Bead Around the World – Mesoamerica’s Lost Jewellery

The Mayans and Aztecs did not value gold so much as the Spaniards did, calling it 'excrements of the gods'. What they valued most was jade.

Pre-Conquest beads and jewellery in Central America only survived buried underground with their dead owners.  If not in the ground, almost all were broken, scattered, lost and destroyed in the 16th century by the Spanish conquerors, who were eager to get as much gold as they could exchange with their common European glass beads, and all the gold acquired was melted down to make coins.

Mesoamerican society, culture and civilisation – Maya and Aztec most notably – did not value gold so much as the Spaniards did, calling it ‘excrements of the gods’.  What they valued most was jade. If you wore a string of jade beads around your neck, you were an important, powerful, rich nobility and in close touch with the gods like the Mayan King Paka, who was buried with this jade death mask and jewellery (left).

In ancient Mesoamerica beads were significant features of society as identifiers of rank and position.  To the Aztecs the colour green symbolised water and vegetation and it was regarded as the ideal colour. Jade was not available in abundance, however, and it was mostly imported from Guatemala. It was extremely hard to carve and combined with the fact it was scarce and highly valuable, craftsmen incorporated irregularities into the design and carved around imperfections, producing beads that were not uniform.

Pre-Columbian jewellery is evident in depictions on architectural panels. The limestone lintel on the right is considered one of the masterpieces of Maya art and it is a detail of a ‘bloodletting’ scene from the 8th century.  The wife of the king of Yaxchilan, is performing the ritual of pulling a thorned rope through her tongue! Apparently it was ‘the principal form of blood sacrifice performed by royal women’.*  This is one of the three panels held in the British Museum. Now study the necklace with a face charm – some kind of deity – and matching bangles. Judging from the shape, most of the ornaments worn by the queen depicted here would have been made of gold or silver as well as precious stones. Had pieces like these survived, they would have been worth much more than a million ducats.

Also lacking from the era is the documentary details of Mesoamerican history and culture. The closest is various reports on the Aztecs done by the Spanish for Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, the best known is Mendoza Codex of 1542.  It contains a history of the Aztec rulers and their conquests, a list of the tribute paid by the conquered, and a description of daily Aztec life, in traditional Aztec pictograms with Spanish explanations and commentary. The ship that was carrying the Codex was attacked, however, and it never got to Madrid but went to France instead. After changing hands several times it was deposited into the Bodleian Library at Oxford University in 1659, where it remained in obscurity until 1831.**  Folio 46 (left) shows the various tribute towns have to pay to the Aztec Empire. Here prominently featured are strings of jade beads along with some golds.

The story of the Spanish Conquest has been told enough times but what still puzzles us is the speed of the annihilation. Why the spectacular victory for the Spanish, when the inhabitants of America are so superior in number and fighting on their home territory? Hernan Cortés (on the old 1000 pesetas banknote, right) leading a few hundred men, managed to seize the Aztec kingdom of Montezuma, who commanded several hundred thousand. Montezuma II is described sometimes a madman, sometimes a philosopher. There is ‘no documents to penetrate the mental world of this strange emperor; in the presence of his enemies he is reluctant to make use of his enormous power’. He let himself be captured and incarcerated, didn’t attempt to escape though there were chances to do so.  It was said that he resigned to the fate of his empire because he inflicted the same horrors on other people when he was the conquerer, but now he was no longer able to communicate with the gods. Some natives said the Spaniards were not as cruel as Montezuma’s men and saw the Europeans as liberators.

Of course there were other factors; the superiority of Spanish weapons, they fought on horses as opposed on foot, their vessels on water were more advanced than Indian canoes, and the most destructive of all, they brought a plague of smallpox, which decimated the Indian population. After the conquest, tens of thousands more died in slave labour at gold mines. Limiting to Mexico, on the eve of the conquest, its population was about 25 million, in 1600, it was one million – a destruction of 95%. In numbers it is estimated at 70 million human lives. ‘None of the great massacres of the twentieth century can be compared to this hecatomb.’ ***

*https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/indigenous-americas/a/maya-the-yaxchiln-lintels

** https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/codex-mendoza-1542/

*** Source; ‘The Conquest of America’, Tzvetan Todorov, 1982.

Images; (c) British Museum / (c) Bodleian Library

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