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HOME : Pre-Columbian Art : Pre-Columbian Masterpieces : Atlantic Watershed Jade Mace Head in the Form of a Monkey
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Atlantic Watershed Jade Mace Head in the Form of a Monkey - PF.3137
Origin: Eastern Costa Rica
Circa: 100 AD to 500 AD
Dimensions: 3.75" (9.5cm) high x 2.5" (6.4cm) wide
Catalogue: V15
Collection: Pre-Columbian
Medium: Jade

Location: UAE
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In the context of Pre-Columbian art and archaeology, jade is a generic term that refers to any variety of hard, dense stones that were worked with great skill by native artists. Although jade is generally thought to be green, it can actually be a range of colors. Jade carving flourished in ancient Costa Rica for over a thousand years, roughly from 500 B.C. to 900 A.D., although the period of greatest artistic accomplishment lasted from 300 to 700 A.D. It is believed that jade working began during an extended period of agricultural abundance that allowed the ancient society to dedicate part of its energies toward the cultivation of artistic pursuits.

Jade was considered to be a sacred material by the ancient populations of Costa Rica, held in even higher esteem than gold. Generally, it was thought to symbolize that vital life force that sustains us all. The color green is naturally associated with verdant plant life. Specifically, jade was thought to symbolize the sprouting maize plant, that staple of the Pre-Columbian diet. It has also been suggested that jade represents water. Either way, we can be certain that jade represented the very essence of life itself.

To date, no native sources of jade have been discovered in Costa Rica, suggesting an extended trade network existed that imported this precious resource from Mesoamerica into Costa Rica where it was carved by local artists. Such trade also would have brought great wealth and likely reinforced the social stratification of the peoples. Jade may have served as a status marker to distinguish the elite from the masses and solidify their hold on power. We can picture an ancient ruler or shaman presiding over a sacred ceremonial adorned in brilliant green jade pendants and jewelry. The ancient Costa Ricans believe that the system of social hierarchy also extended into the afterlife. Therefore, jade objects were buried with the elite so that their power could be maintained throughout eternity.

In addition to being rare and beautiful, jade is the toughest and most durable of stones. Since weapons and cutting tools of jade greatly excel those of other stones, they became symbols of authority and ceremony. In elaborate burials and offerings, a high proportion of the surviving objects are made of jade, seemingly an indication that the material itself had assumed mystical qualities. In Mesoamerica, the stones selected by ancient people were predominantly green, although they may not have been jadeite or nephrite. Here, we have before us a rare and beautiful lapidary work of a ruler who has, through transformation, become a monkey. By adorning a monkey mask and tail and perhaps by taking hallucinogenic drugs, the ruler transforms himself into a monkey and becomes a channel for the supernatural world to speak and act through him. Through this transformational process, the ruler is seen as a god; thus, confirming his status as ruler and elevating his earthly powers over the people and land to supernatural powers, as well. This magnificent work of art was used as a mace head that is apparent by the circular indentation on the side. The top of the monkey’s head may have held a magical potion for transformational usages or held a crown which has deteriorated. The ruler may have kept this at his side at all times reaffirming his supernatural powers and instilling fear and awe in the people he ruled. The realistic features of a monkey’s face combined with the subtlety of the rounded shoulders and body reveal the artist’s exemplary skills at lapidary work. This is an unforgettable masterpiece that reveals an era of Renaissance during the Ancient Costa Rican past. - (PF.3137)


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