Feature Articles – The Royal Stone of the Maya
Jade. Both for the Mayans and the Chinese, this was the royal stone, which connected the ruler to the divine. In the New World, we know little about this stone, so cherished for thousands of years, but slowly, we are beginning to learn more about its mysterious origins, once linked with the lost civilization of Atlantis.
by Philip Coppens
All things were sacred and considered imbued with spirit by the Mayans, but nothing was more so than jade. For the Mayans, green jade was considered to be the most esteemed substance on earth. Green was the color of the feathers of the quetzal, the bird linked with the deity Quetzalcoatl, the civilizing deity known as the flying serpent, who occupied a central role in the Mayan cosmology. In the Mayan cosmos, green was reserved for the center of the cosmos – red was for the east, black for the west, while white was of the north and yellow of the south. Of the elements, jade was associated with wind, as the stone seemed to breathe: when water was poured over it when the stone was hot, vapor rose from it. When breathed upon, the vapor condensed, collecting human breath.
Jade was found at the bottom of the Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itza when it was first explored by Edward Herbert Thompson. More than 5000 jade objects were found and it remains the largest number of carved jades ever recovered, which should maybe not come as a surprise as the Sacred Cenote was one of the most sacred sites of the Mayan Empire. Many of the jade objects were broken, but it is believed that this occurred before they were thrown in the water, so that the spirit inside could be released.
The stone was both extremely rare and hard to work with it. As a result, it was said that the spirit that resided inside was particularly potent, no doubt the reason why it became linked with Quetzalcoatl. The stone was also given healing qualities, especially illnesses of the kidneys, which the Spanish made into piedra de la ijada, “stone of the loin”, which led to our modern word jade. Jade is extremely hard. One needs to scratch the stone to make it take shape. As it is very hard, the only other means of working it, is by using jade. The conditions that produce jadeite are rare on earth, which is why it is scarce. One of the prerequisites is that an ocean plate slides beneath a continental plate. It is one of the reasons why Edward H. Thompson labeled jade “the most mysterious stone of the world”. The problem of jade was not mining it, but finding it. There was no need for mines, as it was collected from stone outcrops or boulders at ground level.
Our understanding of Mayan jade was seriously undermined by the fact that the Spanish Conquistadors’ sole obsession was with gold. They had no interest whatsoever in jade. Hence, within fifty years of the Conquest, jade mines that had been worked for three millennia were closed down and their location forgotten. Soon, the origin of jade became mysterious and extraordinary claims were attached to it. Thompson himself believed that jade had originated on the lost continent of Atlantis, while John Lloyd Stephens argued that there had been a prehistoric trade in jade between China and Central America.
Jade was worked in China since 2000 BC and was linked with royalty. For the Chinese, jade was the stone of heaven, forming the bridge to immortality. The Emperor communicated with heaven by speaking through a disk, the so-called bi disks, which had been made from jade and which were buried with the bodies of the deceased emperors. The body of the Emperor might also be put to rest in a suit of carved jade plaques. It was awarded to champion athletes, while gold was good enough for runners-up. At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, one side of the gold medals was actually made out of jade, to reflect this tradition, while in the New World, the Mayans were equally flabbergasted by the Spanish Conquistadors who put such great prize on gold but none on jade. Indeed, even though black jade was known in Europe and used by at least 2000 BC, in Europe, it was only used in tools, because of its hardness. It was never used in decorative expressions.
The origins of Chinese jade were never lost: it came from the Kunlun Mountains in western China, near Tibet, where it has been mined without interruption for thousands of years. But, as mentioned, the source of jade in the New World was a true enigma, and hence there was wide-ranging speculation that it had to come from outside the continent. To complicate matters in the New World further, the Mayans were not the first to use jade. The Olmecs, whose civilization began at least ca. 800 BC, had used it before them. However, whereas the Olmecs were mostly using blue jade, the Mayans were specifically if not solely interested in green jade. Michael Coe was shown a map depicting four forts forming a protective square around the stone’s supposed sources, a locations whose Nahuatl name translates as “Place of Jade”. But even though everyone agrees that green jade was the most cherished of substances by the Mayans, if it was not available, any other green stone was more precious than blue jade, underlining that the Mayans – unlike their predecessors – were specifically focused on the color green, rather than only the material.
The most famous of all jade objects is the green jade mask of Lord Pakal, “Lord Sun Shield”, who died in 683 AD. His tomb slab in Palenque made Erich von Däniken question whether he was riding a flying scooter, though the depiction on the lid has since been identified as Lord Pakal descending the Tree of Life into Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld. But a major discovery was made once the tomb slab had been removed, as what was found inside was a treasure trove of jade. Pakal’s body was immensely decorated, most prominently by a death mask that had more than 200 perfectly fitted pieces of jade and other stone. His wrists were wrapped in a bracelet of 200 jade beads, with all fingers wearing a thick jade ring. His right hand grasped a jade cube, his left a jade sphere. Over this chest, there were nine enormous strands, each with 29 tubular jade beads. There was more jade around his body. In short, his entire body and tomb was covered in jade.
Pakal’s tomb is one of the reasons why Karl A. Taube wrote that “In Classic Maya art, jade is so inextricably linked to images of Maya rulers that it is difficult to conceive of them without this precious stone” and Pakal was indeed not unique. In 1995, the tomb of Yax K’uk’ Mo, the founder of the royal dynasty of Copan, buried in 435 AD, was found; his teeth had been inlaid with jade too. But where did jade – blue or green – come from? In the late 1960s, Michael Coe suggested that Olmec jade had originated in northwest Costa Rica, as blue jade had been found in grave offerings there. He argued the area was not wealthy enough to procure it elsewhere, and thus argued for a local origin. But no local source has so far been found in that region.
Another contender is the state of Guerrero, in southwestern Mexico, which had an Olmec presence. A lot of carved jade had been found nearby and the same argument as for Costa Rica is applied. But most jade was found in the heartland of the Olmecs, the coastal Gulf of Mexico. Today, the civilization is mostly famous for its massive stone faces. But these massive stone faces had small, jade counterparts, carved from translucent blue-green to smoky-blue jade, these too showing the typical round faces and broad noses.
Some of the oldest statuettes were found at the important Olmec site of La Venta. One piece was in a child’s tomb, a bright-green pendant in the shape of a jaguar tooth, another in the shape of the tail of a stingray. Sixteen human figurines made from jade were buried upright in a circle, as if they were immortalized as participating in a ceremony. Most jade objects that were found were plane, but some were incised with figures, while others were half-human, half-animal shape. There were also several axe heads, thought to have been reserved for some religious ritual use, while others were used as units of measure.
Overall, however, Olmec blue jade is not that well known. So far, of the Olmec blue, only a hundred or so river boulders, in total weighing about a ton, have been found. Where the Olmecs got it from, is lost. Some speculate that the civilization used up all of the blue jade found in the New World, making the quest for where they found the material extremely difficult. As for the Mayan green jade, the location of choice as to where it may have been mined from, is the Motagua River Valley in Guatemala, where various sites are riddled with prehistoric tools like stone hammers and small jade bits, indicating an active jade industry.
The discovery of jade sites in Motagua was done by Mary Lou Johnson and Jay Ridinger in the early 1970s, but science disregarded their discovery. Why? Johnson and Ridinger were “entrepreneurs” – the term used with disdain by the academics, who argued that no notion of their findings should be made as it was not reported in academic journals. As a result, few scientists today have truly studied the presence and origins of jade of the Olmec and Mayan civilization. Johnson and Ridinger have operated several jade mines for decades and are convinced that some were previously used by the Mayans. And even though science treats the couple with disdain, at least they were able to show that the New World contained green jade deposits.
Small inroads are being made in academic circles about the jade debate. Hector Neff of Cal State has concluded that Pakal’s jade mask is similar to the fragments from the Maya jade workshop at Cancuen, where a city from the 7th century AD was known to have worked with jade. Most interestingly, jade found at the Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan was traced to the Motagua Valley in Guatemala. But recent excavations at Teotihuacan have also underlined that for the Mayans, stone that was green was the primary determinant.
Using the 116 meter long tunnel inside the Pyramid of the Sun, Alejandro Sarabia dug deeper inside the monument to reach the center of the pyramid, at base level, to find out how the pyramid was created. He found seven human burials, including children. In addition, two votive deposits were recovered, one of which was a greenstone mask. The mask was carved from a single stone. Though no jade was found, there is a clear connection between a green mask found at Teotihuacan and a green mask placed over the face of Lord Pakal, especially when one knows that the interior of the Pyramid of the Sun was linked with the Mayan Otherworld, depicted on Pakal’s tomb slab.
And so, however much jade was the most precious of substances for the Mayans, it is equally clear that it was only green jade that was cherished, because of its color, linked with the creator deity Quetzalcoatl, and representing the center of the world, and the communications between worlds that it allowed. Whereas sources of jade are now being quite regularly found in the New World, it remains remarkable that the same religious qualities for the stone were identified by both the Mayans and the Chinese. Science has no interest in hearing about a cultural exchange between China and the New World, but the story of jade suggests that the stone may not merely have been a stone of communication between this world and the Underworld, but between two continents. If only the spirit of the stone could speak…