In a remote area of southern Belize, archaeologists have unearthed a precious jade pendant that once belonged to a Maya king. They had been excavating the site of Nim li Punit, a small site dating back to the Maya Classic Period, inhabited between 150 and 850AD.

In 2015, the team, led by Geoffrey Braswell from UC San Diego, was working on a palace built at the site around 400 AD. In the process, they stumbled upon a collapsed but relatively intact tomb dating from about 800 AD.

Inside were well preserved artefacts, including 25 pottery vessels and a stone carved in the shape of a deity. There were no human remains, except for a couple of teeth. But the most impressive discovery was that of a unique T-shaped jade pectoral, which would have been worn on the chest by ancient Maya rulers during religious ceremonies.

A study now published in the Journal of Field Archaeology describes the excavation, while the significance of this rare jewel is discussed in a paper published last November in Ancient Mesoamerica.

Worn by kings

jade pendant
Stelae at the site depict kings wearing the pendant. Courtesy G. Braswell/UC San Diego

The pendant is the second largest jade found in Belize to date, but it is remarkable mostly because it is the first ever to be discovered inscribed with a historical text. Thirty hieroglyphs indeed tell the story of its first owner.

Finding the pendant at the site is a great opportunity to understand the rich culture of the Maya civilisation. The archaeologists were able to learn about the context in which the jewel was used, thanks to the impressive stone stelae erected at Nim li Punit, which describe the religious rituals taking place there and depict Maya kings wearing it on their chests.

"Had the piece been recovered by illegal means and ended up in a private collection, much of the text would make little sense and it could not possibly be ascribed to Nim li Punit", they remark.

The hieroglyphs and the stelae suggest that the pendant was worn over the years in rituals performed by the rulers to bring the wind and the annual monsoon rains, which made the crops grow. One of the inscriptions indicates that the jewel was first worn in such a ceremony in 672AD.

Furthermore, depictions on stelae dating from 50 to 60 years after that show Maya kings wearing the jade on their chest as they scattered incense. The jewel would have been seen as having immense powers, playing a very important role in these rituals.

The pendant's mysteries

Despite the richness of the written sources, a number of mysteries surrounding the pendent remain to be solved. One of them is why the pendant wasn't buried with its owner but with other objects. A hypothesis is that the artefacts were buried as an offering to the Maya god of wind as the civilisation fell apart.

"A recent theory is that climate change caused droughts that led to the widespread failure of agriculture and the collapse of Maya civilisation," Braswell said. "The dedication of this tomb at that time of crisis to the wind god who brings the annual rains lends support to this theory, and should remind us all about the danger of climate change."

Another element that still puzzles the archaeologists is how the jade pendent ended up in that small Maya site and why it was not found in one of the largest royal cities. The archaeologists have also found out that the jade stone on this pendant is from the mountains of Guatemala. This is surprising because there are few earlier indications of trade in that direction at the time.

Furthermore, the hieroglyphs at the back of the pendant tell the story of a ruler and of political changes that occurred far away from the site of Nim Li Punit –making the reason of its presence there even more mysterious.