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Jadeite or Greenstone Objects

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Artifact Description

Perhaps the least expected artifacts associated with the “Tortugas” wreck are three jadeite or greenstone objects. Two of the three objects are elongated oblong and pendant-like. Each has a shaped blade and a carved terminal, one of which features a more elaborate floral motif and a recessed (though not pierced) central drilled hole. The third artifact is small, roughly T-shaped and seemingly crafted of polished plagioclase feldspar with hints of white and brown. The shape and the finish suggest the object is a labret lip ornament.

The blade-like artifacts closely resemble celts, objects of both religious and economic significance amongst the indigenous people of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Celts were exchanged or reworked into statues, jewelry and other precious objects. They were often worn vertically as pendants, dangling from belts or masks, or worn horizontally as pectorals. However, current thinking suggests that the “Tortugas” examples served as whetstones due to the presence of distinct surface wear.

All three artifacts are of almost certain Mesoamerican origins, where jadeite and other physically similar greenstones have deep cultural roots. The Spanish term for jade, piedra de yjada, translates as ‘stone of the loins’. The name was inspired by observations of how the native population used jade for therapeutic purposes when mixed in powdered form with water as a cure for internal disorders. In turn, Spaniards attributed to jade the power to cure kidney pain and other healing either when worn as jewelry or placed next to an affected area.

Mesoamerica was the main source of jade in South America; The dominant sources were concentrated in Guatemala, particularly the central Motagua Valley, where appropriate geological conditions exist.  Several ancient jade-working sites have been recorded along the Upper Rio El Tambor drainage area. The 16th-century Codex Mendoza lists seven provinces as paying tribute to Spain partly in greenstone that is believed to have originated largely in the Motagua Valley, Polochic Valley, Sierra de Santa Cruz, Altos de Cuchumatanes, Sierra de las Minas and Sierra de Chuacus, all in Guatemala.

The oldest jadeite objects found to date in the New World are votive Olmec celts and axes of c. 1200-1000 BC. This stone was highly prized by most other major Mesoamerican civilizations indigenous to Mexico and Central America, including the Aztecs, Maya and Toltecs, was valued more highly than gold and was used by high-ranking pre-Columbian Mesoamerican individuals for personal adornment and religious purposes to distinguish the elite’s social position.

Greenstone objects – pendants, ear spools, pectorals and celts, as well as labrets commonly worn by Mayan and Aztec noblemen – also functioned as a form of currency to establish social relations within and between societies. The wearing of labrets first emerged 3,500 years ago, as represented on figurines with ear spools in the Ocos phase of the Mesoamerican Early Formative on the Pacific coast of Chiapas, and subsequently spread to virtually all Mesoamerican and South American cultures.


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