This green jade pendant is carved with a scalloped edge to resemble one-half of a bivalve shell. The front face of the ornament follows the undulating profile of a paper-thin lens of bright green jade, indicating that the artist sought to uncover and emphasize its beautifully saturated color. The rest of the pendant is composed of a somewhat duller shade of lighter blue-green. The back of the pendant is slightly convex, and though it has been smoothed, it was left unpolished. The face, on the other hand, has been polished to a high, reflective shine. This contrast between the two sides of the pendant emphasizes the jade’s resemblance to a shell, with its slightly convex, dull exterior set against a shining, almost pearl-like interior. The two L-shaped suspension holes drilled through the back and straight edge of the ornament indicate it originally hung with its scalloped edge facing downward. The pendant was discovered by archaeologist Edwin Shook in 1950 in an offertory deposit at the site of Kaminaljuyu in highland Guatemala. It was part of a lavish necklace composed of four additional, though smaller, carved jade ornaments and 290 jade beads of varying shapes and sizes. The whereabouts of these other elements of the necklace are currently unknown.
The word "jade," when used in Mesoamerican contexts, refers specifically to jadeite. Although this mineral comes in a startling array of colors, the ancient Maya prized bright green and blue-green varieties most highly. All Mesoamerican jade comes from a single source, located in the Motagua River Valley of eastern highland Guatemala. Such a restricted point of access made jade a particularly rare and valuable material, an important element in elite trade networks and economic exchange systems in the ancient Maya world.
Jade approaches 7 on the Mohs scale of hardness (diamond has a hardness of 10), so it is extremely difficult to carve. In order to transform a raw jade boulder into a polished, finished form, specialists used a combination of percussion and abrasion techniques (such as pecking, grinding, sawing, incising, and drilling). This work was repetitive, time consuming, and required a highly specialized skillset. Creating a finished ornament like this from the rough boundaries of raw jade would have been enormously slow and difficult work, a fact that would have likely increased the value of the final product.
Jade was considered the most precious of all materials in the ancient Maya world. The fact that jade endured, unchanged, for centuries, connected it to ideas of timelessness, permanency, and longevity. Its vibrant color was likened to other precious green things, including ripening crops and the iridescent tail feathers of the quetzal bird. In directional symbolism, the color green was associated with the cosmic center, a place described in inscriptions with the hieroglyph yax, meaning blue/green/unripe/new. The crenelated edge of the pendant may reference the shape of this hieroglyphic sign, connecting the ornament to the fertile green of maize fields and the center of the world. Carved into the shape of a shell, the ornament would have also linked its wearer to the primordial sea from which the earth was believed to have arisen in mythical time.
When polished, jade reaches a high, glossy shine, as though the surface has been dipped in water. It is almost always cool to the touch, but when held, quickly takes on the warmth of a human hand. This process led the ancient Maya to conceive of jade as a breathing, living, animate, and ensouled substance. To the ancient Maya, then, jade was not just beautiful, exotic, and expensive, but the incarnation of water, mist, floral aroma, and living breath. In fact, jade was so closely linked to ideas of animate breath that a jade bead was frequently placed in the mouths of high-ranking dead upon their burial as a symbol of eternal life.
This pendant is what scholars call a skeuomorph, the representation of one material (shell) made in another (jade). The ancient Maya frequently played on ideas of materials and materiality, sculpting clay into the shapes of gourds, painting ceramic vessels to look like wood, or in this case, carving jade into the form of a shell. Notably, shell often decomposes in the humid tropics, while jade retains its luster for millennia. This ornament, then, embodies all of the symbolism and connections of precious, perishable shell, but translates them into a permanent medium.
Like jade, shell was considered a valuable and exotic material. Although shell has a hard surface (resembling the hardness of a tooth), its thin profile makes it subject to breakage. It is thus difficult to carve, requiring specialized artistic and technical training. The acquisition of certain shells was associated with great effort, even danger, whether diving into the ocean or into deep freshwater. Shells frequently traveled long distances across the Maya world before reaching their final destinations, making this an exotic, expensive, and precious material. Shells in both carved and un-carved formats were frequently placed in elite burials and other offerings. When carved, they took on a dazzling array of forms, comprising an important aspect of elite dress and ornamentation (see 1978.412.103 and 1979.206.951).
Shell came from the water and was thus closely connected to concepts of the primordial sea and the world’s mythical beginnings. It was also closely connected to ideas of breath, wind, and moisture. Chahk, the Maya storm god, for instance, wears a spondylus shell earflare (see 1978.412.206 and 1980.213), while other Mesoamerican wind gods, like Ehecatl, wear shell pendants and ear ornaments. Modern day beach-goers often claim they can hear the sounds of the ocean when they press a shell to their ears. In a similar vein, the ancient Maya considered shells embodiments of the sounds, aromas, and moisture of the ocean. This explains why the misty tips of waves are so often depicted in Precolumbian art as stacked or spiral-shaped seashells. Ancient Maya dance costumes were often fringed with shell "tinklers," which would have rattled according to the dancer’s movement, while conch shell trumpets were an important aspect of ceremonial practices, hunting rites, and warfare. Shell was thus associated with all kinds of noise, from rattles to trumpet blasts, to ocean waves, to the sounds of an oncoming rainstorm.
Although both shell and jade are hard, solid materials, both are intertwined with ideas of the ephemeral—including breath, sound, and moisture. The four additional ornaments that once accompanied this pendant on its necklace emphasize these points. Two were carved to resemble small shells, each depicting one-half of a smooth-edged, oblong bivalve. One is a "duckbill" pendant, an early, Olmec-style form associated with rain and wind. The final pendant is a spoon-shaped ornament, perforated through the center by a curving slit. This appears to be an antecedent form of the later Maya sign for wind, where the curved slit takes on a tau (or capital "T") shape. This form is used in Maya hieroglyphic passages and art and reads phonetically as ik’, meaning "wind" or "breath." Once again, in the stone-hardened confines of a carved jade pendant, messages of the ephemeral and evanescent shine through.
Finally, it is important to acknowledge the specific context of this pendant, as the materials associated with it and the manner in which it was deposited provide additional information about the pendant’s meaning and chronological placement. As mentioned above, the pendant was discovered at the early Maya site of Kaminaljuyu. It was part of an elaborate necklace found in an offering deposit in Mound C-III-6 that was accompanied by a human skull, an animal skull, and a small stone figurine. Sometime later, a second offering was cut into the top of the mound, just above this deposit. This second offering included a carved stela (Kaminaljuyu Sculpture 9), three plain basalt columns, and the broken shafts of two vertical pedestal sculptures.
Archaeologists have recently re-dated this later cache to approximately 300BC. Its contents, however, likely predate this final deposition by one or two centuries. Sculpture 9, and the pedestal sculptures are all stylistically early, possibly dating to ca. 500-400BC. The jade shell and other carved pendants from the earlier deposit are very similar to Olmec style jade forms and may date to ca. 600BC. If so, the necklace may have been an heirloom, connected to the past, ancestors, and deep time, and thus saved and cared for over a long period of time before it was deposited as an offering in Mound C-III-6.
What is particularly notable is that Kaminaljuyu Sculpture 9 closely echoes the symbolism of the shell pendant. Sculpture 9, a naturally faceted basalt column, shows a bas-relief (or low relief) carving of a naked individual standing atop a highly abstracted version of the earth crocodile. This cosmic model envisioned the surface of the earth as a great crocodile floating atop the primordial sea. The individual sings out a curling "speech scroll," a common motif in Mesoamerican art that gave solid form to such ephemeral phenomena as speech, song, breath, sound, and aroma. The speech scroll curls out of the individual’s mouth and is transformed into the pointed silhouette of a halved conch-shell. Such a sign is based on physical reality—if one cuts laterally across a conch shell, it produces a star-shaped profile that curves around an internal spiral. Once again, then, we encounter a transitory moment rendered into solid reality as breath twists into the spiked spiral of a shell.
This simple jade pendant, then, embraces a multiplicity of meanings. It was not just a sign of wealth, prestige, and special access to exotic goods, but communicated important ideas about living breath, agricultural success, water, the center of the world, and ancestral origins. Solid, unchanging jade gives weight to momentary and ephemeral concepts, creating an exquisite tension and intersection between materials and meanings.
Lucia R. Henderson, Sylvan C. and Pamela Coleman Fellow, 2015
Parsons, Lee Allen. The Origins of Maya Art: Monumental Stone Sculpture of Kaminaljuyu, Guatemala, and the Southern Pacific Coast. Washington, D.C: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1986. (Figure 6)
Cited Sources and Additional Reading
For more sources on jade, see entries 1989.314.15a, b and 1994.35.590a, b.
Bishop, Ronald, Frederick W. Lange, and Elizabeth K. Easby. "Jade in Meso-America." In Jade, edited by Roger Keverne, 316-37. New York: Lorenz Books, 1995.
Finamore, Daniel, and Stephen D. Houston, eds. Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea. Salem and New Haven: Peabody Essex Museum and Yale University Press, 2010. See especially Plate 75, pp. 234-237.
Guernsey, Julia. "A Consideration of the Quatrefoil Motif in Preclasic Mesoamerica." Res 57/58 (2010): 75-96.
Henderson, Lucia R. "Bodies Politic, Bodies in Stone: Imagery of the Human and the Divine in the Sculpture of Late Preclassic Kaminaljuyú, Guatemala." PhD Dissertation. University of Texas at Austin, 2013. See especially pp. 303-309, 393-395, 404, 597, and Fig.12c.
Houston, Stephen. The Life Within: Classic Maya and the Matter of Permanence. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014. See especially pp.31-49, 56-73.
Houston, Stephen D., David Stuart, and Karl A. Taube. The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006. See especially Chapter 4.
Houston, Stephen D., and Karl A. Taube. "An Archaeology of the Senses: Perception and Cultural Expression in Ancient Mesoamerica." Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10, no. 2 (2000): 261-94. See especially p.265.
Houston, Stephen D., and Karl A. Taube. "The Fiery Pool: Fluid Concepts of Water and Sea among the Classic Maya." In Ecology, Power and Religion in Maya Landscapes, edited by Christian Isendahl and Bodil Liljefors Persson, 11-37. Markt Schwaben: Verlag Anton Saurwein, 2011. See especially p.16.
Parsons, Lee Allen. The Origins of Maya Art: Monumental Stone Sculpture of Kaminaljuyu, Guatemala, and the Southern Pacific Coast. Washington, D.C: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1986. See pp.10, 16-17, and Fig. 6.
Parsons, Lee Allen. "Post-Olmec Stone Sculpture: The Olmec-Izapan Transition on the Southern Pacific Coast and Highlands." In The Olmec and Their Neighbors: Essays in Memory of Matthew W. Stirling<.i>, 257-88. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1981. See especially pp. 263-264.
Pillsbury, Joanne, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito, and Alexandre Tokovinine, eds. Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, No. 4. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2012. See especially pp.154-271, 440-463. Also see Taube and Ishihara-Brito, below, and Velázquez Castro, below.
Proskouriakoff, Tatiana. "Olmec and Maya Art: Problems of Their Stylistic Interpretation." In Dumbarton Oaks, Conference on the Olmec, 1967, edited by Elizabeth P. Benson, 119-34 Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Trustees for Harvard University, 1968. See especially p.123.
Saturno, William A., Karl A. Taube, David Stuart, and Heather Hurst. The Murals of San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala. Part 1, the North Wall. Ancient America, No. 7. Barnardsville: Center for Ancient American Studies, 2005. See especially pp.7-8.
Stuart, David. "Jade and Chocolate: Bundles of Wealth in Classic Maya Economics and Ritual." In Sacred Bundles: Ritual Acts of Wrapping and Binding in Mesoamerica, edited by Julia Guernsey and F. Kent Reilly, 127-44. Barnardsville: Boundary End Archaeological Research Center, 2006.
Taube, Karl A. "The Breath of Life: The Symbolism of Wind in Mesoamerica and the American Southwest." In The Road to Aztlan: Art from a Mythic Homeland, edited by Virginia M. Fields, 102-23. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2001.
Taube, Karl A. "The Jade Hearth: Centrality, Rulership, and the Classic Maya Temple." In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, edited by Stephen Houston, 427-79. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton oaks Research Library and Collection, 1998.
Taube, Karl A. Olmec Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, D.C: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2004. See especially Pl. 36, pp.169-173.
Taube, Karl A. "The Symbolism of Jade in Classic Maya Religion." Ancient Mesoamerica 16 (2005): 23-50.
Taube, Karl A. "Where Earth and Sky Meet: The Sea in Ancient and Contemporary Maya Cosmology." In Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea, edited by Daniel Finamore and Stephen D. Houston, 202-19. Salem and New Haven: Peabody Essex Museum and Yale University Press, 2010. See especially p. 210.
Taube, Karl A., and Reiko Ishihara-Brito. "From Stone to Jewel: Jade in Ancient Maya Religion and Rulership." In Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito and Alexandre Tokovinine. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, No. 4, 134-53. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2012.
Velázquez Castro, Adrián. "Pre-Columbian Maya Shell Objects: An Analysis of Manufacturing Techniques." In Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks, edited by Joanne Pillsbury, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito and Alexandre Tokovinine. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, No. 4, 432-39. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2012.
Wagner, Elisabeth. "Jade- the Green Gold of the Maya." In Maya: Divine Kings of the Rainforest edited by Nikolai Grube, 66-69. Cologne: Könemann, 2006.
Zender, Marc. "The Music of Shells." In Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea, edited by Daniel Finamore and Stephen D. Houston, 83-85. Salem and New Haven: Peabody Essex Museum and Yale University Press, 2010.
Mr. and Mrs. Julius Carlebach, New York, until 1960; Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1960–1978