Classic Maya carved bones, shell and jade

Some of the most spectacular works of Maya art are carved into precious materials such as bone, shell, and jade. In today’s post, I’m going to share some of the most beautiful examples I have found, and explain how they were worked and why they were important. 

In contrast to monumental art, which tended to focus on rulers and life of the court, smaller, more portable art would frequently represent deities and the supernatural world. It was also worked in precious materials, which reinforced its material and cosmological importance.


The human body was a frequent object and subject of Maya art. Bones of rulers were sometimes removed from their resting places and given a new purpose through recarving and shaping. This was actually a form of respect and a way to utilize the power that the deceased person would have held. Animal bones were also used to create art and tools, which were later buried in royal tombs.

The first example of worked bone comes from Tikal’s Burial 116. This burial yielded almost 90 carved bones. One shows a group of deities seated in a canoe, some paddling and others gesturing and mourning. The Maize God sits at the center, clearly the precious cargo being transported. The bone was carefully incised, and was then rubbed with cinnabar to make the fine lines stand out against the white bone. What is truly spectacular about this example is how the shape of the bone itself appears to imitate the canoe, obviously chosen for this purpose. 

Tikal Burial 116, Image by Linda Schele
Tikal Burial 116, Image by Linda Schele

Another amazing example of worked bone is a human skull, recovered from the Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itza. The skull’s eye cavities were filled, and a hole was carved into the top of the cranium and given a wooden lid. Then, the skull was used to burn incense! 


Shell is yet another fine material used by the Maya to create amazing works of art. Spondylus shell was considered most valuable to the people of Mesoamerica, as well as nacre or mother-of-pearl. 

In these two pieces we can see the detail used to create these works of art. In the first, we see a death god mosaic, from the island of Topoxte. This figure was created using nacre and jade. The second image shows a pair of earrings from the site of El Peru-Waká. These earrings represent a monkey wearing a headdress, likely the Maya monkey god deity associated with scribes. They are made from shell, jade and turquoise, three of the most valuable materials of Mesoamerica.

Image courtesy of Instagram page @chicomoztoc_7_cuevas


Last but never least, jade was the subject of great veneration in the Maya world, and probably merits its own post. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight two remarkable carved jade pieces. 

The first is the largest known carved Maya jade, from the site of Altun Ha. It weighs nearly 10 pounds, or 4.5 kilograms, and represents the avian head of the Maya Jester God. It was found in a royal burial, at the level of the pelvis of the ruler. 

Altun Ha Jade Head

The second item is a carved plaque from Nebaj, Guatemala. It was carved using string saws, in which string was used to carefully cut through jade. The plaque shows the Maya Maize God, sitting in front of a dwarf and surrounded by foliage. The detail shown in the plaque, and the difficulty of carving into a substance as hard as jade, speaks to the value given this object, and the power and wealth of the patron for whom it was made. 

You can read more about the materials considered precious by ancient Mesoamericans by reading these other blog posts: 


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