Archeologists generally admit that very few ancient Maya sites throughout the Maya World have escaped the attention of the would-be treasure seekers. In their desire to recover artifacts that are valuable to art collectors, looters have literally destroyed many sites and damaged many more. And just what are the treasure hunters after? The ancient Maya had no gold or silver (or any other metal for that matter) or precious gems but they had the highest regard for a rare gem stone known as jade. Figurines, beads, ear spools and other ornaments were expertly carved by Maya craftsmen for the pleasure of the elite ruling class. Often exchanged as gifts among the rulers and frequently buried with their remains, jade pieces have become increasingly rare and as a consequence very valuable on the international art market. The collection and export of prehistoric artifacts, including jade, without proper government permits is a serious crime in Belize. These pieces have become so valuable in recent times that modern replicas (which, by the way, are very skillfully made) are often sold to unsuspecting tourists as the real thing at prices that are outrageous.
The Ambergris Museum holds in its collection several authentic jade pieces recovered on the island. A brief discussion about 'jade' will perhaps enhance one's appreciation of these ancient artifacts. Firstly, there are two kinds of 'jade'; that found in China or the Far East and that found here in the New World. The material used by the Maya and other ethnic groups in Middle America is known as jadeite. The stone from China is called nephrite and differs from jadeite in chemical composition and appearance. Maya jadeite is somewhat harder, less translucent and more mottled than nephrite. No nephrite has ever been found in an archeological context in the New World. The principal source of Maya 'jade' is the Motagua Valley in Guatemala, although occasional pebbles have turned up in adjacent stream-beds.
Jadeite is extremely hard. On a mineralogical scale from one to ten (diamonds being ten) jadeite comes in between 6.5 to 6.8, or in less technical terms, harder than steel. A piece of jade can be used to quickly put an edge on your Swiss Army Knife or machete. The fact that the Maya, who had no metal tools anyway, could carve and drill such a hard material is a remarkable technical achievement. We know some of the techniques as a result of early Spanish reports. Jadeite was cut by the sawing action of a cord drawn back and forth along grooves, using hard sand particles and water as a cutting agent. Holes were reportedly drilled with hollow bird bones filled with wet abrasives, starting at one end of the piece, then working from the opposite end such that the hole would be completed in the middle. As a result of this method, the holes would have a funnel-shaped entrance point, unlike a hole produced by a modern steel drill which leaves a round hole with the same diameter throughout. For a long time fake jade pieces could be identified by the absence of the funnel shaped entrances on drilled pieces but eventually the counterfeiters got wise and purposely introduced the funnel shape. These modern copies are often carved, shaped, drilled and then buried in chicken manure for several weeks to give it a time-worn appearance.
Next time you visit the Ambergris Museum take a look at the jade beads on exhibit there and think about what you just read. We know these beads are authentic.