Archaeologists have discovered an ancient jade pendent that was once worn on the chest of a Maya king.
The pendent discovered in Nim Li Punit is the second largest Maya jade found in Belize, and dates back to AD 672.
The remarkable artifact is shaped in a way that signifies ‘wind and breath,’ and was found alongside a vessel with a beaked face thought to depict a Maya god of wind.
The jewel is the only one known to be inscribed with a historical text, with 30 hieroglyphs describing its first owner carved into the back. ‘It literally speaks to us,’ Braswell said. ‘The story it tells is a short but important one’
The unexpected discovery was made back in 2015 in a dig led by UC San Diego archaeologist Geoffrey Braswell, who just recently published a paper on the jewel’s significance in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica.
‘It was like finding the Hope Diamond in Peoria instead of New York,’ said Geoffrey 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.’
The 7.4 inch wide, 4.1 inch high pendant is just .3 inches thick, and researchers say sawing it into this thin shape would have been a feat in itself.
Its sculptors would have used just string, fat, and jade dust.
But, along with this, the jewel is the only one known to be inscribed with a historical text, with 30 hieroglyphs describing its first owner carved into the back.
‘It literally speaks to us,’ Braswell said.
‘The story it tells is a short but important one.’
And, Braswell explained, the pendant was ‘not torn out of history by looters.
‘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.’
The researchers discovered the jewel during an excavation of a palace built around the year 400.
Inside a tomb, which dates to about AD 800, they found 25 pottery vessels, a large stone that had been flaked into the shape of a deity, and the jade pectoral.
With the exception of some teeth, there were no human remains.
The T-shaped pendent also has a T carved on the front – the Mayan glyph ‘ik.’
According to the team, this stands for ‘wind and breath.’
The pendent was buried in a curious T-shaped platform, according to Braswell, and a pot discovered with it has a beaked face that could depict a Maya god.
Wind was a significant force in Maya culture, as it brought monsoon rains that allowed crops to thrive.
Their kings were thought to be responsible for the weather, and performed rituals according to their sacred calender.
This included the burning and scattering of incense to bring on the winds and rain.
An inscription on the pendent indicates it was first used in AD 672 for such a ritual.
And, this is supported by two relief sculptures on large rock slabs at Nim Li Punit, which show a king wearing the T-shaped pendant while scattering incense in AD 721 and 731.
The inscription suggests the king’s mother was from Cahal Pech, a distant site in western Belize, and that his father died before age 20, and may have come from somewhere in Guatemala. But, at 60 miles away, this would have been a hefty journey
The pendent was buried by the year 800 – but, not with its owner.
According to Braswell, this could be because ‘it had immense power and magic,’ and may have been buried as a dedication to the wind god.
Around this time, Maya kingdoms were collapsing throughout Belize and Guatemala, and Nim Li Punit was abandoned.
‘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.’
Christian Prager of the University of Bonn, a co-author on the paper, is still analyzing the inscription on the pendant.
The researchers discovered the jewel during an excavation of a palace built around the year 400. With the exception of some teeth, there were no human remains
But, so far, it’s thought to say that the jewel was first made for the king Janaab’ Ohl K’inich.
It also describes his parentage, suggesting his mother was from Cahal Pech, a distant site in western Belize, and that his father died before age 20, and may have come from somewhere in Guatemala.
The text, according to the researchers, also describes the accession rites of the king in the year 647, and ends with a passage that could link the king to the powerful city of Caracol in modern day Belize.
‘It tells a political story far from Nim Li Punit,’ Braswell said, noting that Cahal Pech is 60 miles away – what would have been a hefty walk through rainforest and mountains.
The researchers don’t think the pendent was stolen, but may instead indicate the arrival of royalty at Nim Li Punit, revealing the founding of a new dynasty.
The pendent was buried by the year 800 – but, not with its owner. According to Braswell, this could be because ‘it had immense power and magic,’ and may have been buried as a dedication to the wind god. Around this time, Maya kingdoms were collapsing
The writing, not relatively old by Maya standards, is the oldest discovered at the site.
The researchers say it’s possible that the king moved to Nim Li Punit, or that a great Maya state was trying to ally with the provinces by presenting a jewel to the local king.
Still, the writing is evidence of previously unknown ties.
‘We didn’t think we’d find royal, political connections to the north and west of Nim Li Punit,’ Braswell said.
‘We thought if there were any at all that they’d be to the south and east.’
Without the writing, it would appear that the jade stone is from the mountains of Guatemala, but there are few earlier indications of trade in that direction.
The researchers plan to return to the site in the spring – but they say the story behind the pendent could forever remain a mystery.