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The Price of Prestige: Examining Classic Maya Jade Artifact Use and Economic Organization

Erick Rochette, The Pennsylvania State University, Summer Fellow 2012

Jade objects were some of the most highly valued and widely circulated goods among the Classic Maya. Their prominent display played a key role in the maintenance of status distinctions between commoners and elites, serving to express elites’ exalted social position, ritual and symbolic knowledge, and participation in elite social networks. Despite the voluminous literature on the cosmological meaning and ritual significance of jade, many basic questions remain unanswered. In particular, we lack systematic documentation of variation in quantity and styles of jade artifacts included in mortuary, ritual, and mundane contexts across the Maya area.

During my time as a Summer Fellow, I used the Research Library's resources to examine published archaeological reports to begin to build a database of jade artifacts recovered at Classic Maya sites. In the process, I reviewed the entire series of over two dozen journals, as well as published reports from over seventy-five Classic Maya sites. I will use these data to continue to build a database of jade artifacts detailing (1) types of artifacts (spherical beads, tubular beads, earflares, etc); (2) quantity of each type; and (3) stylistic differences (i.e. full figural carving, images depicted) from Classic Maya sites. I will use this information as the basis for forthcoming publications about variation in jade artifact use and exchange during the Classic period, which relates to my own field research on jade artifact production in the Middle Motagua Valley. Additionally, the database will be made publicly available online when completed.