A group of archaeologists have discovered in Belize a large, carved jade pendant that once belonged to an ancient Maya king, inscribed with a historical text delineating its first owner. The newly found object is carved in a T shape, which experts suggest that signifies “wind and breath”, and would have been worn on the king’s chest during ceremonies. The finds also include a vessel with a beaked face believed to depict a Maya god of wind.
Second Largest Maya Jade Relic Found in Belize
The jewel was first uncovered in 2015, in Nim Li Punit in southern Belize. The T-shaped pendant is considered of extraordinary archaeological value for being the second largest Maya jade artifact found in Belize to date. Geoffrey Braswell, director of the excavations and professor at University of California, San Diego, suggests in a paper he recently published in the Cambridge University journal Ancient Mesoamerica that, “It was like finding the Hope Diamond in Peoria instead of New York. We would expect something like it in one of the big cities of the Maya world. Instead, here it was, far from the center,” Braswell said as Phys Org reports.
In the movie ‘Apocalypto’, a Maya king is shown wearing a large pendant during a ceremony.
The Jewel “Spoke” to the Archaeologists
The 7.4-inch-wide, 4.1-inch-long pendant is just 0.3 inches thick, and researchers claim that sawing it into this slim shape would have been a feat in itself. Its sculptors would have used just string, fat, and jade dust. However, what makes this pedant truly significant from an archaeological point of view is that it is the only known jewel to be inscribed with a historical text, with 30 hieroglyphs describing its first owner carved into the back. “It literally speaks to us. The story it tells is a short but important one.” Braswell said and added that this discovery could even change what we know about the Mayan civilization. Braswell also explained that fortunately the pendant was not torn out of history by looters, “To find it on a legal expedition, in context, gives us information about the site and the jewel that we couldn’t have otherwise had or maybe even imagined,” he said.
UC San Diego archaeologist Geoffrey Braswell holds a replica of the Maya jade pendant. Credit: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications.
There’s More to Learn from the Inscription on the Pendant
Christian Prager of the University of Bonn, a co-author on the paper, is currently examining closely the inscription on the pendant. According to Prager and Braswell, the jewel was possibly made for the king Janaab’ Ohl K’inich and the hieroglyphs describe the king’s parentage. The text, according to Braswell, also describes the accession rites of the king in the year 647, and ends with a passage that could link the king to the powerful city of Caracol in modern-day Belize. The researchers don’t think the pendent was stolen, but may instead indicate the arrival of royalty at Nim Li Punit, revealing the founding of a new dynasty.
No solid conclusions can be made at this point, due to the fact that Mayan script itself is not yet fully deciphered. Many scientists have intensely disagreed before regarding Mayan culture and scripts.
The Significance of Weather for Maya Culture
The team of researchers discovered the jewel during an excavation of a palace built around the year 400 AD. Inside a tomb, which dates to about 800, they found twenty-five pottery vessels, a large stone that had been flaked into the shape of a deity, and the jade pectoral. With the exception of some teeth, there were no human remains. The T-shaped pendent also has a T carved on the front the Mayan glyph ‘ik,’ which according to the experts stands for “wind and breath.” Wind was important in Maya culture, as it brought monsoon rains that favored crops to thrive, “A recent theory is that climate change caused droughts that led to the widespread failure of agriculture and the collapse of Maya civilization. The dedication of this tomb at that time of crisis to the wind god who brings the annual rains lends support to this theory, and should remind us all about the danger of climate change,” Braswell told Phys Org.
Despite the fact that we may never learn all the details we need to know about this rare pendant, Braswell reassures that he and his team plan to return to the site during the spring of this year and do further research which may help us to understand better the usage and significance of this unique jewel.
Top image: The newly discovered jewel with 30 hieroglyphs on its back, a private message seen mostly by the king who wore it. Credit: University of California – San Diego.