Mesoamerican jade artifacts

Mesoamerican jade artifacts

Hello again! I am Lauren Nowakowski, the Ethnographic Collections Intern here at the Ohio History Connection.

My job is to photograph and help with organizing the objects in the ethnographic collection. Since the collection includes items from all over the world, I never know what I will find. Even though I am currently unable to come into the museum to continue photographing and organizing, I am able to look deeper into collections and items that I have already had the pleasure of photographing.

Being at home for longer periods of time right now has given me the opportunity to do more in depth research into items from the Ethnographic Collection. My focus in this post are the numerous jadeites pieces from the Bryan Collection. The small jadeite artifacts in the collection have a beautiful green hue and come in the form of figurines, pendants, discs, ear ornaments, and beads.

What exactly is Jade?

Jade is a green or black stone. It can include a variety of different minerals and greenstones (albite, quartz, hornblende, and glaucophane). In 1863, Alexis Damour discovered that jade could be further divided into two different minerals known as jadeite and nephrite. The differences between the two lies in their hardness, location, chemical composition, and color. jadeite, for example, is a slightly harder stone.

Jade is found in metamorphic rocks associated with subduction zones. Jadeite is usually found in rocks that have a higher pressure than nephrite, which leads to a geographic separation between jadeite and nephrite.

Jade in Mesoamerica

When talking about Jade in Mesoamerica one is most often talking about jadeite.

Worked pieces of jadeite can be seen all over Mesoamerica from the Olmec of Mexico to the Mayan Lowlands in central Honduras, and in Northern Costa Rica. Consumers of these worked jade products can be seen in the Valley of Mexico, Valley of Oaxaca, and in highland Guatemala. The ethnographic jade objects in our collection come from the Valley of Mexico. Evidence of the use of jade in Mesoamerica is demonstrated as early as 1500 BCE in beads of the Barra Phase contexts on the Pacific Coast of Chiapas.

Interestingly enough, the name jade came from the 16th century Spanish who believed that it had medicinal properties. One of those properties being a cure for urinary tract illnesses. In the 1565 account of Nicolas Monardes, jade is known as the “Piedra de ijada” which translates to “the stone of the loins.” The modern words of jade and jadeite thus come from the source word “ijada.” Although the medicinal properties of jade were introduced here by the Spanish, the belief that it holds these medicinal properties is likely Mesoamerican in origin.

Understanding jadeite objects, and where the raw material of these objects was sourced from is important to researchers, since it can lead to a better understanding of early societies’ political and economic structures.

In Mesoamerica, jade was used for personal adornment, dedicatory or religious offerings, in domestic contexts, as tools, and for medicinal purposes.

So…Where did the Jade Come From?

Through the European lens, interest in jade arose when Spanish conquistadors became fascinated by the value that Aztecs placed on jadeite. Soon after the early Colonial period the native sources of jade were forgotten, and instead gold became the prized commodity in Colonial New Spain and Europe.

The search for the sources of jade began years later with the German mineralogist Heinrich Fischer. He proposed that ancient jade objects were imports from Asia, since as of yet there had not been any known sources of jadeite or nephrite in the Americas. Later, Thomas Wilson challenged this idea by showing the natural occurrence of nephrite in Alaska and British Columbia. Later he proposed that the Mesoamerican source was out there, but had yet to be found. Zelia Nuttall also argued for the existence of Mesoamerican jadeite sources and consulted ethnohistoric Aztec documents such as the Aztec Florentine Codex, Crónica Mexicana of Alvaro Tezozomoc, and Tribute Roll of Montezuma. Through this, Nuttall determined that jadeite sources were to be found in Chiapas fairly close to the Motagua Valley Region. The problem with Nuttall’s idea was that the jades from these documents were never rough freshly quarried materials but were instead finished beads. Therefore, they could have been acquired from elsewhere through trade, heirlooms, and looting.

Today, we now know that jadeite can be found in two localities of Mesoamerica: San Benito, California and the Motagua Valley region of eastern Guatemala. Even with all of these new discoveries surrounding jade there is still much research to be done in determining how the various ancient Mesoamerican cultures acquired their jade and how it served their economy.


Examples of other jade pieces in the MET museum:

Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia
By: Susan Toby Evans, David L. Webster
Link to excerpt:

Housework: Craft Production and Domestic Economy in Ancient Mesoamerica
Edited by: Kenneth G. Hirth
Chapter 13: Jade in Full: Prehispanic Domestic Production of Wealth Goods in the Middle Motagua Valley, Guatemala
Link to excerpt:

Olmec Art at Dumbarton Oaks
By: Karl A. Taube
Chapter: The Sourcing of Mesoamerican Jade: Expanded Geological Reconnaissance in the Motagua Region Guatemala
Link to Excerpt:

Journal Articles:
Mineralogical Studies on Guatemalan Jade
By: William F. Foshag

The Late Classic Organization of Jade Artifact Production in the Middle Motagua Valley, Zacapa, Guatemala
By: Erick T. Rochette

Posted July 7, 2020
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