Jade in Ancient Costa Rica

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Their descendants have struggled to keep even their tribes alive, let alone their culture. Their small numbers made them easy to ignore. Only in the second half of the 20th century did average Costa Ricans really start valuing their country's archaeology, Snarskis said. Another factor was the lack of big architecture. Early archaeologists were drawn to places where they could uncover the ruins of massive pyramids—not to places where they would spend weeks digging in the dirt for a carved jade pendant. So Costa Rica never developed a storied, international reputation as a cool place to learn about ancient history.

Finally, Costa Rica itself played a role in diminishing local archaeology. The ancient Chibchan people did build some impressive architecture, but they built it mostly out of wood, adobe and cane. The acidic soil, and the tropical climate which cycles yearly between wet and dry seasons, destroyed all that, leaving only the stone foundations. Most human remains are also eaten by the tropics. But what has been found, and found scientifically, has shown that Costa Rica was hardly some ancient, backwater version of flyover country.

In fact, it was one of the most artistically diverse regions in the Americas. Put it this way: Usually, you'll have an area the size of Indiana, where any given period of time has one predominant style of pottery associated with it. In Costa Rica—a country roughly the size of Maryland—you might have three or four different styles. Tomorrow, you'll get a closer look at the Chibchan world, as Snarskis and I travel to Guayabo, a sophisticated ancient city in the Costa Rican rainforest.

If you'll be visiting Costa Rica and you're interested in archaeology, you can contact him by email or by phone at Amulet showing a pair of frogs, made from tumbaga an alloy of gold and copper. For a while, as the New York Times explains, the pollution in New York harbor actually had some benefit in fighting them: By the s, the waters had become overrun with raw sewage and oil and chemicals discharged by factories.


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Scientists drilled into the Chixclub crater in the Gulf of Mexico to learn more about the end of the mesozoic era. The first day of the Cenozoic was peppered with cataclysms.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Art of the Ancient Americas

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Full text of "Jade in Ancient Costa Rica"

Read about what we do with the data we gather in our Privacy Policy. Who will be eaten first? Our forum rules are detailed in the Community Guidelines. Boing Boing is published under a Creative Commons license except where otherwise noted. Slightly later metates from the region may take the form somewhat abstracted of an animal: they have a curved plate, three angular legs frequently decorated with intricate openwork carving , and a projecting, sculptural animal head.

The mace-head finials are small stone sculptures often in the form of human or animal heads with large cylindrical openings for mounting on wooden shafts. Although their basic form is that of a weapon, the finials are often carved of fine-grained stone, and many were inlaid with shell or other materials. It is believed that these sculptures were too delicate and highly decorated to have served a practical, militaristic purpose. Instead they were probably display items that signaled clan allegiance or some other form of identity.

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Jade ornaments were likely valued for both their green color and the strength and luster of the stone. They undoubtedly gained additional prestige through the material's origin in distant lands the only known source of jadeite in the Americas is the Motagua Valley of highland Guatemala. Because of jadeite's toughness resistance to chipping or shattering , it was the ideal tool for axe blades, used throughout the Americas to clear the forest for agriculture. The Olmec Mesoamerica's earliest civilization, about B. Numerous Olmec celts were placed in special deposits or caches as buried offerings.

The celt form clearly retained symbolic importance among later civilizations, including those in Costa Rica. In many cases, the celt form was deliberately retained or only partially modified by Costa Rican jade workers as they manufactured pendants and other ornaments from the imported material. While most jade probably arrived in Costa Rica as celts that were reworked locally, other objects arrived in the form of already finished Olmec, Maya, or Teotihuacan-style ornaments. It is believed that most of the Mesoamerican jade ornaments found in Costa Rica made their way there via the Maya region, probably traveling down the Atlantic coast and then inland.

The antiquity and exoticism of such objects, associated with great civilizations to the north, probably made them especially valuable in Costa Rica. The people of Costa Rica's Central region took stone carving to its greatest heights, producing not only metates but a wide array of sculptural forms.

Most famous are the elaborate "flying panel" metates about A. As in Greater Nicoya, these were incorporated into burials, along with mace-head finials and jade ornaments.

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Carved from solid blocks of volcanic stone, flying panel metates have flat upper plates with low rims above three vertical legs that also support intricate, openwork sculptures. These incorporate long-beaked birds-sometimes pecking at severed heads; crocodiles or caimans; felines; monkeys; bats; and humans frequently animal-headed or wearing masks. Costa Rica's highly decorated metates probably derived their prestige and symbolic importance from several factors. Metates were used to grind food like maize consumed in Costa Rica both as a food and in the form of chicha , an alcoholic beverage and perhaps other substances such as medicines or magical ingredients.


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  • The owner of a fancy metate proclaimed his or her control over both the substances and their preparation. The animal forms and symbolic motifs carved on the metates must have imbued the prepared substances with additional power. Finally, metates' possible use as thrones, funerary biers, and grave offerings served to emphasize the elevated rank and power of the noble owner. Such large settlements probably served as the residences of powerful chiefs who dominated smaller sites and local leaders in the surrounding region.

    Free-standing sculptures of human beings were displayed atop mounds and in plazas to impress and sometimes intimidate both residents and visitors. Males are often portrayed as warriors or prisoners, or wear crocodile masks and "wedding cake" flaring tiered headdresses.

    Costa Rican jade tradition

    Women frequently hold their breasts, perhaps indicating abundance. Additional sculpture types include circular metates or seats, metates in the form of felines, and effigy heads that portray either ancestors or decapitated enemies. Stone slabs with carved decoration along the top and sides apparently served as grave markers, or possibly biers. Jade ornaments from the Central region are often quite three-dimensional, incorporating long drill holes, slots, and cut outs.

    Multiple human and animal forms like birds, crocodiles, snakes, and felines may be combined in fantastic configurations. The Central region's ceramics are less renowned than those of Greater Nicoya but emphasize modeled decoration. Early Molino Channeled ceramics B. Ticaban and African-type ceramics are best known for small monochrome cups with elaborately modeled tripod legs.

    By around A. While factors in Mesoamerica like social or political turmoil may have played a role in disrupting the supply of jade, its appeal to Costa Ricans may have been diminished by competition from an attractive and increasingly available material: gold. Goldworking technology developed centuries earlier in Andean South America, then spread northward through Colombia and Panama.

    Finished gold objects began to arrive in Costa Rica by around A. Gold's growing popularity in the succeeding centuries seems to have coincided with increased cultural influence from the south Snarskis , Sources of gold were soon discovered in Costa Rica, and a local goldworking industry sprang up. Gold became the preferred material for the creation of prestige jewelry; although its techniques of manufacture are very different from those of jade, many of the same iconographic themes were depicted in both media.

    Riverbeds in the Osa Peninsula were an important source of gold at the time of the Spanish conquest, and local rulers probably controlled both panning for gold and the production of gold ornaments. Riverbeds may also have been a source of the volcanic boulders that were shaped into the spheres, which can be very large.

    Unfortunately, many of the sites at which spheres or goldwork were found have been damaged by agriculture or looting. As a result, we will never know the full context of where many of these objects were found-how they were placed, or what objects were associated with them, and other details that might help us understand their meaning. Although the region appears to have been inhabited by B. The region was heavily populated, with both large and small settlements. Major sites are characterized by stone-walled earthen mounds as much as feet in diameter and 10 feet high , large house foundations, plazas, paved roads, stone spheres of various sizes, and stone statues of both humans and animals.

    Jade in Ancient Costa Rica

    The human statues represent both males and females and stand rigidly upright. Some carry human trophy heads probably those of defeated enemies or sacrificial victims , while others are animal-headed with grinning fanged mouths. Most have small flanges at the base for mounting them in sockets.

    The spheres and statues probably served to demarcate social and ceremonial spaces; some have been found atop mounds. It is also possible that some of the spheres were aligned with astronomical phenomena. Rivas contained numerous circular foundations and rectangular plazas, where Quilter suggests that an assortment of regional kin or social groups gathered periodically to feast, drink, dance, and hold ceremonies honoring the dead before their final interment in the ridge-top cemetery Quilter Graves in a seemingly lower-status cemetery, located immediately adjacent to Rivas, lacked gold offerings.

    Disks probably used as breastplates , collars, and bandlike diadems were manufactured, as well as round or cylindrical beads. Lost-wax cast items were made of gold alloyed with varying percentages of copper alloys melt at a lower temperature. Pendants, which were sometimes bells, were made in a wide variety of forms. Most famous are "eagle" pendants-birds with outspread wings and flaring tails. Although the species cannot usually be identified with certainty, many of the birds do appear to be raptors.

    Other animals represented in cast gold include felines, deer, bats, crocodiles, spiders, crabs, scorpions, fish, and frogs. Human beings were also represented, although many have animal heads or masks. Both humans and animals have supernatural features like spirals that emanate from the head or body. Some of the ornaments feature hinges that allow components to dangle and move. Many objects feature small dangling disks or squares that would have quivered and shimmered constantly.

    Hoopes, John W. Fonseca Zamora. Hoopes, Ibarra, Eugenia. Lothrop, Samuel K. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology Cambridge: Harvard University.


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    • Quilter, Jeffrey. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. Snarskis, Michael J. New York: Harry N. Abrams; Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts. Only a geologist or someone with specific training can distinguish jadeite from albitite, for example. Skip to main content. Southern Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama In addition to its abundant wildlife and scenic beauty, Costa Rica is home to the Guayabo de Turrialba archaeological park and several museums that showcase the aesthetic sophistication and skill of the area's ancient indigenous inhabitants. Central Region The people of Costa Rica's Central region took stone carving to its greatest heights, producing not only metates but a wide array of sculptural forms.