Early Classic, ca. A.D. 400-500
The ceremonial plaque of thin cross-section, having once formed part of a royal belt assemblage, both faces finely incised and filled with rich red cinnabar, one side a representation of a full-length profile portrait of a young Maya ruler, richly attired in the regalia associated with enthronement, standing on a pedestal-shaped throne which incorporates the ak'bal glyph denoting "darkness", his arms cradling the Double-Headed Serpent Bar with supernatural creatures issuing from the open mouths of the serpents, distinguished by dark spots on his body indicating the supernatural, as well as a reference to Hunahpu, one of the Hero Twins, smaller spots on his cheeks and nose and a whisker-like element at the corner of the mouth symbolic of his kinship with the jaguar, the feline associated with the night, wearing a jaguar skin skirt with beaded fringe, overlaid by a royal belt incorporating elaborate, paraphernalia including a mask surmounted by a skull, a reference to death, with three celt-shaped plaques (see detail), as the one described herewith, anklets and wristlets ornamented with more ak'bal signs, leatherwork sandals, complex headgear, a crucial component of this royal costume as is the belt assemblage, incorporating a ferocious skull, a bevy of jade beads and elements, a Jester God mask, the symbol of rulership, projecting from the top, with a coiled rope running along the side supporting a diminutive skull, a reference to the 'way', the spiritual, animal companion of an individual (rulers often had the jaguar as a 'way'), another rope extends from his belt down to the leg and supports a small figure of Chac, the Rain God, a graphically drawn text (verso), in two columns (read from top to bottom, and left to right), primarily stating the date, action and protagonist of the scene: the date in the Calendar Round opens the inscription (A1-A3), the tzolk'in (A1-big glyph) is 5 Chikchan the haab 12 Mak (A3), A2 and B2 refer again to the cycle of the Lords of the Night, the verb in A3 reads u ch'amwa interpreted as "to take, to grasp" but also "to receive", in fact, it shows a hand holding something, here a little ajaw "lord" head which generally refers to accession to power but can appear in other contexts as well. A4 and B4 seem to designate the object received (yuuk' sa? u kaywa?), maybe the celt itself, the shape of the object in A4b could represent a celt, the individual taking or receiving the object represents our ruler, possibly called Machaak (A5) identified by titles (B5-A6) which suggests that the lord portrayed was a subordinate of a ruler, in A8, a distance number of 9 days leading to a new calendar round date, nine days after 5 Chikchan 13 Mak should come 1 Hix 2 K'ank'in (B8-A9). The verb in B9 reads 'och ja', "he entered water", a metaphor for death, individuals at death entered the watery Underworld before being reborn in the after life and joining the sky, the deceased individual is our so-called Machaak, named in A10a, the text closes with the celebration of a period ending (A10b) falling on a day 6 Ajaw (B10), the date 5 Chikchan 13 Mak should then come after and may correspond to the Long Count (Dec. 23, 464). Machaak would then have died about thirty years after the period ending celebration (the date inscribed on its pair, see Literature); of pale gray-green translucent stone, pierced at the top for suspension.
Height 9 1/8 in. (23 cm.)
G. Berjonneau, E. Deletaille et Jean-Louis Sonnery, Chefs d'Oeuvres Inédits de l'Art Précolombien, Boulogne, 1985, pls. 332-333.
Michael Coe, The Art of the Maya Scribe, pls. 24 and 25.

Lot Essay

Cf. Literature only records two other extant plaques, see The Art of the Maya Scribe, pl. 22 and 23 for the Leiden Plaque and for a companion to this belt plaque, Chefs d'Oeuvres Inédits, pls. 330-331, presently exhibited at the Miho Museum, Kyoto, Ancient Civilizations of the Americas, pl. 37. For a slightly earlier yet very similar example of a regal belt ornament-the Leiden Plaque (fig. 3) circa A.D. 320, exhibited at the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden and discovered in 1864, is one of the most renowned works of Early Classic jade, bearing one of the earliest undisputed dates in Maya history.
The companion of the belt plaque, probably having formed part of the original assemblage, (figs.1 and 2) holds a complimentary, symbolic role by referring to the sun, day and life whereas the present one represents darkness and death. The companion plaque represents the same lord (fig. 1) but with some differences: here he stands on two captives, enhancing the warrior role of the ruler, in contrast a 'Baby Jaguar', a supernatural creature, issues from his ceremonial bar, the cheek of the lord is marked by the k'in or Sun sign and the sumptuous headdress incorporates a 'Mexican Year Sign', signaling the strong influence of Teotihuacan on the Maya lowlands. The text states, the Long Count date, a bak'tun ending falling in December 11, A.D. 435, it continues with a reference to bloodletting and to the ruler's position as a subordinate of another city-state.
Interestingly a group of fragmentary and re-worked Early Classic belt plaques have been unearthed in Costa Rica, see Jade in Ancient Costa Rica, pl. 29 and fig. 36, with very similar iconography. As with Olmec jades found in Costa Rica it is certain that there were trade ties possibly using a coastal route. There is further suggestion that the alteration and dismemberment of such important Maya regalia was carried out by the Maya themselves, as symbolic acts of 'effacement' perhaps by succeeding dynasts.
The belt plaque forms part of a royal costume found in a grouping of three (see detail), it carries both an image and a hieroglyphic inscription as that of a Mayan stele reinforcing the celt's commemorative function. The workmanship captures Early Classic style at its apogee with the bold glyphs distinctive for this period. In Early Classic art, the symbolic message within a work of art often took precedence over the naturalistic depiction of the human figure. Here the lord is tightly surrounded with an array of symbols and accoutrements which define his regal and sacred rank. The clothing worn by the ruler including the present belt plaque is the most sacred costume of kings solely donned at the time of an accession ritual and at death. Much of the kingly regalia corresponds to the paraphernalia used for the gods in the Late Preclassic statuary. Mayan rulers and elite adorned themselves with a great quantity of jade ornaments not only to show their wealth and status but with the conviction that such greenstones held those magical qualities of verdant plant life and nature symbolically associated with an eternal expression of resurrection.
In this recent reading of the glyphic text, the principal elements include the presentation of an object (possibly a badge of office or a celt), a date which seems to suggest that of the death of the ruler 'he entered water', nine days after the presentation of the object. In the Maya belief system individuals at death entered the watery Underworld before being reborn in the afterlife.

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