Earlier this week I had the opportunity to visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to study and document a Mayan artifact: a fragmented and modified jade belt plaque, measuring 2.9 x 3.3 cm. The piece was discovered in Costa Rica, in the Línea Vieja region of Limón, probably in the 1950s, according to James Doyle, Assistant Curator of Art of the Ancient Americas at The Met. It was briefly discussed by Mark Miller Graham in 1998 (in the Jade in Ancient Costa Rica volume edited by Julie Jones); Graham identified the piece as Maya in origin and offered some remarks on the SKULL sign and its possible values. I decided to study it as it relates to the ongoing project for the documentation of incised Maya belt plaques that I have been conducting, along with my colleagues, Dorie Reents-Budet and the late Virginia Fields, for quite some time now.
The piece is all that remains from a Maya jade belt plaque. As such, originally, it probably resembled the famous Leiden Plaque. It probably bore a portrait of a ruler on one side, the side that still preserves imagery, and possibly a hieroglyphic inscription on the other side. The side that still preserves imagery includes at least two glyphic signs that were likely embedded in the ruler’s headdress, naming him. The other side does not bear any evidence of a former text.
The embedded text, that is, the sequence of glyphs placed within the ruler’s headdress and very likely spelling his name, may consist of two or three signs. The first sign, resembling a Möbius strip, is a logogram, WAY, for wahy ‘shape-shifter’. The second sign, the SKULL sign, is also likely a logogram, JOL, for joʔl ‘head’. Immediately below the SKULL sign there may be a third sign; however, it is incomplete, and it is possible that it may have been simply part of the headdress.
The illustrations show the artifact and the preliminary drawing of the incised side that I prepared during my visit. I prepared the line drawing using Adobe Photoshop Elements and my Wacom pen tablet. I used a high resolution photograph prepared by The Met as the basis of my drawing, but I examined the artifact in person with different magnifying lenses in order to ensure accuracy of the details.