In a rare find, scientists have discovered a large piece of carved jade that once belonged to an ancient Maya king, inscribed with a historical text decribing its first owner.
The jewel – a jade pendant worn on a king’s chest during key religious ceremonies – was first unearthed in 2015, in Nim Li Punit in southern Belize. The T-shaped pendant is remarkable for being the second largest Maya jade found in Belize to date, said Geoffrey Braswell, a professor at University of California, San Diego in the US.
“It was like finding the Hope Diamond in Peoria instead of New York,” said Braswell, who led the dig. “We would expect something like it in one of the big cities of the Maya world. Instead, here it was, far from the centre,” he said. The pendant measures 7.4 inches wide, 4.1 inches high and just 0.3 inches thick.
Sawing it into this thin, flat form with string, fat and jade dust would have been a technical feat for the Mayans, researchers said. The pendant is the only one known to be inscribed with a historical text. Carved into the pendant’s back are 30 hieroglyphs about its first owner. The pendant was “not torn out of history by looters,” said Braswell. “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.
Nim Li Punit is a small site in the Toledo District of Belize. It sits on a ridge in the Maya Mountains, near the contemporary village of Indian Creek. On the southeastern edge of the ancient Maya zone – more than 400 kilometres south of Chichen Itza in Mexico, where similar but smaller breast pieces have been found – Nim Li Punit is estimated to have been inhabited between AD 150 and 850. The site’s name means “big hat.” It was dubbed that, after its rediscovery in 1976, for the elaborate headdress sported by one of its stone figures. Researchers along with a crew of local people, were excavating a palace built around the year 400 when they found a collapsed, but intact, tomb.
Inside the tomb, which dates to about AD 800, were 25 pottery vessels, a large stone that had been flaked into the shape of a deity and the precious jade pectoral. Except for a couple of teeth, there were no human remains.The pendant is in the shape of a T. Its front is also carved with a T. This is the Mayan glyph “ik” which stands for “wind and breath.” It was buried,in a curious, T-shaped platform. One of the pots discovered with it, a vessel with a beaked face, probably depicts a Maya god of wind.
Wind was seen as vital by the Maya. It brought annual monsoon rains that made the crops grow. And Maya kings – as divine rulers responsible for the weather – performed rituals according to their sacred calendar, burning and scattering incense to bring on the wind and life-giving rains. According to the inscription on its back, the pendant was first used in AD 672 in just such a ritual, Braswell said.
Two relief sculptures on large rock slabs at Nim Li Punit also corroborate that use. In both sculptures, a king is shown wearing the T-shaped pendant while scattering incense, in AD 721 and 731, some 50 and 60 years after the pendant was first worn. By the year AD 800, the pendant was buried, not with its human owner, it seems, but just with other objects. Braswell believes that it was buried as a dedication to the wind god.
Maya kingdoms were collapsing throughout Belize and Guatemala around AD 800, Braswell said. Population levels plummeted. Within a generation of the construction of the tomb, Nim Li Punit itself was abandoned. “A recent theory is that climate change caused droughts that led to the widespread failure of agriculture and the collapse of Maya civilisation,” 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,” he said. The inscription on the back of the pendant is perhaps the most intriguing thing about it, Braswell said.
The text is still being analysed by researchers, and the Mayan script itself is not yet fully deciphered or agreed upon.