways such as "piedra de yjada." Translations for this phrase include "side/flank stone" or "loin stone."

Scientific Facts
This carving is of a god called Ux Yop H'un.
It's from the 600s AD to 700s AD.
From The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The formula for jade's chemical makeup is NaAlSi2O6. This means that it is made up of certain molecules of these elements: oxygen, silicon, aluminum, and sodium. When this formula is changed a little bit in the right way, you get different colors of jadeite, including black, light purple, white, and blue as well as green. Green jade, which is color found the most often, happens when there is some chromium added to its chemical makeup in the right way.

This pendant comes from the 500s AD to
 800s AD. From The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
 Jade can be shaped so that it has a sharp edge, which can stay sharp pretty well. An important thing to note though, is that it is not common to find jade that's just jade. It's more common to find it combined with other minerals. This changes jade's features somewhat, such as how hard it is. (There is a scale called the Mohs scale of mineral hardness. This scale tests how hard minerals are when compared to each other. Diamond gets a 10. Jade's range of hardness goes from around 6.5 to 7.)

How They Worked It
From what archaeologists can tell, a multitude of ways to shape and/or set designs into stones were known to the ancient Maya. Examples of these ways include -- but are not limited to -- percussion (breaking jade to get the size you want,) polishing, reaming (making drilled holes' insides less rough,) sawing, and pecking (another style of breaking jade that left scars.) Another example of the many stone working methods the Maya had was drilling, done with both tubular drills, which drilled out a piece of stone, and solid drills, which drilled out a cone-shaped hole.
This jade object dates from the
200s AD to the 500s AD. It is a form of
the Principal Bird Deity. There is some
cinnabar still attached to it.
From The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Some of the ways the ancient Maya shaped jade involved an abrasive substance/grit, the fineness of the grains depending on what was being done to the jade. (A few kinds of grit they may have used include powdered jade and powdered quartzite.) An example where grit may have been used was sawing -- one type of sawing may have involved a string or cord that actually had grit stuck to it. (A variant on this says they also used water along with the string/cord and grit.)

As for tools, of which archaeologists haven't found a that many, the ancient Maya used stone and may have also used materials that can rot away over time, like the string used in the possible sawing method. One tool they may have had that was made of stone was the polishing rock -- archaeologists have found rocks that have dips in them from where the Maya may have rubbed jade to make it shiny. (It's possible the Maya also had other kinds of things they used to make jade shiny, like bamboo.) They may not have used rocks alone, but used grit and polishing rocks together.
Titled "Duck Pendant," this piece of jade was made
anywhere from 250 AD to 950 AD. The country it comes
from is either Mexico or Guatemala. From LACMA.

A popular way to add to the details of a jade object was to glue on red powder, made by crushing either hematite or cinnabar.  If a piece of jade had more than one color, there was a practice of trying to use the colors as part of the design of the object being made.

Where It Came From
The jade that the Maya civilization used came from the only source of jade in all of Mesoamerica -- so far as anyone's found. The source is in the Maya area -- specifically, it is located in eastern Guatemala, in the Motagua River Valley. 

Things They Made
This is a par of earflares (without anything to go
through the holes) from the 200s AD to 500s AD.
From The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The ancient Maya made different items with jade. Examples items that the Maya made include pendants, beads  -- made with less high quality jade --, inlays for teeth, and funeral masks made of pieces of jade fitted together. They also made a type of earring called an earflare, which looks like a spool but with a hole in the middle. (An earflare was set into a piercing in an earlobe, and something would be set into the earflare's hole to keep it in place.)

Another jade pendant, this time from the
600s AD to 700s AD. The carved image is a ruler sitting.
From The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The biggest jade object that archaeologists know of weighs about 9.7 pounds and was found in 1968. It came from a royal grave in Belize's site of Altun Ha, from a building archaeologists call the Temple of the Masonry Altars. This piece of jade had been carved so that it looked like the head of the ancient Maya sun god, K'inich Ajaw/Kinich Ahau.

Cultural Meaning
For most of their history, the ancient Maya liked jade that was bright green above all. What did it mean to have jade? For one thing, it's possible the ancient Maya saw jade as the most impressive thing you could be seen wearing. (And it wasn't just an elite item, as archaeologists have found jade in both commoner and elite graves.)

Jade also meant religion in the ancient Maya civilization. For example. There was a practice of putting a jade bead in a dead person's mouth. They also thought it was an object worthy of being used as a religious offering.

When the Maya thought of jade, they couldn't help but think of water, wind, the smell of flowers, and mist. It also looks like they were reminded of the soul somehow in connection to breath. (You may see this breath and soul connection called "breath soul.") They thought of all these things because they saw jade as the stone version of these them. The Maya also thought of other things: that jade was a symbol of divine rulership as well as corn.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Pair of Earflare Frontals


  1. who actually used jade in maya

    1. It was a major status symbol so mostly royal and elite members of society wore it to symbolize their power within society. Briefly mentioned here is the connection to maize, which begins as a green plant and was very sacred because of its representation (productivity of the land that allowed them to live and eat). There's a Maya story about the maize god who was decapitated and resurrected in a cave (long story short), so life and death was very connected to caves and tombs were often symbolic for caves and being resurrected into the heavens. Because of the maize god's significance in Maya cosmology and the strong connection to the color green, green is precious to the Maya, so jade was a symbol of flourishing (within society).

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  3. maybe you could add the meaning of jade!?

    1. Hi! I altered and added to the "Cultural Meaning" section to make it more clear. Hope it helps!