Archeologists generally admit that very few ancient Maya sites throughout the Maya World have escaped the attention of treasure hunters (less affectionately known as Looters). In their desire to recover artifacts that are valuable to art collectors, disreputable looters have literally destroyed many sites and damaged many more. And just what are the treasure hunters after? The ancient Maya had no gold or silver (or any other metal for that matter) or precious gems, but they had the highest regard for a rare gemstone known as jade.
Figurines, beads, ear spools and other ornaments were expertly carved by Maya craftsmen for the pleasure of the elite ruling class. Precious jade was often exchanged as a gift by rulers, and it was found to be frequently buried with their remains.
[Note: Mayan Jade - type 'Claws to the right are offered by the very cool Etsy shop Michael Goard]
Jadeite is extremely hard. On a mineralogical scale from one to ten (diamonds being ten) jadeite comes in between 6.5 to 6.8, or in less technical terms, harder than steel. A piece of jade can be used to quickly put an edge on your Swiss Army Knife or machete. The fact that the Maya, who had no metal tools anyway, could carve and drill such a hard material is a remarkable technical achievement. We know some of the techniques as a result of early Spanish reports. Jadeite was cut by the sawing action of a cord drawn back and forth along grooves, using hard sand particles and water as a cutting agent. Holes were reportedly drilled with hollow bird bones filled with wet abrasives, starting at one end of the piece, then working from the opposite end so the hole would be completed in the middle.
The mine which was the source of all ancient Mayan and Olmec Jade had been hidden for centuries, until it was unearthed by Hurricane Mitch in 1999. This mine is located near Zacapa, Guatemala, and Maya people hid it well for fear that the Spaniards wanted this precious treasure. But in reality, the Spaniards were in search of gold!
Shown here is just one breathtaking example of Mayan artistry with Jadeite. Shoppers fascinated with Mayan Jade, be aware! Many contemporary artisans seek to emulate true Jadeite by using the stone from China called Nephrite. Nephrite differs from Jadeite in chemical composition and appearance. Maya Jadeite is somewhat harder, less translucent and more mottled than Nephrite. No Nephrite has ever been found in an archeological context in the New World. The principal source of Maya 'Jade' is the Motagua Valley in Guatemala, although occasional pebbles have turned up in adjacent stream-beds.
We do recommend Happy Mango Beads as a source for true Mayan Jadeite. The owners of this company personally travel to Guatemala and work with a small group of Mayan Indians who carve the beads for them. (If you'd like to read more about this type of practice, read our previous post on Fair Trade Beads.)
Until Next Time,