The Ancient Mayans were a Mesoamerican civilization that lived in areas of what is today Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. They were one of the more advanced civilizations of their time. Evidence of Mayan civilization dates back in history to well before the birth of Christ. Jewelry (also known as jewellery) from this ancient civilization can be traced back approximately 5,000 years.
In the earliest period of Mayan civilization, metal was hard to come by so the Mayan's created jewelry out of bone from jaguar teeth and claws, stones, feathers, and various colorful shells. As natural resources became more readily available, the Mayans would craft beautiful jewelry out of gold, silver, copper, jade and bronze.
Both men and women were known to wear much of the same jewelry with the exception of lip and nose plugs. Nose plugs and nose ornaments were reserved for men with a high social status. Lip plugs were known to be quite sophisticated pieces of jewelry and made of similar materials as nose plugs. Earplugs were also worn by the Mayans and were often so heavy that they would permanently disfigure the earlobe.
One especially rare and prized commodity used by the Mayans was Jade. The Mayans found this resource in Guatemala's Motogua Valley. Although metals such as gold and silver were highly valued, jade was held in even higher regard as the Mayans considered it to be sacred and holy and the ultimate symbol of all that is good including eternal love.
Many types of jewelry were made from Jade some of which include beaded necklaces, pendants, bracelets, earrings, ear plugs, rings and elaborate headdresses. Exotic shells were often used along with Jade in making certain types of necklaces and bracelets. Because religion was such an important aspect of Mayan culture, it is often reflected in their jewelry. Jade beads often contain religious themes, geometric patterns, animals, flowers, and carved out faces.
Jade also had other important uses for the ancient Mayans besides personal adornment. Jade was the Mayans most commonly traded item. The Mayan elite commonly presented jade jewelry as gifts. Jade was also used as an offering to the gods, as trading currency, and sometimes as a treatment for kidney disease. It was used by religious leaders and healers. Jewelry was also used as a means of showing societal rank and social status. Jewelry was also used to reward winners in their popular and sometimes deadly Mayan ball games.
There are two types of Jade, they are Nephrite and Jadeite. The one found in Middle America and used by the Mayans was Jadeite, a very hard stone with a blue-green to black color. It is considered to be even harder than steel and since the Mayans did not have metal tools to work with, it was a very labor intensive art form with a great level of skill required. Because of this, Jade was reserved for the very elite. Similar to the Aztecs, only the most important Mayans including nobility, royalty, and the very wealthy owned and wore Jade.
Thanks to ancient ruins scattered about the countryside of Central America, archeologists have discovered amazing works of art left behind by the Mayans. Old Mayan tombs of the elite have been discovered containing Jade and other types of jewelry as well as food, clothing, blankets and other items. It was common to find a single jade bead buried with the deceased. Archaeologists have discovered intricate masks adorned with jade, mother-of-pearl, and various pieces of ceramic in the tombs of some kings. The Mayans believed strongly in the afterlife and they left these offerings and gifts to the gods upon their death.