Pendant in the form of a head representing life and death

The Maya in their great temple cities reached the summit of the classical age in ancient Mesoamerica. In those temple cities, great artistic expressions such as murals and sculptures flourished. The artists refined their skills to represent the human forms, deities, and other symbolic art works. Used in various rituals and ceremonies, their art embodied rich symbolism, laden with complex meanings, which largely remain esoteric and whose purpose and efficacy is unknown.

A fine example of the Mayan symbolism is this small but exquisite work of art cut from flecked green jade, a pendant with the dramatic effigy of life and death -half of the face in flesh and the other half in the skull. A duality. The flesh part of the face shows an open eye and an open mouth revealing teeth. The great detail of the features is of note, particularly the lips and the nose. The other half shows a skull with a hollow eye socket and two perfect rows of teeth. The full head of hair is gathered in a way that can also be seen in distinct iconographies on Mayan vases. Both ears are depicted with large circular earrings.

Ancient Meso-Americans firmly believed in life, death, rebirth, and afterlife. Even after death, they believed that people experience rebirth following their journey through the underworld. Accepting the natural cycle of human life, the ancient Mayans were not afraid to confront the concept of death. Incorporated in their daily life and rituals, the idea of life and death are often expressed in various art forms. Few examples like this one are in existence. Terracotta depictions of human skulls encrusted with stone are well-known and some examples of dual skulls like this but in terracotta sculptures. In jewellery, this pendant is a distinctive and important piece among the Mayan artistic productions which are preserved today.

It possibly belonged to a male of rank in their society and was buried with him for his resurrection. He perhaps wore it in his lifetime and used it in ritual performances. The image is, without doubt, a poetic work of art and as we look at it, we are invited to confront the inevitable idea of life and death.

The Maya civilization extended over a large area, from present-day south-central Mexico to Guatemala and Honduras. The area has three distinct geographic regions—the mountains and highlands, the tropical jungle lowlands, and the lowlands of the Gulf of Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula—each with its own landscape and natural resources. During the Classical Period, the Mayans lived in the highlands and lowlands, in which Tikal and Kaminaljuyú were their major population centres, respectively.

The Mayan culture developed from earlier groups of village dwellers and farmers that lived the area and participated in the trade network. They also were influenced by groups living in what is now central Mexico, mainly the Olmecs. Around the 10th Century CE, lack of rain, ecological deterioration and social unrest resulted in the abandonment of the Mayan’s large urban centres. Later, groups of Mayan origin settled on the Yucatan Peninsula where they joined with other groups from central Mexico, mainly Toltecs, to build new civic and ceremonial centres such as Chichén Itza and Mayapán, which remained active until the arrival of the Spaniards in 1525. Today, the descendants of these ancient Mayans still live in the area that stretches from the Yucatán Peninsula to Honduras, where they continue their way of life, wear traditional clothing and speak the language handed down to them by this ancient American culture.

The Mayan economy was based on slash-and-burn agriculture. They grew their crops in fields called milpas, using pointed sticks for sowing maize, squash, chili peppers, beans and other crops. They worked the land four months of the year, rotating their crops to prevent erosion. They also collected a wide range of wild fruits and vegetables, hunted wild animals, extracted honey from beehives and fished in rivers, lakes and the sea. As each region had its own set of natural resources, exchange played a central role in Mayan economies. The Mayans measured time and the movement of the earth and heavens using a base 20 number system. They produced two calendars. One was the solar calendar or haab, which had 365 days broken into 18 months of 20 days each, plus an additional five days. This calendar was used to regulate non-religious activities. The lunar calendar, called tzolkin, had 260 days and was used for religious purposes. The two calendars were used simultaneously, represented together on a wheel. The wheel itself had a 52-year cycle, after which time events were expected to repeat themselves. The legacy of the Olmecs allowed the Mayans to develop a writing system based on signs or glyphs, written in two columns and read from left to right and top to bottom. This writing system is found on the walls and staircases of important Mayan buildings, on their ceramics, and in codices made of deerskin or amate bark paper.

The Mayans developed a unique artistic style with a degree of complexity that rivals that of European baroque. Their extremely life-like, anatomically proportionate human images are found in natural poses that emphasize movement. Their art represented sacred, ritual and hierarchical themes, although they also reproduced scenes from daily life and images of local fauna such as monkeys, tapirs, jaguars, bats, quetzal birds, fish and turtles. Stone was one of their favorite media, and they used it for their buildings, stelas, and the low- and high-relief sculptures that adorned their buildings. The Mayan’s architectural contributions include the stela-altar, the arch and the false vault. In addition to monumental art they also had a highly developed personal esthetic, manufacturing ear ornaments, pendants, necklaces, masks and other adornments out of jade. They deformed their craniums and noses and hung ornaments on their foreheads to make them squint-eyed.

They decorated their pottery with painted and engraved images, producing some of the finest works of pre-Columbian art. Popular Mayan ceramic pieces included serving bowls, pipes and vases, the last of these often adorned with Mayan glyphs.

Religion was a central aspect of Mayan culture. They believed in an earthly world and a supernatural one, an underworld and an overworld, viewing these as a single entity in which humans, deities, plants and animals were tied together by destiny. In living out these beliefs they made pilgrimages to the great Mayan civic and religious centres to obtain horoscopes and make offerings of blood from their fingertips, earlobes and tongues on altars erected in front of the carved estelas. The Mayans had an extensive pantheon of gods, the most notable of whom were the creator Hunab–Ku, and Ah Puc, the God of Night, who inhabited the underworld. They also worshipped the sun and moon, Venus, and other heavenly bodies, as well as natural phenomena such as rain, incarnated as the god Chaac. Other Mayan gods were patrons of specific social classes and trades. These include Kukulcán, the feathered serpent, who was associated with the ruling class, and Ek Chua, the patron of merchants and cacao producers. The Mayans believed that at death, depending on individual merit, they would go to eternal rest in one of the heavens under the leafy shade of the ceiba tree, or remain eternally tormented by hunger and cold in the dark underworld. Peasants were buried close to the huts in which they had died, whereas nobles were cremated, and their ashes deposited in urns in underground vaults. Mayan rulers were laid to rest in temples built specially to house their tombs.


- Dual mask half skull-half human. Tlatilco. Pre-classical Gallery of the Central Meseta, INAH, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City, Mexico.
- Sotheby’s. Le soleil de nuit: trésors précolombiens d'une grande collection française. 30 October 2019. Multiple Head. Puebla, Veracruz, Mexico. Lot 20.
- Dual mask. Zapoteca Soyaltepec. Late Classical, 600 – 900 AD INAH, National Museum of Anthropology. Mexico City. Mexico.
- Fragment of a sculpture of a figure half skull-half human. Mayan. 300 – 600 AD National Gallery of Victoria Vera Cruz.


- MARTINEZ DE VELASCO, A. VEGA, M.A. (ed). The Mayans. Voices of Stone. Autonomous University of Mexico. Ámbar Diseño. 2015. Pages 402-413.
- GRUBE, N. (ed). The Mayans. A Millenarian Civilization. Könemann. 2006.

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