Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Turquoise and the Ancient Maya

Turquoise is more commonly associated with cultures in the American Southwest, such as the Hopi and the Navajo, and in northern Mexico. However, in the Maya world, turquoise -- though not cherished as long as jade -- did eventually become valuable.

Toltec traders are credited with introducing turquoise to the ancient Maya during the Classic Period. From around the 900s AD onwards through the Postclassic Period (around 1200 AD to 1524 AD), turquoise was a precious item to the Maya. Found at a diversity of sites, turquoise has been uncovered in places such as northern Belize's Santa Rita Corozal and Yucatan state's Chichén Itzá.

Where was Mesoamerica's turquoise mined? This depends on the authority with which one confers. Most tend to agree that it was north of the Maya world. According to Sylvanus G. Morely and Robert J. Sharer in their book The Ancient Maya (fifth edition), the source of the turquoise was Central Mexico. Lynn V. Foster's  2005 Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World states that turquoise was obtained from what is now New Mexico. The book Maya Art and Architecture (by Mary Ellen Miller, published 1999) agrees in part with Foster, giving the location of the turquoise source as what is now New Mexico and Arizona. A 2004 book The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives (by Heather Irene MacKillop) agrees in part with the last two sources, stating the source may have come from Lower Central America or from what is now New Mexico.

Turquoise was used to make mosaics, which would be used in different ways -- jewelry and masks, for example. It is possible that the ancient Maya worked turquoise but it is thought that the mosaic items were crafted together before being traded to the Maya.

And what are some examples of turquoise use in the Maya world? A number of examples come from the site of Chichén Itzá. One is a wood scepter depicting the maize god in a dive -- dredged from the Sacred Cenote -- that utilizes turquoise mosaic overlay on the god's face. Also found at the site are four turquoise mosaic disks (found in ceremonial caches), one of which was found in the Temple of the Chacmool -- a temple discovered underneath the site's Temple of Warriors.

"Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World"; Lynn V. Foster; 2005

"Maya Art and Architecture"; Mary Ellen Miller; 1999

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