THE MAYAN AREA
Jade: The Stone of Eternity
In 1519, Cortes and his men marveled at the exotic world they had chanced upon, a place where bits of European green and blue glass could be traded for Aztec gold. The Conquistadors soon learned that their ordinary glass beads could be passed for chalchihuitl, the native Aztec word for any hard green-blue rock. Such rocks were considered to be earth's most precious substances by the Aztec and other Mesoamerican peoples more precious even than gold and silver.
The stone was new to the 16th century Spaniards who had little interest in any intrinsic value of these chalchihuitls. Yet they paid attention when the Aztec shamans told them that the stones cured internal ailments-particularly of the liver and kidney-so they called it 'loin-stone', or piedra de ijada, which entered the English language in a corrupted form as jade.
In geological terms, true Mesoamerican jade is jadeite, a silicate of sodium and aluminum colored with various trace elements. Jadeite is known to come from the highlands of Guatemala where important veins have recently been rediscovered. It is harder than its relative, nephrite, from China, yet more brittle. Tougher than steel, jadeite does not flake like obsidian or flint, and without any metal tools, the skill of these Mesoamerican artists to work this unyielding material is even more impressive. Research has shown that jadeite is actually only one of several look-alike greenstones worked by the Maya (others include serpentine, albite, chrysoprase and diopside) and the grouping of such greenstone artifacts is now labeled as 'cultural jade'.
While Maya jade artifacts (ca. 100 B.C.-A.D. 1000) are more often mottled green, the more prized pieces are an apple-colored and emerald green jade, the Olmec, by comparison favored a blue-green hue. Jade jewelry had more significance for the Maya, than merely showing elevated status and wealth. On a symbolic level, it copied the finery of one of their principal deities, the Maize God, whose magnificent adornments emulating the luminescent green maize leaves evoked the verdant foliage of the sprouting cornstalk. The Maya went to their graves hoping to follow the god's path into the Underworld and then experience a similar resurrection into the sky. In preparation, they dressed their corpses in the same jewelry as in life-with elaborate belts, necklaces and pendants. The Maya sculptors worked on an epic scale with their elaborate story-laden carved stelae (sculpted columnar monuments), capturing the same monumentality in certain fine jade artifacts where text and image are meshed to convey profound messages of historic and ceremonial events. In the tropical world little was immutable, wood rotted, precious quetzal feathers disintegrated, even limestone eroded. However, jade with its intractable hardness survived.