Anthropomorphic Bird Half-Celt Pendant

Central America, Costa Rica, Greater Nicoya. Period IV, 300 BC-AD 500
Jadeite with quartz. 9 x 3 in.
1991.4.502
Ex coll. William C. and Carol W. Thibadeau

At nearly ten inches long, this is the largest jadeite pendant in the form of a hand axe known from ancient Costa Rica. Holes drilled in from the sides meet in the center so that a cord could be strung through it and the pendant worn around the neck. Costa Rican stone sculptures of men show them wearing large necklaces; probably this piece was worn by an especially important man.

Few such large pieces of jadeite exist because it is a very rare mineral; there are only nine sources of it in the world. Jadeite was highly prized in the ancient Americas. It is tougher than steel and cannot be carved but must be slowly and painstakingly abraded to wear the surface away. Sand, slightly harder than jadeite, ground into the surface with wooden saws will gradually alter the shape. Experiments show that it would have taken over 250 hours of abrading simply to create the overall shape of this pendant. Obviously not only was the material valuable, but the time devoted to working it added to the wearer’s prestige.

One aspect of the piece’s meaning was its overall shape, that of a hand-held axe, a tool to chop vegetation. Yet it is too large and not sharp enough to cut anything, and was an item of jewelry. Therefore, the wearing of a very high status version of a tool, rendered non-functional through its transformation into an art object, symbolizes that the wearer has power over both land and those who work it using actual tools.