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Maya Jade Pendant of Ancient King Discovered

A buried jade pendant thought to have belonged to an ancient Maya king has been discovered in an 800-A.D tomb found in the most surprising of places in Central America. This finding, published in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica, brings forth more questions about Maya history.

Jade pendant of ancient Maya king; the jewel was used during religious ceremonies. It bears a set of 30 hieroglyphs in the back. Photo credits: G. Braswell, via UC San Diego.

The discovery was made by an archaeologist from UC San Diego, Geoffrey Braswell, in Nim Li Punit in Belize, back in 2015. Why was the pendant buried in that particular region, away from the big Mayan cities? Could this finding hold answers to Maya migrations and politics?

Braswell did not hide his surprise as to the location of the discovery.

“It was like finding the Hope Diamond in Peoria instead of New York,” says Braswell. “We would expect something like it in one of the big cities of the Maya world. Instead, here it was, far from the center,” he said.

The jewel would embellish a king’s chest for important rituals. It is the second biggest Maya jade ever found in Belize: almost 19 centimetres (cm) in width, 10 cm in length, and barely 0.8 cm in thickness—large but thin. Turning it into such a thin and flat form would have constituted quite a task, comments Braswell. Another important feature makes it stand out from other such jewels: it has 30 hieroglyphs carved into its back. Braswell explains that this inscription “literally speaks to us” of a story that could transform our current knowledge of the Maya.

The pendant takes the form of a T, and was enclosed in a T-shaped platform. This represents Mayan glyph “ik”, which means “wind and breath”. Wind was an integral part of Mayan life: heralds of monsoon rains, the Maya people would conduct rituals for its coming; for instance, Maya kings would burn incense, a means that, as per their beliefs, would bring wind and rain. Apparently, they would wear the jade pendant during this ceremony, as attested by sculptures on rocks at Nim Li Punit.

According to Braswell, the pendant was buried as an act of devotion to the Maya wind god.

“A recent theory is that climate change caused droughts that led to the widespread failure of agriculture and the collapse of Maya civilization,” Braswell said. “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 also thinks that the pendant was at Nim Li Punit because Mayan kings once settled there, to found a new dynasty.

“We didn’t think we’d find royal, political connections to the north and the west of Nim Li Punit,” said Braswell. “We thought if there were any at all that they’d be to the south and east.”

The jade pendant was not the only thing discovered. Braswell and his excavation team also found over 20 pottery vessels in the tomb, together with a big stone, supposedly an idol; it is to be noted that no human remains were seen in the tomb.

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