Native American Jades

By: Dr. J. Alden Mason

Originally Published in 1927

View PDF

JADE, that exquisite stone of emerald hue, translucent and of almost gem-like hardness, has ever been sought, prized and almost worshipped by men in all ages. Called by the Chinese yu or yu-chi, “gem” or “jewel stone,” it occupied the highest place as a jewel, and was considered the symbol of virtue and revered as “the quintessence of heaven and earth.”

Yet not even in China was jade prized so highly as in pre-Columbian Mexico. When the messengers from Montezuma paid their first visit to the conqueror Cortés shortly after his landing on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, bearing to him the magnificent presents which the great Aztec war chief sent to one whom he believed to be the great god Quetzalcoatl returned again, the most precious of all the gifts, in the eyes of the donors, were four beautiful chalchihuites. Bernal Díaz, the doughty warrior who fought through the campaigns of conquest under Cortés and who, in his old age, disgusted with what he claimed were misstatements regarding the events of those memorable years, wrote one of the most interesting, detailed and circumstantial histories of the conquest of Mexico which we possess, reports,1 “Regarding the four chalchihuitls they (the messengers) observed, that those were intended as a present to our emperor, as each of them was worth more than a load of gold.” Again Díaz reports that after the Spanish had penetrated to Tenochtitlan, the present City of Mexico, and practically made a prisoner of Motecusuma, as Diaz spells the name, the dejected chief, under duress, presented to Cortés the hoard of gold ornaments, jewels and other wealth which had been accumulated by his predecessors. Apologizing for the meanness of the gift, which, however, to the Spaniards was undreamed of treasure, he continued,2 “To this I will also add a few chalchihuis, of such enormous value that I would not consent to give them to any one save to such a powerful emperor as yours: each of these stones are worth two loads of gold.”

Four drawings of hieroglyphs, circle with inner dot and four smaller outer circles surrounding
Aztec hieroglyphs denoting chalchihuitl.

The extreme value placed upon chalchihuitl is patent from the above excerpts. The Spanish could not understand the Mexican evaluation of chalchihuitl as more precious than gold, nor did they appreciate the sacrifice of Montezuma in bestowing these carved stones upon them. Bernal Díaz3 describes the chalchihuitl as “a species of green stone of uncommon value, which are held in higher estimation with them than the smaragdus with us.” By “the smaragdus” he probably meant the emerald. Other writers mention the great esteem in which the chalchihuitl was held in Mexico and note many facts and beliefs connected with it. Thus Sahagún4 remarks that four Mexican deities were the especial patrons of lapidaries. Quetzalcoatl, one of the major gods, taught “particularly the art of cutting precious stones, such as chalchihuites, which are green stones, much esteemed, and of great value.”5 Quetzalcoatl himself is said to have been begotten by a chalchihuitl which his mother, Chimalma, placed in her bosom.6 Upon the death of a chief “They put in his mouth a fine stone resembling emerald, which they call chalchihuitl, and which, they say, they place as a heart.”7

The reader has probably deduced already, from the change in topic from jade to chalchihuitl, that the latter is, or was, the Aztec name for the former. Such deduction is probably correct and is generally accepted today, but is not absolutely certain and was formerly the cause of some discussion. The probability is that the word chalchihuitl was a generic term applied to any hard, translucent, greenish stone capable of being worked and referred not only to jadeite and nephrite but also to chloromelanite, quartzite, amazon-stone and similar stones, and possibly even to the softer stones agalmatolite, steatite and serpentine. The distinction between turquoise and chalchihuitl has been even more of a problem, the present consensus of opinion being that in the north of Mexico and in New Mexico where turquoise is mined it also was known as chalchihuitl, but in the south where it is not native it was known as xihuitl.8 The Spanish were familiar with turquoise and were able to identify that gem by name, but jade was apparently unknown in Spain, or at least to the ordinary Spaniard, and he could not refer to it by other than the native term. So it was with many or most of the native natural species of Mexico, animal, vegetable and mineral, but in most cases these are still known by their native names and have since been scientifically studied and identified ; jade is no longer worked in Mexico and the name chalchihuitl has gone out of use.

The fact that jade has never been reported as found in situ, to scientific notice, from Mexico and Central America is one of the most surprising and inexplicable phases of the question and would certainly indicate that chalchihuitl was another mineral were it not that many worked objects of jade, carved in the style of art and motives native to their respective localities, have been found from southern Mexico to Colombia. This fact stimulated great discussion in archeological circles of a generation ago and the “nephrite problem” was one of great importance in the earlier days of our science.9 For, according to the theory of one school, all the jade had been imported from the Orient, eastern Asia, which hypothesis explained its great value in comparison with gold, and its present apparent absence in middle America. This theory has since been universally discarded, having been overthrown mainly by the discovery of two facts. It was first shown that American jades are of a mineralogical composition distinct from those of the Asiatic jades.10 Later, Mrs. Nuttall,11 by a study of the tribute rolls of Montezuma, generally known as the Mendoza Codex, the original of which is still preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University,12 demonstrated that tribute of beads and similar ornaments made of chalchihuitl was paid to Montezuma, as chief of the Aztec confederacy, by many towns in the southeastern states of Mexico: Vera Cruz, Puebla, Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas. These payments of tribute originated, of course, from the military conquest of territory by the allied cities of the Valley of Mexico.

We have one circumstantial account of the conquest of the country around Tehuantepec by the Aztec leader Ahuitzotl in 1497.13 Defeated in battle and at the mercy of their warlike foes, who more than anything else desired prisoners of war to sacrifice to their bloodthirsty gods, the elders and women advanced and cried, “Valiant lords of Mexico, cease your fury . . let us speak. We will pay you tribute of all that is produced and yielded on these coasts, which will be chalchihuitl of all kinds and shades, other small precious stones named teoxihuitl (lit. “divine turquoise”) for inlaying in precious objects, and much gold, besides the most exquisite plumage. . .” The order in which these tributes are mentioned probably affords a proper conception of the respective values in which they were held—jade first, turquoise second, gold third.

This offer of tribute, together with the definiteness of the region from which jade was paid as tribute, indicates clearly that jade must have been a natural product of those districts. These again are the very places in which jade objects are found today in the greatest abundance in archeological excavations, generally on the Pacific Coast, from Guerrero in southern Mexico to Costa Rica. It is probable that, in their search for the precious stone, the aboriginal populations had practically exhausted the available supply, both of boulders and of exposed seams. Doubtless, in future mining or grading operations, some of these veins will be bared.

Although jade, to us, is primarily associated with China and the Orient, yet it was from Mexico that the name “jade,” now used alike in English, German, French and Spanish, originally was adopted. Unfamiliar with the stone and informed of its supposed marvellous curative properties, the Conquistadores spoke of it as “piedra de ijada” or “colic stone” (ijada, “loin” or “flank “). The word has, of course, come to us through the French modification of ijada: jade. The same belief in the therapeutic value of jade is found in the name for one of its varieties, nephrite, from Greek through the Latin lapis nephriticus, “kidney stone.”

Two stones, rather distinct mineralogically but very similar in appearance, jadeite and nephrite, are included under the name jade. Nephrite is a calcium-magnesium silicate with parallel felted fibers somewhat like asbestos. Mineralogists term it an amphibole. Nephrite has been found native in Alaska, British Columbia and Brazil, and the majority of the jades from these regions, as well as from Venezuela, Colombia and Central America, are nephrites. Jadeite, according to the mineralogists, is an aluminium-sodium silicate and a pyroxene rather than an amphibole. Apparently it is jadeite which was known as chalchihuitl, which is found so frequently in southern Mexico and Guatemala and which is the main topic of our discussion today.

Sahagún,14 in one of the chapters of his exhaustive work, treats of the precious stones found in Mexico, most of which, referring to the several varieties of jade, turquoise, emerald and similar stones, we need not consider here.

Chalchihuitl, he says, was found as pebbles and boulders and was not quarried. The scarcity of the material in Aztec days may be realized from his account of the methods of securing it. According to him, certain persons were experts, trained in the art of discovering such stones on or beneath the surface. Stationing himself at a favorable location at sunrise, the expert would scan the neighborhood and endeavor to descry the faint emanation which, like a dim haze, arose from the stones at such times. Another sign, supposed to be infallible, was the patch of green verdure which overlay every boulder of jade. Needless to say, the cynical, incredulous modern mineralogist discredits both of these indicative phenomena.

The jades are among the hardest of stones, having a grade of about 6 on the scale, and, on account of their tough, dense, fibrous nature, are exceedingly difficult to work. Unlike the rocks of flinty nature and the glassy obsidians, they cannot be chipped or flaked by percussion or pressure, and their shaping and carving was achieved only after boundless expenditure of time, sand and “elbow grease.” It should occasion no surprise, then, that jade objects were so highly valued in Mexico and were worn only by persons of rank and importance. Add to their intrinsic beauty the great rarity of the material and the incredible amount of skilled labor needed to engrave them without the aid of metal tools, and one can understand why only the powerful could command the requisite man-power and wealth.

Three drawings of beaded necklaces
Representations of Necklaces of Jade Beads, from Montezuma’s Tribute Roll.

Sahagún devotes a chapter15 to the jeweller’s art among the ancient Mexicans, a portion of which treats of the working of chalchihuitl. According to him, the hardest stones were shaped by means of emery and an instrument of tempered copper, carved with flint implements, drilled with hollow tubes of copper and then polished. (The popular belief in the “lost art” of tempering copper is one of the most immortal and invulnerable myths of American archeology. No copper or bronze objects are known from ancient America of a greater degree of hardness than can be secured by such simple methods as hammering and annealing.)

Rather more can be learned of the jeweller’s art in Mexico, however, by studying the actual jade specimens in museum collections. These consist, in the Mexican and Mayan regions at least, mainly of beads and amulets. The beads are generally plain and undecorated, regular in shape, spherical, cylindrical or barrel-shaped, and drilled for stringing. The amulets are sometimes carved in the full round, but more often in low relief on one side of a rather thin slab of jade, the back being plain. These amulets also invariably have suspension holes, but these are generally two short drillings meeting at an angle. Axes, celts and other objects of jade are less usual.

One of the principal methods of working jade was by sawing, this being the means by which the piece of raw stone was first roughly shaped. This is especially true of the thin slabs of jade from which the relief amulets were made, these frequently showing a perfectly straight, flat back except in the center where there is a slightly raised ridge with a rough surface. Obviously they were sawn from both sides until only a thin septum remained which was then broken through. The labor was accomplished mainly by means of a hard sand or emery abrasive, the actual saw being probably a cord made of some one of the stiff Mexican agave fibers, or possibly a leather thong, though thin slabs of tough stone may also have been employed. The “saw,” likely enough, broke every few minutes after having made only a few scratches on the adamantine surface, but labor omnia vincit and, given infinite time and patience, the task could be done even with such tools.

The methods of carving the figure or relief are not well known, but most probably it was done, as Sahagún says, mainly with flint tools, though many other materials, such as implements of wood, bone or copper, working in sand abrasive, were doubtless employed. The engraving of curved lines on such a material, practically as hard as the tools employed, was a task of the greatest difficulty and was avoided, straight incised lines being used whenever possible. In all places there was doubtless a progressive development throughout the history of jade working, both in art and in technique, but this topic has not yet been well studied. In most regions the types tended to become standardized and stylicized so that it is generally not difficult to determine the general culture from which a jade ornament comes, though the period is not so obvious. The discovery of easier technical methods tended, naturally, to increase this stylicism. Thus the use of the tubular drill for perforating the specimen for suspension soon suggested its use in making the incised circles which generally represent the ear ornaments, and from this point the discovery was soon made that by turning the drill at an angle, semicircles and other arcs could be quickly made. This discovery was then applied to the making of eyes and eyebrows, ears, mouth, nostrils and other facial features and ornaments. In certain regions, such as the Mixtec, this process was utilized to such an extent that the figures became stylicized and conventionalized almost beyond recognition.

The next step in the manufacture of jade ornaments was the drilling of suspension holes. This was generally done, as Sahagún reports, with a hollow drill, probably either of copper or bone, working in sand. In one Mexican stone specimen which has been reported upon,16 a fragment of such a drill, made of the leg bone of a large bird, was discovered in the shaft. Smaller holes were probably made by a solid drill. The length of some of these drillings is remarkable, many specimens being drilled from end to end. A jade bead in the possession of the Museum (Fig. 8 on page 70), although measuring only three eighths of an inch in diameter, has been drilled throughout its length of four and three quarters inches. The difficulty of such hand drilling without the use of a lathe can be appreciated only by a mechanic. Such lengthy holes are drilled from both ends, the perforations meeting in the center, and the same process is utilized in many of the smaller specimens, the suspension holes being drilled from two adjacent sides, the drillings meeting at an angle beneath the surface. In few instances was the drilling carried straight through from side to side. Since in practically every case the drill used tapered considerably, the orifice at the point of entry is rather larger than that at the terminus.

Most of the jade objects found in museums today bear a high polish, or at any rate evidences of having once been highly polished. The process of polishing is not well known, but Sahagún gives the brief note that they were fixed in wooden holders and polished with bamboo (probably a species of reed).

The jade ornaments from the various cultures of middle America, from Venezuela and Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica, Guatemala and southern Mexico, can all be distinguished by their character of art, but our present discussion will be limited to the latter region, Guatemala and Mexico. Here three main types are found, from the regions which were probably the richest in jade. Aztec jades are not common, inasmuch as the raw material was secured only as tribute, but jades from, and of artistic styles characteristic of, the Mixtec and Zapotec tribes of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas and of the Mayan tribes of highland Guatemala and Chiapas are well known.

Most of the jades found in museums are of uncertain proveniences and lacking in data, and the best of those in the University Museum are no exception to this rule. Fifteen of the best specimens of jade, or of stones closely resembling jade—for none has been accurately analyzed—which are in the University Museum are shown on pages 46, 54 and 59. The provenience of none is known but the style of art, in the majority of cases, permits the culture to be assigned with a reasonable degree of certainty.

The four figures shown on page 46 are very definitely of the type known as Mixtec and can be ascribed with practical certainty to the region known as the Mixteca in eastern Guerrero and western Oaxaca in southern Mexico. Small figurines of this nature are the most typical Mixtecan objects, but only a small proportion of them are made of jade, the majority being of marble or other stones. The art and technique, however, are apparently identical. The “quantity output ” of these figurines naturally resulted in a decided stylicization of art and standardization of technique which may be observed perfectly in the specimens illustrated. Thus in the largest of these specimens (No. 5909), Fig. 4, made of a highly polished, beautiful green jade, every incised element is either a straight line, or a circle or arc of a circle. Of the latter type, made with a tubular drill, are the eyes, pupils, nostrils and ears, while arms, legs, fingers and toes and all other elements were made by the sawing process, probably by a sharp edged stone working in sand. It is obvious that these technical labor-saving devices denote a late stage in the development of the art of this culture. As in most examples of stylicized primitive art, the parts of the figure are decidedly out of natural proportion, the head being unduly large, the forearms short and close against the body, and the legs vestigial and flexed close against the body. Suspension holes are drilled in the back.

Drawing of a seated or kneeling man carving jade
Aztec Drawing of a Jeweller.

The shorter angular specimen (No. 5910), Fig. 3, is of similar technique but bears one or two curvilinear lines which were apparently graved with a sharp point, though in all other respects it resembles the preceding figure. Figure 2 (No. 5907) is very similar to the others except in shape. The proportions of all these figurines are conditioned and limited by the shape of the original piece of jade, and since the present specimen was carved from a slightly ovoid pebble, the legs and lower body are unduly constricted and vestigial. As in the preceding instances, the major part of the carving was performed by means of the saw and the tubular drill. The hair is represented by a number of parallel incised lines and a row of small relief circles crosses the forehead like a coronet.

The last specimen (No. 5908), Fig. 1, is the most naturalistic, displays the least evidence of labor-saving processes and is presumably, therefore, the oldest in point of time. The use of the tubular drill is seen, indeed, in the corners of the eyes and the forehead decoration, and three biconical drilled perforations are found in the back, one, certainly, for suspension, the other two most probably for the attachment of ear ornaments to the figurine. The sawing technique was well utilized in making the groove between the legs, the fingers and toes and similar details but is not so omnipresent as in the other specimens.

But little is known of the Mixtec culture, and the use made of these figurines is quite problematical. They probably represented one of the gods of the aboriginal pantheon and presumably were carried on the person during life as talismans and protecting amulets and were buried with the deceased.

On page 54 are shown five jade figurines and ornaments of types quite different from those of the Mixtec. Their exact provenience is likewise unknown, but they are not of so definite a type as the former and their assignment to their proper cultures is therefore a matter of much greater difficulty.

The first three specimens, Figs. 1, 2, 3, are of beautiful sea green or blue green jade or jade-like stones, very hard, slightly translucent and highly polished. The first (No. 5913) is a small head which was apparently broken from the body which is missing. The face is rather negroid in appearance, with broad flat nose and thick lips. (At this point I cannot forbear to sound a note of warning and caution against those who discover in aboriginal America traces of all the peoples of the globe because, forsooth, they find figurines, sculptures, carvings which, to their eyes, show the physiognomies of Negroes, Chinese, Egyptians or men of other races. Primitive art in America was, for the greater part, too non-pictorial, and our popular conceptions of racial characteristics are too inexact to permit any acceptable deductions to be made on such grounds.) The carving of the face, however, is quite admirable. The oval eyes are deeply incised and may have been filled originally with other materials. A drill, apparently a solid one, was employed to finish the corners of the eyes and mouth and to show the nostrils, but no trace of the tubular drill technique can be observed. A biconical drilled perforation extends through the head between the temples, by which the figurine was doubtless suspended.

Five small jade objects with faces on them
American Jade Amulets.
Museum Object Numbers: NA5918 / NA5919 / NA5906 / NA5899

The next specimen (No. 5919), Fig. 2, is made of a beautiful piece of sea green jade with the high polish of marble, the shape being roughly quadrilateral with rounded corners and slightly convex faces. The upper surface is carved and incised with a round human face in low relief. Here also the nose and mouth are flat and broad, but this is probably required by the lowness of the relief. A band of incised decoration, for the greater part of fine lines and now practically eroded, surrounds the face. As with the preceding specimen, it is pierced from side to side with biconical drillings for suspension. While the general effect of the art is Mexican, it is not a typical specimen.

The jade human figurine (No. 5906), Fig. 3, is a far more interesting specimen than appears at first glance, it belonging to a very unusual yet very characteristic Mexican type of Janus-faced deities.17 The contrast, however, is in Mexico not so often between the anterior and posterior aspects as between the right and left sides of the body and the face. In the present specimen the two phases of life and death are plainly portrayed on the two halves of the figurine, the mortuary side being to the reader’s right. In addition to the kneeling pose which characterizes this aspect and which may be of esoteric significance, all of the most striking of the phenomena of death are shown, the deep vacant orbit, the fleshless nose and mouth with prominent teeth, the bare ribs and the sunken abdomen—a perfect semblance of Death. This aspect of the face, the peculiar hat and especially the kneeling posture, unusual in Mexico, are all characteristic of a class of pottery vessels from the Chimu culture of the northern coast of Peru. It is not impossible that this figurine may be of the same provenience. While the figurine is most probably a representation of a deity in two phases, or of twin deities, it bears no characteristic insignia which might identify it with any of the gods of the various American pantheons. The technique is excellent without a trace of either the tubular drill or of the sawing techniques which are so important in the late Mixtec figurines. It bears three drilled perforations, one at each elbow and one transversely through the neck, the latter being doubtless the main suspension orifice.

The foregoing three specimens are all of blue green stones, differing noticeably from the more typical pea green jades of the majority of the specimens. The art is also decidedly different, being largely naturalistic with slight stylicization and conventionalization and little or no ornamentation and decoration. They doubtless belong to cultures distinct either in place or time from the other jades here described.

The last two specimens on page 54 may with some hesitation be assigned to the Zapotec civilization of the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. Figure 4 (No. 5902) is a thin pendant of elongated oval shape with convex obverse and concave reverse faces. The art is decidedly stiff, symmetrical and stylicized, carved in low relief on the obverse face and representing a goddess with the usual disproportionately large head, small body and vestigial legs. Judging by the serrations on the lower edge of the pendant, which could hardly represent anything other than the toes, the goddess is kneeling. The four-fingered hands are pressed against the abdomen above which are large breasts with prominent nipples. The face is expressionless although the downturned mouth gives it a sinister cast; the ears are shown by the usual large circular ear ornament, and the headdress is elaborate. The twin small drilled holes are on one side edge so that the pendant must have hung on its side. The technique, like the art, gives evidence of an advanced stage of development, but the dependence on the saw and the tubular drill is not great, although the latter was almost certainly employed for the delineation of the ear ornaments and the breasts.

The final specimen (No. 5899) on page 54, Fig. 5, is a thick, heavy, roughly triangular ornament of pale green jade. Apparently the natural shape of the stone was utilized with as little modification as possible, but the entire surface, although retaining its natural irregularities, bears a high polish, possibly from long wear against clothing. Except for the carved upper surface it is the rudest of all the jades in the Museum collections. The art is distinctly Zapotecan, far more than that of the preceding specimen, though it also shows strong affinities with the Toltec art of the Valley of Mexico and the Mayan art of Guatemala. This is exclusively curvilinear, in strong contradistinction to the art of the Mixtec figurines, and consists mainly of scrolls and semicircles. The same artistic tendency is seen in the Zapotecan pottery.

The motive of this specimen is one of the greatest frequency in southern Mexican art, a human face emerging from between the jaws of a beast. The animals most often utilized in this connection are the snake and the jaguar, but both are so conventionalized in a convergent direction that it is frequently difficult to distinguish between them. The device probably has some esoteric or mythological background, but it was apparently favored for its terrifying aspect by warriors who saw in it an emblem of bravery and courage. In the present specimen the snake seems to be represented, though the identification is by no means certain. The double scroll beneath the chin of the human face can hardly be anything but the forked tongue of the serpent, but the nose with its scrolled nostrils at the top appears more feline. The eyes of the animal are recognizable, but the rest of the features are conventionalized practically beyond recognition.

Technically, most of the carving seems to have been done with graving tools, the absence of the saw being noticeable. The holes in the center of the ear ornaments were made by a tiny tubular drill, as a slight inner core is seen, and possibly the circles of these ornaments and of the human eyes were made by larger drills. Certain other arcs of circles give the impression of having been made by the inclined edge of a rotating tubular drill, but this is uncertain. The amulet is pierced from side to side by conical drilled perforations which meet in the interior of the stone.

The finest, most typical, and best known of all the American jades are those of Mayan art from Guatemala and the contiguous lands, the southern Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche and Yucatan; Salvador, Belize or British Honduras, and western Honduras. Of these, Campeche and Yucatan are limestone countries exclusively and could have produced no jade, but there, and throughout a large part of the Middle American region, jade ornaments of highland Mayan manufacture were carried in trade.

Specimens of Mayan jades are shown on the four plates on pages 59, 63, 66 and 70. The first of these on page 59 contains six jade amulets carved with the human face or form which are the finest American jades in the possession of the University Museum. Like the jades already described, however, they are of unknown provenience, although almost certainly of Mayan art and origin. The other three plates consist, with three exceptions, of jade objects from graves in the highlands of Guatemala, and are therefore of scientific reliability.

Six small intricately carved jade objects with faces and swirls
Jade Amulets of Mayan type.
Museum Object Numbers: NA5898 / NA5900 / NA5897 / NA5896 / NA5903
Image Number: 202718

The most typical Mayan jades, such as those illustrated on page 59, are nearly unmistakable, although certain of the more regular, symmetrical and conventionalized figures approach closely the Zapotecan type. It is probable that the earliest art of the Mayan and the Zapotecan peoples was practically identical, but that at the terminus of their development, they had naturally diverged and become differentiated, each with its specific traits. The Maya art exemplified on the carved jades is readily recognizable as practically identical with Maya art elsewhere. The more formal, symmetrical, and regular faces, such as Figs. 1, 3 and 4 on page 59, are practically identical, both in physiognomy and in accompanying ornament, with the faces on the stelæ from Copan and Quirigua, while the freer and less standardized carvings, such as Fig. 5, resemble closely the stucco reliefs at Palenque and the painted figures on the polychrome pottery from the highlands of Guatemala.

Three of these specimens are so similar that there can be little doubt of their approximate identity of origin as regards place, time and culture. All are well shaped and of relatively thin pieces of beautiful pea green jade and all are quite similar in motive and in detail. Figure 1 (No. 5898) approaches closest to the art of the Zapotecan jade amulet last described, the relief being low, the nose broad, and the ornamental relief curvilinear, of circles and scrolls. As so typical, the very conventionalized eyes, lips, nostrils and teeth of a monster are seen above the forehead, the face apparently being framed in the animal’s mouth, but no similar detail is seen at the lower edge, and the conventionalization is so great that the nature of the beast can not be determined.

The tubular drill was apparently employed in making the large ear ornaments and other circular objects, but the use of the inclined drill for making arcs of circles is uncertain and certainly not obvious. Along the lower border at the back are four small biconical orifices, undoubtedly for the attachment of other pendent ornaments, probably of gold. The perforation for suspension runs the complete width of the specimen, a feat of drilling by no means easy in view of the slight thickness of the plate.

Figures 3 and 4 are very similar indeed in almost every respect, the principal difference being that Fig. 4 (No. 5897) is made of a thick section of jade, while that of Fig. 3 (No. 5900) is quite thin and shows on the reverse face a lateral section of a vertical biconical drilling. Apparently the amulet had originally been twice as thick and pierced by a perpendicular suspension orifice, but, as jade became rarer and more valuable, it was sawn in half and the reverse side probably employed for another amulet. Both specimens possess, like the preceding one, a number of small suspension holes at the lower edge from which other pendent ornaments, probably of gold, were hung. The thicker specimen is pierced from side to side with drilled holes by which it was suspended, while the other, too thin for such a technique, was suspended by means of small holes at the upper edge.

Both of these specimens show a full face carved in relatively high relief, especially that of Fig. 3. Both, moreover, display, in common with the preceding specimen, the very conventionalized animal face and head above the human face. That of Fig. 4 is extremely conventionalized and differs but slightly from the preceding specimen. In other respects also it resembles Fig. I , having similar curvilinear scrolls and decorations and a necklace and other breast decoration which are practically identical. There is, however, a more typically Mayan cast of countenance.

The thinner specimen, Fig. 3, is typical of the highest and most characteristic Mayan art. The nose is high, the eyes slightly oblique and with a superficial Chinese appearance, and the incisor teeth appear prominently through the lips. The animal face seen above the forehead is apparently that of a bat, one of the Mayan deities, though it is quite conventionalized. All the accompanying decorations are curvilinear and typically Mayan. Beneath the chin is seen what resembles the upper portion of another animal head, the apparent eyes bearing marks which causes them to resemble closely the glyphs for the Mayan day Imix. In both of the last two specimens the tubular drill seems to have been employed for the making of circles, but apparently was never turned at an angle in order to form arcs of circles. Probably these were made at a period before the latter technique came into prominence.

Probably the finest American jade specimen (No. 5896) in the possession of the University Museum is illustrated on page 59, Fig. 5. This is made of an irregular thin chip of non-homogeneous jade, partly of blue green and partly of mottled pea green quality. But little artificial modification was done to shape the raw piece of stone, the left side and the upper edge being evened and the rear face planed, the upper edge at present being somewhat chipped with a loss of some of the detail. The drilled suspension hole runs through the specimen from side to side, and along the lower edge, as in the case of the three preceding specimens, a number of small holes, in this case five, have been drilled for the attachment of smaller pendent ornaments of gold or other material.

The low relief figure is one of most typical Mayan character. A single figure is seated cross-legged on the ground, his arms flexed asymmetrically across the body in a natural, dynamic pose. He wears breechcloth, wristlets and necklace. The head is turned to the left, or to the reader’s right, and the face is shown in profile. It is a typical Mayan face such as is often seen on the stucco reliefs of the buildings of the Old Empire, markedly convex. The nose is large and without depression at the bridge, and the forehead, while obscured by the headdress, apparently shows the artificial flattening which was the custom of the Mayas at that period. The ear is curiously shaped but apparently represents the normal ear from the lobe of which hangs an ornament. The headdress is, as usually in the case of Maya figures, the most elaborate and interesting feature of the figure. As in the preceding specimens, it seems to represent the head of an animal, but in this case it is seen in profile instead of full face.

Six small jade objects with faces carved into them
Jade Amulets of Human Form from Guatemala.
Museum Object Numbers: NA11601 / NA11643 / NA11590 / NA11060

The nature of this animal headdress is quite difficult of determination. The round sunken eye is apparently unequivocal, but no other element is definite and the teeth are certainly missing. The undulating object projecting above the face of the wearer is more confusing than definite. A certain modern school of English ethnologists would feel no hesitancy in pronouncing it the trunk of an elephant,18 an identification which would be vigorously opposed by American archeologists, who would more likely see in it, not a diminutive proboscis, but an exaggeration of the curious nose of the leaf-nosed hat, an animal well known in the Mayan pantheon.

The seated figure probably does not represent a god, but more likely a chief, priest or warrior, wearing his ceremonial headdress. The object on the right which he is facing is of uncertain identity, but is apparently something of inanimate nature.

A Mayan jade of unusual shape but of typical art is shown as Fig. 6 on page 59 (No. 5903). The shape is semi-ovoid with a flat reverse face which was obviously sawn, an oval periphery and a markedly convex upper surface which is carved with a face and headdress in moderately high relief. The stone itself, although in parts of a beautiful green color, and highly polished, is much streaked with cracks and veins and blotched with patches of white. The sculpture shows a serene Buddha-like face surrounded by a large hut simple headdress, all perfectly symmetrical. At first appearance, the headdress seems non-naturalistic, and so indeed it may truly be, hut the two tiny drilled depressions to the sides of the apex of the headdress suggest a resemblance to certain reptiles or insects. The specimen is drilled from side to side for suspension, but bears no small holes at the base for the attachment of subsidiary pendants. The round ear ornaments and probably some other elements were incised by the tubular drill and certain incised curves may have been made by an inclined hollow drill, but the technique had not become dominant over the art as was the case with the Mixtec figurines. The object has the superficial appearance of belonging to a late period in the development of Maya art.

The last of this group of Mayan jades is the specimen (No. 5901) shown as Fig. 2 on page 59. This is a small and most irregular piece of mottled green and dark green jade with veins of red. This mottled appearance of the stone, together with its irregular shape and the low relief of the carving, makes its nature rather obscure. No attempt was made to alter the original shape of the stone, except that the rear side is sawn flat, but a typically Mayan face is carved on the natural upper surface, a face rather too large for the size of the stone. The relief is low and the carving not deep. The specimen is pierced with suspension holes drilled from either side.

In addition to the jade ornaments already described and illustrated on pages 46, 54 and 59, objects of intrinsic beauty but whose scientific value is lessened by the unfortunate fact that nothing is known of their provenience or the details of their discovery, the University Museum possesses a number of jade objects and ornaments which were excavated with scientific precision and are well documented. But although a few of these are of an artistic quality ranking with those already described here, the majority are of scientific rather than of artistic interest, affording valuable scientific data on the development of style of art and technique but of slight intrinsic aesthetic value.

The jades in the University Museum on which full data are possessed all come from prehistoric graves in the Department of Quiche in central Guatemala, mainly in the valleys of the Chixóy or Quimalá River and its affluent, the Koopóm River, some fifty miles west of the town of Cobán. The names of the sites of the ancient villages where the specimens were excavated are unknown even to the archeologist, since such sites, unknown and unexcavated, fill the countryside, and are generally known by the name of the nearest present tiny native village, such as Chamá, Chipál, Kixpék, Ratinlixúl Ixtahuacán. This country is today occupied by the Ixil Indians and it was more than likely their ancestors who built the mounds and the graves in which these objects were found. They form a branch of the great Mayan stock and in pre-Columbian days played a part—if probably a minor one—in the wonderful Mayan culture which reached its apex of development in the lowlands of Guatemala and Yucatan.

Eighteen of the most interesting of the jade objects from these Guatemalan graves together with three more jade objects of unknown provenience are shown in the three plates on pages 63, 66 and 70.

On page 63 are shown the best six of these jade amulets. Two of them, Figs. 5 and 6, are of a quality ranking with those already described and obviously of identical type of art.

Figure 6 (No. 11590) was excavated at Kixpék, one of the small sites, where it was found beside the remains of a skull in a round, stone-lined chamber grave in a large mound. Judging from this position, and by analogy with the even more definitely placed other jades which were occasionally found within skulls, this was one of the jade ornaments which, according to historical report,19 were placed in the mouths of deceased chiefs at burial. The stone is of blue green jade mottled with white and of practically unaltered natural shape, the rear side alone, apparently, having been evened. The carving is in low relief, the serene face, of Oriental cast, and the flowing headdress and other ornamentation being typically Mayan. The ear ornaments were made with a tubular drill and the eyes and mouth by a small drill turned on its edge. A drilled suspension hole pierces the amulet from side to side.

The other typically Mayan amulet (No. 11060), Fig. 5, was excavated at Chamá, from the earth near the surface of a mound. It is one of the most unusual and striking of the jades shown. The material is a very veined, mottled and apparently metamorphosed blue green stone much resembling fossil ivory. Apparently little modification was made of the original piece, the outline being irregular and the upper surface irregularly convex. The back, however, is in three planes, resembling three of the faces of an octagonal prism or crystal. The carving is that of a face of sinister expression seen in profile. The nose is prominent and convex and the forehead and chin retreating, altogether a typical Mayan physiognomy. Certain elements, such as the ear, mouth and wings of the nose, give the impression of having been made by a tubular drill. The headdress is simple, but surrounding the face behind and beneath, an elbow in high relief with three high knobs is seen. The intent of this feature is quite dubious. The usual suspension hole pierces the specimen from side to side.

Seven small jade objects in various shapes
Pendants of Jade from Mayan Tombs.
Museum Object Numbers: NA11482 / NA11635
Image Number: 19523

The other four specimens are not of typical Mayan art, differing considerably from those already described and illustrated. Neither are they typical, however, of any other known art, and they must be considered, then, as variations of Mayan art, possibly antecedent to or decadent to the more typical Mayan work.

Figure 3 (No. 11601) is the least variant of the four. It was found at Kixpék, but in a different ruin and grave from Fig. 6. Nevertheless the probability is that it was of practically the same age, despite the variation in art. The stone is apparently a piece of jade of practically unaltered, natural irregular shape, but the color is rather grayish, with a greenish tinge in places on the carved surface, the visual impression being that of an old faded figurine of Egyptian blue faience pottery. The face, of general Mayan cast, is disproportionately large, and the legs vestigially small and conventionalized. The arms are folded across the breast, and necklace, earrings, headdress and lower clothing are displayed. The absence of any work with a .tubular drill is noticeable, and this, together with the general impression of rigidity of pose and the unnatural proportions, gives the effect of archaism to the figurine. Two suspension drillings are observed, one piercing the specimen vertically from head to foot, the other laterally through the head.

An amulet (No. 11643) of very different nature, though also from Kixpék, is illustrated as Fig. 4. Unfortunately it was not excavated by the archeologist but brought to him by his workmen. Unlike the preceding specimen, it gives the impression of stylicized art and very late technique. Although of a very different artistic style from the Mixtec figurines on page 46, it is, like them, made mainly by the tilted hollow drill technique. Every line of the carving is curvilinear and the majority of them were made by tubular drills of various diameters. The result is a most conventionalized repre-sentation of a face seen in profile with necklace and headdress. The stone is apparently a superficial segment sawn from a larger jade boulder, the back being perfectly flat, the edge irregular and the carved surface unevenly convex. A single drilled hole, not, as in every other case, two drilled holes meeting in the interior of the stone, pierces the stone from edge to edge near the top.

The two remaining amulets are from Chamá where they were excavated from the same mound, close to the surface and apparently not in graves, but not together. They are of quite different nature and art. Figure 2 (No. 11045) is a symmetrical, very conventionalized, small figurine of highly polished pale green stone. The entire effect is most archaic, the head being disproportionately large, and the lower body barely indicated. The specimen has evidently seen great wear and most of the details are difficult to distinguish, but the general archaic nature of the carving is quite obvious, resembling the larger stone sculptures of the “Archaic Culture.”20 Despite its occurrence in a Mayan mound, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it belongs in a pre-Mayan culture.

Figure 1 (No. 11058) on page 63 is again of rather unusual type and art, being typical of none of the Middle American cultures, present or past. It is made of a piece of slightly translucent pale green jade in the shape of a coffee bean, flattened hemispherical, the base slightly concave, the upper surface markedly convex. On this upper surface a face is carved and incised, a rotund “man in the moon ” face. The art is simpler, more naturalistic, and decidedly less stylicized than the more typical Mayan figurines and, seen in profile, is most natural. The work was apparently done exclusively by carving, abrasion and incision, no trace of the tubular drill being found anywhere. Several of the short straight lines were made by sawing, however. A pair of small drilled holes on the rim were employed for suspension.

The existence in the same general region of four amulets like those last described, which differ so decidedly among themselves and from the other two more typically Mayan amulets, is a fact which brings up problems difficult of solution. Even allowing for the individual idiosyncracies of the artists, the differences are too great to be explainable on grounds other than those of culture. These cultural differences may be spatial, the objects having been imported from other cultures by trade, or temporal, in which case certain ones are older than, and artistically ancestral to others. The sequences of culture and the development of art in small objects in this region are still too imperfectly known to permit of further deductions and conclusions.

Seven small naturalistic objects of jade or other hard green stones are shown on page 66. Five of these are very similar, representing the head of an animal with large round eyes and long pointed nose or beak. One of these (No. 5973), Fig. 6, of emerald green jade and variant type, is of unknown provenience. The head most closely resembles that of an alligator or crocodile, although the resemblance to any animal is not great. The eyes are made with a small tubular drill and no less than three suspension holes pierce the specimen. One of these, a tiny one at the nose, was obviously for the attachment of a subsidiary pendant ; the other two, large, horizontal and parallel, are near the base of the head.

The other four specimens are very similar and apparently represent a bird, probably a flamingo, toucan or some other bird with a large hooked beak. Two of them (Nos. 11704 and 11687), Figs. 4 and 7, were discovered at Ratinlixúl, and two (Nos. 11501 and 11482), Figs. 2 and 5, at Chipál. Figure 7 was a “death bead” since it was found with the remains of a jawbone in a rectangular stone sepulchre in a large mound, and the same may be said of Fig. 2, which was found in the mouth of a burial. Both had doubtless been placed in the mouths of the deceased in accord with ancient custom as recorded in early histories. The other two specimens were apparently not connected with burials. In all of these specimens the eyes were made by the use of a hollow drill, and in the case of Fig. 4 at least, most of the other features were made by the inclined drill technique; its use is less certain with the other specimens. The largest and most naturalistic one, the “death bead” from Ratinlixúl, Fig. 7, evidently held a subsidiary pendant, for a small hole has been drilled at the tip of the beak. But on the whole the specimens are not of great merit and were evidently utilizations of small bits, chips and pebbles of jade, indicating the great value which was placed upon the stone.

Several jade objects including earplugs, beads, and a pendant
Jade Ornaments from Central America.
Museum Object Numbers: NA11477 / NA11082 / NA11260 / NA11019 / NA5991 / NA6292
Image Number: 19526

The two remaining specimens on the plate on page 66 are quite unusual. Figure 1 (No. 11059), excavated from near the surface of a mound at Chamá, is a carved bead of blue green jade. It is possible that the profile of a human face, very stylicized and conventionalized, is shown, but an accurate identification is impossible. Figure 3 (No. 11635), from a burial at the foot of a mound at Kixpék, is the most unusual of all and is of a type of art which is not characteristically Mayan. It is well carved and smoothed, of a mottled blue and green stone which is slightly softer than jade. The representation is that of a grotesque human head with an immense Punch-like nose. The small piggish eyes were made by a small hollow drill which left a tiny core to represent the pupil, and the long mouth is represented by a long, deep sawn groove, none too regular. Possibly the long pendent nose was suggested by that of the tapir and may have characterized a tapir god, possibly a minor divinity.

All the specimens on this plate are drilled transversely for purposes of suspension.

The final plate on page 70 shows eight non-naturalistic specimens of greenish stones. While individual analyses have not been made,
most of them are apparently jades, though several may be of quartzite or other crystalline stones. Probably most of them served as pendent ornaments, but the two specimens of ferrule shape with larger orifices were more likely ear ornaments, inserted in holes in the lobes of the ears.

Figures 1, 2 and 3 (Nos. 11082 and 11477) are of button shape, the first from Chamá where it was found in a mound just below the

surface, the other two from Chipál where a large number of jade beads were found, evidently from a necklace. The forms are identical, of a thick bowl shape with a central truncated cone rising to a height equal to that of the rim, perforated for stringing or suspension. Figure 4 (No. 11019) is a modification of the foregoing and was found at Ixtahuacán where it was picked up by a native in farm work. It is apparently of crystalline quartzite with a glassy surface. In effect, it is a thin flat quasi-circular plate with a depressed circular ring in the center, made, doubtless, with a hollow drill. From this point incised lines radiate, regular and symmetrical by plan, but technically inferior and made by engraving, not by the sawing process. In addition to the central perforation, another exists near the edge. The next two specimens, Figs. 5 and 6, from the same mound at Chamá, are slightly bell or ferrule shaped, the former (No. 11147) having four radiating grooves to the pseudo-corners which cause it to resemble a morningglory flower, and a second suspensory perforation near the rim, while the latter (No. 11260) has a large conical central depression and orifice.

The final specimens, Figs. 7 and 8, are from the Museum’s collection of Mexican jades without definite provenience. Both are beautiful specimens of greenish jade of excellent color and technique. The former (No. 5991) is an object of ferrule shape and was probably an ear ornament, the latter (No. 6292) is a beautiful long bead of quadrangular cross section, with decorative grooves at either end. It is pierced throughout its length with biconical drillings which meet in the center, a technical feat for the primitive lapidary.

1 Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva-España; cap. 40. Lockhart’s translation: The Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo; London, 1844; vol. 1, p. 93.

2 Id., Cap. 104; vol. 1, p. 278.

3 Id., Cap. 40; vol. 1, p. 93.

4 P. Bernadino de Sahagún. Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España; Lib. 9, cap. 17. Jourdanet’s and Simeon’s translation: Histoire générale des chosen de la Nouvelle-Espagne; Paris, 1880; p. 585.

5 Juan de Torquemada. Veinte y un libros rituales y monarchia indiana; lib. 6, cap. 24: vol. 1, p. 48.

6 E.G. Squier. Observations on a Collection of Chalchihuitls from Central America: Annals Lyceum of Natural History; vol. 9, N. Y., 1870; p. 247.

7 Torquemada, lib. 13, cap. 45; vol. 2, p..521.

8 George F. Kunz. New Observations on the Occurrences of Precious Stones of Archaelogical Interest in America. 15th International Congress of Americanists; Quebec, 1906; pp. 289-299.

9 Heinrich Fischer. Nephrit und Jadeite . . .; Stuttgart, 1875.

10 A.B. Meyer. The Nephrite Question. American Anthropologist, 1, 1888, pp. 231-242.

11 Zelia Nuttall. Chalchihuitl in Ancient Mexico. Am. Anth. (n.s.) 3, 1901, pp. 227-238.

12 Codex Mendoza. In Kingsborough’s Mexican Antiques, London, 1848, vol. 1.

13 Fernando de Alvarado Tezozomoc. Crónica Mexicana; cap. 76. In Kingsborough’s Mexican Antiquities, vol. 9, p. 130.

14 Sahagún; lib. 11, cap. 8; p. 771.

15 Sahagún, lib. 9, cap. 17; pp. 585-587. The portion of the chapter referring to the actual methods employed was omitted from the Spanish and French translations of the Aztec original on the ground that it had no relationship to faith and morals. The section was later published by the late Eduard Seler as “L’orfévrerie des anciens Mexicains et leur art de travailler la pierre et de faire des ornements en plumes” and may be found in his Gesammelte Abhandlungen, vol. 2, pp. 620-663.

16 William H. Holmes. Archeological Studies among the Ancient Cities of Mexico. Anthropological Series, Field Columbian Museum, 1895. Vol. 1, p. 307.

17 Eduard Seler. Mischformen mexikanischer Gottheiten? Gesammelte Abhandlungen, vol. 3, pp. 450-453.

18 G. Elliot Smith. Elephants and Ethnologists. London, 1924.

19 Cf. footnote 5, p. 48.

20 Herbert J. Spinden, Ancient Civilizations of Mexico. Handbook No. 3, American Museum of Natural History, New York City, 1917; pp. 54-56.

Cite This Article

Mason, Dr. J. Alden. "Native American Jades." The Museum Journal XVIII, no. 1 (March, 1927): 47-73. Accessed February 22, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to