A report on my archaeological work from:
In Guatemala, A Mother Lode Of Jade
By WILLIAM J. BROAD
For half a century, scholars have searched in vain for the source of the jade that the early civilizations of the Americas prized above all else and fashioned into precious objects of worship, trade and adornment.
The searchers found some clues to where the Olmecs and Mayas might have obtained their jadeite, as the precious rock is known. But no lost mines came to light.
Now, scientists exploring the wilds of Guatemala say they have found the mother lode — a mountainous region roughly the size of Rhode Island strewn with huge jade boulders, other rocky treasures and signs of ancient mining. It was discovered after a hurricane tore through the landscape and exposed the veins of jade, some of which turned up in stores, arousing the curiosity of scientists. The find includes large outcroppings of blue jade, the gemstone of the Olmecs, the mysterious people who created the first complex culture in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, the region that encompasses much of Mexico and Central America.
It also includes an ancient mile-high road of stone traversing jaguar territory in a mountain wilderness containing rocks from the Earth’s mantle , called eclogites. The deposits rival the world's leading current source of mined jade, in Myanmar, formerly Burma, the experts say. The implications for history, archaeology and anthropology are just starting to emerge.
For one thing, the scientists say, the find suggests that the Olmecs, who flourished on the southern gulf coast of Mexico, exerted wide influence in the Guatemalan highlands as well. All told, they add, the Guatemalan lode was worked for millenniums, as compared with centuries for the Burmese one. In part, the discovery resulted from the devastating storm that hit Central America in 1998, killing thousands of people and touching off floods and landslides that exposed old veins and washed jade into river beds.
Local prospectors picked up the precious scraps, which found their way into Guatemalan jewelry shops and, eventually, the hands of astonished scientists.
Led by Mr. Seitz and local jade hunters, a team of scientists from the American Museum of Natural History, Rice University and the University of California scoured the forested ravines of the Guatemalan highlands for more than two years. In the end the scientists made a series of discoveries in bus-size boulders of Olmec blue jade, some astride creeks. "It kept getting better and better," said Virginia B. Sisson, a geologist at Rice University who has recently examined jades in Myanmar as well as Guatemala. The blue jade, she said, “is all over the hillsides.”
The exact locations of the outcroppings are not being given, to protect them. Leading archaeologists in Guatemala, though not directly involved, are applauding the finds. Hector Escobedo of the Universidad del Valle called the jade discovery "one of the most significant" in decades of investigating the Mayan past and said the new deposits probably account for "all of the sources for Mesoamerican jades." He added that
given Guatemala's lack of financial resources, "it is crucial to organize a cooperative effort with international scholars and institutions in order to protect and study the new jewel of our cultural heritage."
Scientists have long known that jadeites, like diamonds, arise deep inside the earth as rocks are cooked at pressures so great that their basic characteristics change. Geologic action over the eons then lifts them to the surface.The glassy, hard, often translucent rocks occur at only a few known sites around the world. But jade catches the eye because of its astonishing range of colors: white, red, blue, brown, blue-green, emerald green, dark green and blackish. Individual rocks are often mottled with colored specks and streaks.
Early peoples of the Americas considered jade more valuable than gold and silver. The Olmecs, the great sculptors of the pre-Columbian era, carved jades into delicate human forms and scary masks. Mayan kings and other royalty often went to their graves with jade suits, rings and necklaces. The living had their teeth inlaid with the colored gems.Jade was highly prized in Mesoamerica from at least 1400 B.C. until the Spanish conquest of 1519-21, experts say. But the Spanish were more interested in gold. Soon the skills and lore of jade mining and carving disappeared. The modern hunt began in the early 1950's. Scientists examining the Burmese deposits found that jade always occurred in association with serpentine, a mottled greenish rock.
In seeking a Mesoamerican source, they focused on Guatemala because much serpentine rock occurred there in the Sierra de las Minas and the adjacent Motagua River valley. A few outcrops of low-quality jade were located near the river. By the mid-1970's scholarly interest was high enough to prompt organized Guatemalan hunts and meetings. The Peabody Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts were among the sponsors, as was Landon T. Clay, a Boston investment banker who collected jade.
But little turned up, and attention shifted to places like Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras, where archaeologists had found thousands of jade artifacts.
Back in Guatemala, a married couple with a commercial interest in jade kept finding specimens near the Motagua River. The couple, Mary Lou and Jay Ridinger, discovered enough to set up a company, Jades S.A., in Antigua, a quaint tourist town. From a storefront workshop, they sold jade jewelry and Mayan replicas and shared information about some of their finds with scientists.
The turning point came in 1999, shortly after the hurricane swept through. After a long absence from Guatemala, Mr. Seitz, who led the Peabody hunt, was vacationing in Antigua and stopped in one of a half-dozen jade shops that had sprung up.
Curious about what prospectors were finding, he was taken up to the shop's roof to inspect new specimens. His eye fell on a piece of bluish jade roughly the size of a hand. It was highly translucent and unlike anything he had ever seen before in Guatemala. But the shopkeepers could not say where it came from.
Starting in early 2000, Mr. Seitz went back repeatedly to Guatemala
as local jade hunters led him higher and higher into the mountains.
Miles north of the Motagua, after days of hard climbing, Mr. Seitz
reached a grassy hillock where the local men had used pickaxes to hack
open a huge jade vein.
"It was 2 yards wide and 50 long," Mr. Seitz recalled. "It was blue-green and translucent — not grade A, but better than what you get in the valley and better than anything that we saw in the 1970's."
Mr. Seitz returned to the United States with a hundred pounds of rocky samples, and Harvard and the Museum of Natural History confirmed that they were high-quality jadeite. Other scholars joined the hunt.
In March 2001, Mr. Seitz returned to Guatemala with Dr. Sisson of Rice University and Dr. Karl A. Taube, an anthropologist at the University of California at Riverside, who specializes in Olmec and Mayan artifacts.They were later joined by Dr. Harlow, who described t he jadeitites in the lower elevations a decade ago , in the Journal of Metamorphic Geology .
Among other things, the team found an ancient dry-stone pathway that wound through the mountains from an old mining area to a habitation and tomb site littered with old clay shards. Miles south of the Motagua, the team found even higher-quality jade: huge boulders of blue. "It's impressive," Dr. Sisson said. "We had worked for a month in Burma and didn't see anything as good as this." The scientists say the most important implication of their find is the idea that the Olmecs exerted wide influence over the region. "It suggests that the trade routes were more extensive than we realized," said Dr. Taube of the University of California. "Now the big question is, how did Costa Rica get so much of this jade?"
"It suggests that the trade routes were more extensive than we realized," said Dr. Taube of the University of California. "Now the big question is, how did Costa Rica get so much of this jade?" In December 2001 the scientists quietly published a short article in the journal Antiquity on their discoveries, with Mr. Seitz the lead author. The new deposits, they wrote, are "excellent candidates for an `Olmec blue' jade source."Dr. Harlow, who organized the recent hunts, now estimates that the Guatemalan jade region, spread across public and private land, is roughly 10 times the area estimated before the hurricane. His team, he said, is keeping maps of the outcroppings vague so as to discourage looters.
Charles S. Spencer, curator of Mexican and Central American archaeology at the American Museum, cautioned that the work would take years. For example, he said, the accurate dating of old mines will depend on the discovery and analysis of related artifacts like pottery shards. The discoverers say they are not especially worried about wide commercial exploitation. So far the Guatemalan finds contain few of the bright translucent green jades highly valued by Asian buyers and markets.
Dr. Harlow said he now wondered why only the Olmecs relished blue jade, when so much was clearly available to the Mayas. He speculated that perhaps changing tastes played a role.More troubling, he said, is a possibility first raised by Mr. Seitz: that an eruption of one of Guatemala's nearby volcanoes “obliterated the people who knew what was what” and hid some of the blue jades that the 1998 storm exposed."There are a lot of good questions," Dr. Harlow said. "The proof will come when we do some of the archaeology
Olmec Art at Dumbarton Oaks
THE SOURCING OF MESOAMERICAN JADE
Expanded Geological Reconnaissance in the Motagua Region, Guatemala Copyright 2005 The President and fellows of Harvard College/ The Dumbarton Oaks Foundation
Karl A. Taube , Virginia B. Sisson, Russell Seitz, & George E. Harlow
Procuring the geological “ground truth” about the poorly mapped areas around the Motagua valley proved equally problematic, for the terrain is difficult and the prevailing wisdom was that jadeite did not exist south of the Motagua Fault. Much of the jade production for commercial jade used for the Guatemalan tourist trade has been the result of local, part-time prospectors simply picking up rocks from the rivers and delivering them to the Atlantic Highway for collection by dealers and agents (see Fig. 2). Since the prevailing price of jade for tourist souvenirs was low, there was little incentive for searches of the higher elevations, let alone organized hard-rock mining operations.
However, major jadeite bodies, primarily of pink and purple hues, have been exploited in the vicinity of La Ensenada, for over a decade. The community of La Ensenada is adjacent to the Río El Tambor, a southern tributary of the Río Motagua In the late 1990s, several factors, both human and natural, coincided to change the scene. In 1997, a Taiwanese entrepreneur seeking carvable translucent serpentine termed “Bowenite,” began exploration in the area south of the Motagua Valley, where he subsequently encountered jadeite as well. In 1998, torrential rains of Hurricane Mitch caused flash floods that launched a pulse of loose alluvial jade from its resting places in the higher elevations. The Motagua River crested at thirty-one feet past flood stage, and the Río El Tambor (also known as Río Jalapa) was recharged with seldom seen varieties of jade.
Some months later, Russell Seitz, who had served as field director of the Mesoamerican Jade Project two decades earlier, visited Antigua, Guatemala, and was shown several examples of jade with visual characteristics similar to those of Olmec-period artifacts by Carlos Morales of El Reino del Jade This jade was collected by a Zacapan jade prospector, Carlos Gonzalez Ramires, who in January of 2000, led Seitz to the jade workings at El Ciprés (Fig. 2). Situated at 1750 m in elevation, this source is located in the Río Blanco drainage in the Sierra de las Minas (Figs. 2–4).
Whereas El Ciprés lies north of the Motagua, new discoveries of jadeite were also occuring to the south, especially in the Río El Tambor (Río Jalapa) drainage. In 1996, the French archaeologist François Gendron located a jadeite sample from this area that contained a mineral composition suggesting that it was formed at a depth of some sixty to seventy km, far below the roughly twenty km depth generally known for jadeite (Smith and Gendron 1997). During December of 1999, Dr. Richard Mandell, Professor Emeritus of the University of South Carolina, was shown translucent blue jade collected from the lower Río El Tambor by the local prospector Vicente Gutierrez (Mandell 2002)
. He subsequently encouraged Vicente Gutierrez as well as prospectors José Loyo and Raúl Marroquín to search for types of similar material in the southern tributaries of the Motagua, especially in the Río El Tambor (Río Jalapa) drainage (Fig. 5). Both large blocks of jadeitites and in situ outcrops were encountered especially in quebradas (ravines) near Carrizal Grande and San José. In 2001, the authors confirmed these recent findings that jades with visual characteristics and mineralogy similar to Olmec period artifacts are found both in the El Ciprés jade workings and in a seven km band from La Ceiba to Carrizal Grande (Seitz et al. 2001).
During January of 2002, the authors were led by Cerminio Leon and Carlos Gonzalez to a source known as Quebrada Seca, southeast of Carrizal Grande and near the community of San José (Fig. 6a). Along with translucent jadeites in blue and light purple hues, the Quebrada Seca locality has a massive jadeite boulder of roughly 300 tons, quite possibly the largest jadeite boulder known (Fig. 6b). Aside from the mountainous areas north and south of the Río Motagua, translucent Olmec-type jades are also being discovered in localities within the Motagua Valley.
One translucent, rich green variety locally known as “Princesa” derives from Panaluya, just north of the Atlantic Highway near the town of Río Hondo (Fig. 7a). The heavy orange rind on many Panaluya pieces suggests that this jade is of local origin. During the summer of 2002, prospector Carlos Gonzalez discovered a roughly 140 lb jadeite boulder in a recent bulldozer excavation in the Río Hondo region, only some fifty meters south of the Atlantic Highway. This well-worn alluvial boulder is of light blue, translucent jade with clouds of white and is well within the range of Olmec jade (see Fig. 7b). Although the source of this alluvial piece is clearly not local, it indicates that in antiquity, jadeite of this type was available in the Motagua Valley as jade float in the form of cobbles and boulders.
The geological setting of the jade bodies from the El Ciprés jade workings as well as those from La Ceiba, Quebrada Seca, and Carrizal Grande are similar to jade bodies in the Motagua River region. In all regions, jade is hosted by sheared serpentine. Often in these same tectonic slivers are other rocks (eclogites, blueschists, and garnet amphibolites) that indicate high-pressure metamorphic conditions. Due to tropical weathering and extreme erosion, complete outcrops are rare, and most of the jade occurs as alluvial boulders in small to large quebradas. As a result, exact geological relationships between the jade bodies and the host rock are difficult to ascertain. In addition, the recent motion on the Motagua fault may have broken up the jade bodies that occur just north of this fault. Often jade bodies can be identified from their surrounding host rock as a lush, grassy region caused by the weathering of jade into nutrient-rich clayey soils. These conditions are in striking contrast to surrounding serpentine derived soils, ( in Appalachia such naturally stunted scrub forest areas are called ‘barrens’) which are not only nutrient poor but contain phytotoxictoxic elements, including nickel.
The Aztec may well have been aware of this soil pattern. The Florentine Codex explicitly describes rich, verdant growth as an indication of jadeite: “And thus do they know that this precious stone is there: [the herbs] always grow fresh; they grow green.” (Sahagún 1950–82, 11: 222) This account suggests that although the Aztec did not directly control the ancient jade sources in the Motagua region, they may have had considerable understanding of its natural occurrence there.