Ancient Mayan and Aztec Jewelry

In some Cahokian digging sites, archaeologists found maskettes and earrings made to resemble gods. Some archaeologists debate whether Cahokia was influenced by Mesoamerican societies as a lot of their legends and gods have a resemblance to one another. Not only do their gods have a resemblance, but their jewelry does too. So what did Mesoamerican jewelry look like? What did their jewelry symbolize and who could wear what?

Mayan civilization dates back as early as 1500 BCE with agriculture based on maize, squash, beans, and cassava cultivation. Along with a complex agricultural system, Mayans perfected irrigation and even had a complex hieroglyphical system of writing (, 2023). Even though evidence of Mayan civilization can be found around 1500 BCE, evidence of their jewelry can only be dated back approximately 5,000 years. From artifacts found, it seems as though Mayans were the masters of jewelry making. Using materials such as gold, copper, silver, bronze, and jade, their jewelry is just as complex as their agricultural and irrigation systems. Both men and women in Mayan society would wear the same jewelry aside from lip and nose plugs which were typically reserved for men with high social status. One of the most prized and sacred commodities for the Mayans was jade as they saw it as the ultimate symbol of all that is good and holy. They believed that jade represented eternal love. Religion was incredibly important to Mayan civilization which was often reflected in the jewelry they created, especially on jade beads. The Mayan elites would often present jade jewelry as gifts or as offerings to the gods. Jade jewelry would also be used as a prize in Mayan ball games. Overall, Mayans used their jewelry to show their societal status and rank (Cunha, 2021).

A jade Mayan funeral mask for King Pakal the Great, the ruler of the Mayan city of Palenque. Pakal ruled for 68 years in Palenque and transformed the city into something powerful. Jade masks like this were typically reserved for high-status, royal Aztecs and would be used to establish a relationship through the mask with the spirit world. Mask can be found in the National Museum of Anthropology (Atlas Obscura).
A gold Aztec labret (lip plug). These labrets were manifestations of political power and the serpent could be seen as a symbol of rulers. The design could mark this serpent as Xiuhcoatl, a fire serpent used as the weapon of the Aztec sun god, Huitzilopochtli. This labret would typically be worn on ritual occasions and on the battlefield. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Throughout Aztec history, there were strict rules enforced as to who could wear what ornaments. For example, only royalty could wear certain headdresses with gold and quetzal feathers. Leather earplugs were often gifted to warriors who reached high ranks and green earrings with bells were gifted to merchants who participated in a conquest. A higher-status Aztec person would wear more and better quality jewelry than a lower-status Aztec. A wealthy Aztec might wear gold or turquoise earplugs but a lower-class Aztec would wear obsidian earplugs. Both men and women in their society would decorate themselves in bagels, chokers, and necklaces. Overall, though, Aztec jewelry had such variety and the Aztecs really perfected the art of metalworking. Because they prized metalworking so highly, most Aztec jewelry was made of gold and silver, however, they also used feathers, shells, leather, and stones for ornaments (, 2023). Bells were a popular style in Aztec society and they were often fashioned to look like little flowers. These bells would often be hung from necklaces or earrings. These metalworkers and craftsmen would dedicate their lives to the craft. Like the Mayans, they would also use religion and symbolism in their jewelry (


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Understanding Human Relationships with Animals and Environmental/Climatic Shifts – Faunal Analysis

Analysis of animal remains preserved on archaeological sites can tell us a lot about humans’ relationship with animals. Faunal analysis, a research device used in Zooarchaeology, can tell us whether an animal was domesticated and died naturally or wild and was killed for meat or its hide. For example, tooth eruption in a deer can tell archaeologists what season a deer may have been killed in and tooth wear can tell how old a deer may be, or markings on fish bone can suggest the catching methods (e.g. spearing, netting, or fish hooks). Faunal analysis can also be helpful in tracking environmental and climatic shifts.

Two sides of a horn fragment. Markings on the bone suggest the incisions were done by humans. (Fig. 1)

So how does faunal analysis work?

With a collection of bones from the same species of animals, either from the same site or from other sites close by, archaeologists can analyze the bones and compare the findings. Wear on the teeth can suggest domestication as domesticated and wild animals have different diets. Anatomical changes in bone structure may be present in domesticated animals as they may not require the same physical structure as their wild counterparts. The distribution of these animal remains can tell us what animals ancient humans were eating and farming. Ancient human involvement with animal bones, either direct or indirect, is often referred to as cultural modification. Cultural modifications can be burn marks, butchery marks, or any sort of modification that relates to bone tools, ornaments, or similar items. These modifications provide great insight into the culture and living style of the settlement, band, or tribe that happened to modify these bones. A great example of these cultural modifications is seen in Fig.1. Marks on a horn fragment suggest human involvement with this animal, however, the incisions happened to go all the way around the bone meaning that it wasn’t simply a butcher’s knife that made these incisions. Reasons for incisions remain unknown but it’s a great example of human modification.

The change in migratory patterns of fish due to climatic shifts (Fig. 2)

In regards to environmental shifts, faunal analysis can also be helpful. Water temperature affects the environment where fish live as certain species migrate to cooler waters for summer and warmer waters for winter. Distribution of fish bones can alert archaeologists where certain species of fish may live. As the waters warm, most warm-water species will spend more time in their summer migration patterns as cold-water species will have to travel farther to find the environment they need to survive, as seen in Fig. 2. Analysis and distribution of these fish bones can indicate ancient migration patterns due to environmental changes and how that affected human settlement.

Faunal analysis is a fascinating topic that’s been a huge aid in archaeological finds. Telling us more about ancient human diets, and environmental changes, and even furthering the knowledge of early agriculture and domestiction, this method of analysis will continue to be one of the greater methods in zooarchaeology and the field of archaeology itself.


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