Articles

MAYAN JADE BEADS

 

The great lifestyle entity, known to the world as the Mayan Empire, existed in the southern regions of contemporary Mexico and several countries that make up modern Central America.  These peoples had a cultural beginning maybe three thousand years ago and developed a civilization that included the Western Hemisphere evolution of astronomy and mathematics and a written language.  They were a religious group of inhabitants in spite of the fact that their devotions included the sacrificing of other humans.   They worshipped their deities in many ways and like other ancient cultures; they used various natural minerals in the devotions to their gods.  The primary spiritual inorganic substance used by these ancient North Americans was the beautiful greenish stone that they used the make the Mayan jade beads.

 

Jade is a mineral found in several parts of the world and encompasses two types – jadeite and nephrite.  Nephrite is found primarily in Asia and has never been discovered in the Western Hemisphere.  Jadeite, which is a sodium aluminum silicate of the pyroxene family, is found in  assorted locations of the Americas but primarily in the Guatemalan  Motagua River valley.  Jadeite, which is also commonly known as New World Jade, is named for the Spanish term “piedra de ijada” which would translate as “stone of the side”.  That phrase refers to the believability that a person suffering from kidney stones could rub the area of pain with a piece of jadeite for relief from the discomfort.  The gem is comprised of two types of minerals - geologic jade that is also known as true jade is the rare stone used in many modern expensive jewelry items.  The other type, called social jade, is not true jade, but is instead a mineral grouping made up of jade-like stones such as quartz, serpentine, omphacite, albitite, chryoprase and quartzite.   Since the ancient Mayans were not geologists and therefore possibly could not differentiate between the types, they used both geologic and social jade in their religious ornaments.  Today the average person, who also is probably not a geologist or a gemologist, cannot distinguish between these various minerals, so all these stones are often lumped together into the category of jade.  It is currently believed that the ancient Olmec natives began utilizing jadeite to make decorative items employed in their worship well over three thousand years ago.  The craftsmanship was passed on to the Mayans who expanded the art into a variety of uses of the mineral including pendants, ear spools, rings, pectorals, mosaic masks, statues, ceremonial weapons and above all, beads, especially during the Mayan Classic Period of AD 300 to AD 800.  Jadeite is found in a variety of colors including white, pink, lavender and black but the most revered color, anciently and in modern times, is green jade.  All the jade colors are found in opaque as well as semi-translucent and almost clear hues with opaque being the most common.  The various colors are caused by the amount of minerals such as iron, titanium, sodium and chromium that are found in a given jadeite rock sample.  It is a monoclinic mineral that was anciently formed in metamorphic and igneous rocks under somewhat low temperatures and very high pressure and whose endmembers include diopside, augite, aegisine and kosmochler.  Jadeite has a Mohs hardness of 6.5 to 7.0 which makes it reasonably resistant to being cut and manipulated into shapes, especially so in prehistoric times when modern electric and compressed air tools were not available.  It is not fully understood just how the artisans crafted the stone into various shapes but the theories are that they used other pieces of jade as hammers and chisels and string saws along with abrasive sand to cut the jadeite.  It is further presumed that many of the recovered ancient jade beads started out as water tumbled and polished pebbles from Guatemalan streams and needed little or no altering except perforations for leather or sinew suspension thongs.  The current suppositions are that the prehistoric natives used reeds along with crushed quartz or sand and water to drill holes in the beads they had made and leather strops together with fine sand to polish the finished adornments.

 

The Mayans acquired this rare mineral in all known colors but mostly used the various greens from apple-green to blue-green (also known as Olmec Blue) for their ornaments.  It is believed that these natives, who called the stone “ya’ax chich”, considered the semi-translucent to translucent mineral to be the most valuable.  It is also accepted as true that almost all the green jadeite ornaments were reserved primarily for the royalty (the city-state kings and queens and their relatives) based upon the quantities discovered in sovereign burial chambers.   Green jadeite ornaments were also, apparently, used by regional shaman and priests in agricultural prayers to their rain gods.  It is now surmised that the Mayans typically associated the green mineral with rain and the beginning of the growing season and especially with the cultivation of corn.  It is also concluded that green jadeite embellishments were used in the “life after death” rituals and burials of the important members of the societies.  The beads were made and used in many shapes including simple round or spherical forms, elongated tubes, triangles and cones.  They were also created in oval, annular, oblate, tabular and lenticular configurations.   The natives also fashioned beads in many stylistic anthropomorphic profiles comprising highly innovative human effigies that included simple mortal faces as well as elaborate conventionalized heads and bodies of the societal members.  Animal images are known to be ducks, crocodilians, deer, and jaguars, to name only a few, in natural and eccentric portrayals.  Other beads are representations of non-living forms such as truncated pyramids, axes and spear points.  The sizes vary from less than one inch across to some huge and heavy single beads that will top twenty inches in width and height. The current opinions are that many of these jadeite embellishments were passed on from generation to generation of Mayan people, which creates difficulty in trying to determine exactly when many of the baubles were fabricated.  This also gives rise to actually knowing from what a given bead is made of since hundreds of years of the ancient natives holding and touching these green embellishments often altered the colors to tan or brown or even black. It is known that the Mayan Culture was begun almost three thousand years ago and that the crowning glory of the population was during the Classic Period, when it is thought, that many if not indeed most, of the jadeite jewelry items were fabricated.  It is now believed that the Mayans made and used tens of thousands of jade objects of which the vast majority was the simple roundish necklace ornaments.   When the archaeologists are now excavating a given Mesoamerican city or town, they are always hoping to uncover some of the appealing verdant stones, especially in the form of the rare and stunning Mayan jade beads.

 

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Miller, Mary E.                                                                        1999

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