These two nesting ornaments represent one half of a pair of earflares (see 1994.35.590a, b for the mate). Set into a wide perforation in the wearer’s earlobe (as earspools are today), these ornaments would have been anchored in place in various ways. In some cases, a bead (or beads) were set into the front of the earflare, anchoring it with the help of a set of beaded counterweights that were threaded through the earflare and hung behind the earlobe. Another possibility is that an L-shaped plug (likely made of wood) was fitted through the earflare’s central opening, or stem, from the back, holding the entire assemblage in place, snug against the wearer’s ear.
The smaller, deeper green insert fits perfectly inside the lighter green, larger earflare. Two sets of holes were drilled through the shafts of each nested pair, possibly so thread or string could be used to lash them together. Compared to other jade earflares found in the Maya world, these are relatively small in scale. They are also very thinly carved, representing delicate counterpoints to the thicker, heftier earflares found more commonly in the ancient Maya world. Earflare assemblages often included inserts, which helped hold the ornaments in place (see 1989.314.2a, b). Such inserts, however, are usually plain, which makes the floral shape of these inserts rather unusual. Even rarer is the use of contrasting colors of jade, which creates an especially striking and beautiful final assemblage.
The word "jade," when used in Mesoamerican contexts, refers specifically to jadeite. This mineral comes in a startling array of colors (from purple to green to cloudy white), though bright green and deep blue varieties were most prized by the ancient Maya. 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 piece from the rough boundaries of raw jade would have been enormously slow and difficult work, a fact that would have likely increased the value and preciousness of the final product.
The artist responsible for these ornaments was clearly a master of his craft, coaxing this stubborn stone not only into a flawlessly nested pair of earflares, but carving them down to a remarkable 1-2mm thickness—making them translucent when held in front of a bright light. Maya jade carvers more frequently focused on bringing out the most saturated, richest greens of jade rather than creating transparent effects, so this delicate translucency is unusual.
The fact that jade endured, unchanged, for centuries, connected it to ideas of timelessness, permanency, and longevity. It is not surprising, then, that sets of nesting jade earflares are found most frequently with jade "death masks," which were placed over the faces of deceased rulers at Maya sites (including Palenque, Calakmul, Oxkintok, and Dzibanché) to convey a sense of eternal life to the departed.
Jade was considered the most precious of all materials in the ancient Maya world. Its vibrant color was likened to other precious green things, including ripening crops and the iridescent tail feathers of the quetzal bird. 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.
The Maya considered caves, holes, orifices, and passages of all kinds as points of entry into supernatural worlds. Earflares were seen as small-scale portals, jewel-lined pathways into the human body. One of the most common Maya phrases for death, och bih (literally "to enter/go on the road"), was depicted in hieroglyphic inscriptions as a snake diving into an earflare. Notably, the high polish Maya craftsman brought to the surfaces of jades cause these ornaments to emit a high, metallic ring when they are struck. For a non-metal using culture, this would have been a rare and beautiful sound. Ornamenting the ears in jade did not just mark them as sacred pathways, but also transformed the sounds heard by the wearer into divine, sacred, perfumed, and precious phenomena.
These nesting earflares have been subtly transformed into flowers. Four diagonal lines carved from their centers to their corners and their gently curved silhouettes create the illusion that they are composed of four soft petals rather than hard stone. If one envisions these earflares as they would have been originally used—as part of an assemblage that included a central bead projecting out like a stamen or pistil—one quickly understands how they may have been viewed as precious, aromatic flowers rendered in stone.
The four diagonal lines, the four petals they outline, and the roughly square shape of each ornament also reference the cardinal directions. In the ancient Maya world (and in contemporary indigenous belief), the cosmos was envisioned as a square. Settlements, houses and maize fields, the Underworld, earth’s surface, and celestial sphere were all conceived of as square in shape, with their sides or corners oriented towards the four cardinal directions. The total of four, four-petaled ornaments further emphasizes this idea of the four directions, and marks the wearer as the fifth point, the central place. This central place was represented by the color yax ("green-blue"), the color of jade. In ancient Maya belief the center, the axis mundi or world axis, was viewed as a place of movement, transition, birth, and transformation, a portal between worlds. The wearer is thus marked as the center of the world, a portal to divine and sacred realms.
Lucia R. Henderson
Related Objects at the Met
1994.35.590a, b and 1994.35.591a, b
1994.35.582 and 1994.35.583
Sources and Further Reading
Fields, Virginia M., and Dorie Reents-Budet, eds. Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2005.
Martínez del Campo Lanz, Sofia. Rostros De La Divinidad: Los Mosaicos Mayas De Piedra Verde. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropologìa e Historia, 2010.
Miller, Mary E., and Marco Samayoa. "Where Maize May Grow: Jade, Chacmools, and the Maize God." Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 33 (1998): 54-72.
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 pp.135-271, with special attention to pp.256-265.
Proskouriakoff, Tatiana. "Jades from the Cenote of Sacrifice, Chichen Itza, Yucatan." Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Vol. 10, No. 1. Cambridge: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 1974.
Reilly, F. Kent III. "Cosmos and Rulership: The Function of Olmec-Style Symbols in Formative Period Mesoamerica." Visible Language 24, no. 1 (1990): 12-37.
Schele, Linda, and David A. Freidel. A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. New York: Morrow, 1990.
Schele, Linda, and Mary Ellen Miller. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. New York and Fort Worth: G. Braziller and the Kimbell Art Museum, 1986. See especially pp.90-92.
Stuart, David. "The Iconography of Flowers in Maya Art." Paper presented at the 8th Texas Symposium on Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, University of Texas at Austin, 1992. Unpublished.
Stuart, David. " ‘The Fire Enters His House’: Architecture and Ritual in Classic Maya Texts." In Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture, edited by Stephen Houston, 373-425. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1998.
Taube, Karl A. "The Symbolism of Jade in Classic Maya Religion." Ancient Mesoamerica 16 (2005): 23-50.
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.
Wagner, Elisabeth. "Jade ̶ the Green Gold of the Maya." In Maya: Divine Kings of the Rain Forest edited by Nikolai Grube, 66-69. Kóhn: Könemann, 2006.
George Pepper, Mexico City and Philadelphia; Arthur M. Bullowa, New York, until (d.)1993