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HOME : Pre-Columbian Art : Pre-Columbian Masterpieces : Guanacaste-Nicoya Jade Mace Head in the Form of a Harpy Eagle
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Guanacaste-Nicoya Jade Mace Head in the Form of a Harpy Eagle - PF.2169
Origin: Western Costa Rica
Circa: 300 BC to 300 AD
Dimensions: 4.625" (11.7cm) high
Catalogue: V6
Collection: Pre-Columbian
Style: Guanacaste-Nicoya
Medium: Jade

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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.

The sharp curving beak and outlined eyes of this splendid bird identify it as a harpy eagle, a creature of magical significance in ancient Costa Rica. Because it was solitary, powerful, fierce and all seeing, the harpy eagle was often associated with chieftains, shaman, or magic men. Ceremonial mace heads, derived from weapons of war, were symbols of worldly power and status. Carried atop shafts of wood, they were the insignias of persons of rank and power. Very likely this superbly carved eagle was the property of a mighty chief or sorcerer, carried on ceremonial occasions. Even across the barriers of time and culture, there is no mistaking its aura of strength and authority. - (PF.2169)


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