Maya nobles dressed elaborately for the pageantry of courtly life. On painted vessels and other media, they are shown bedecked with magnificent clothing, headdresses, ornaments, and, above all, jewelry. Chief among a lord or lady’s possessions were their earspools. Immediately visible next to the face, they conveyed information about the wearer’s identity and social status. They may also have served to emphasize the unique hearing capabilities of the nobility, particularly the privilege they claimed of being in continuous contact with otherwise remote gods and ancestors. In contrast, prisoners were invariably stripped of their finery and paper strips were inserted in their earlobes.
This earspool is made of jadeite, Mesoamerica’s hardest stone, esteemed by the Maya for its beauty and durability and as an embodiment of life essence. Polished jadeite is cool and smooth to the touch, with striking blue-green colors and a delicate clinking sound when knocked. The ancient Maya associated it with water, growing maize, and possibly also with the wind god, a youthful being connected with flowers and music, whose smell and sound are carried by the wind.
Maya earspools were often carved in the shape of a flower, with open petals and a hollow center. They were worn with a tube inserted through the center (see PC.B.528 and PC.B.569). In this example, four small perforations on the petals’ edges made it possible to attach additional elements such as feathers or dangling beads. Both jade and flowers were thought to exhale and inhale breath and moisture—symbolized in earspools by the jutting tube and dangling beads—and they represented conduits for communication with courtly peers and the supernatural realm.
Bliss, Robert Woods 1957 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. Text and Critical Analyses by S. K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler and William F. Foshag. Phaidon, New York. p. 251, cat. 116-E, pl. LXVII.
Bliss, Robert Woods 1959 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. 2nd ed. Text and Critical Analyses by S. K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler and William F. Foshag. Phaidon, London. p. 259, cat. 116-E, pl. LXVII.
Bühl, Gudrun (ED.) 2008 Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 224-225.
Pillsbury, Joanne, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito and Alexandre Tokovinine (EDS.) 2012 Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 256-258, pl. 44, fig. 150.
"Lasting Impressions: Body Art in the Ancient Americas" , Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 10/1/2011 - 3/4/2012.
Purchased from Robert Stolper, New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1956.
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1956-1962.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.