These beautifully carved jade ornaments are "earflare frontals." 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 (for examples, see the earflare assemblages worn by the figures on 1979.206.1047).
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-green 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.
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. The fact that jade endured, unchanged, for centuries, connected it to ideas of timelessness, permanency, and longevity. 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.
Earflares do not just receive sounds—they are also frequently shown as sites of exhalation and breath. In art, flower-shaped earflares are often depicted emitting perfumed aroma. Similarly, the surface of these earflare frontals has been carved with a delicate flower petal design (see 1994.35.590a, b and 1994.35.591a, b for a simpler version of this theme). If one envisions these frontals as they would have been originally used—as part of an assemblage that included a central bead or a tubular bead assemblage projecting out like a stamen or pistil—one quickly understands how they may have been viewed as precious, aromatic flowers rendered in stone.
The meaning of the carved design on these earflares reaches well beyond the floral. The petals are depicted in a compass-like form—four larger petals point to the corners while four smaller petals mark the spaces in between. The frontals are also carved into distinct squares. 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.
In Maya belief, the four sides, corners, or directions surround a fifth point, the cosmic center. This shape (a central point surrounded by four additional points) is called a quincunx. The center place was represented by the color yax ("green-blue"), the color of jade, and often took the shape of a great tree, with its roots in the Underworld and branches in the heavens. The center, or axis mundi, was viewed as a place of movement, transition, birth, and transformation, a portal between worlds. The central hole or "stem" of these four-sided earflares symbolizes that fifth point, the point of centrality. The seeming simplicity of these ornaments, then, belies their complexity. Precious, floral sites of aromatic exhalation, they marked their wearer as a world center, a channel, or portal, to divine realms and sacred worlds.
Lucia R. Henderson
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 Antropologiìa 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.