The Maya Sun God. Ever since its discovery, the jade head has been the subject of much controversy among Belizeans. For years most of us have believed that, shortly after its discovery, this unique Maya masterpiece was spirited out of the country and never returned to its rightful home.
The fact is that this priceless jade head is always in Belize under secure guard except when it is loaned for specific archaeological exhibitions abroad. The jade head was discovered at in the Belize District’s Maya site of Altun Ha in 1968 by two Belizeans working for Dr. David Pendergast of the Royal Ontario Museum of Canada.
The head, along with forty other objects, had been placed within a large tomb that was located below the stair block on the Temple of the Masonry Altars (Structure B4). At the center of the tomb were the remains of an elderly adult male. This elite person was likely an important ruler of the site during his lifetime and may have commissioned an artist to produce the large carved object. We do not know the exact date that the head was carved, but analysis of cultural remains within the tomb suggests that the burial, and accompanying grave goods, were deposited in the structure sometime between 600 and 650 A.D.
Despite its small size and seemingly marginal location, Altun Ha was an ancient Maya community of great complexity and wealth. It was an important link in the coastal trade routes, and had contact with the distant city of Teotihuacan in present-day Mexico at an early time in Maya history. The earliest evidence of settlement at Altun Ha dates to 200 B.C, although it is highly probable that nomadic hunter and gathering tribes lived in the area long before then.
Weighing 9.75 pounds and standing almost 6 inches high, the jade head remains the single largest carved jade object yet discovered in the Maya area. Its crossed eyes, fang-like elements on either side of the mouth, and the ahau glyph on the forehead all identify the head as a representation of the Maya sun god Kinich Ahau. Along with Chac (rain god) and Yum Kax (corn god), Kinich Ahau was among the most important deities in the Maya pantheon. Picture: Three different views of the Kinich Ahau jade head.
The Altun Ha jade head is truly a remarkable object and exquisite work of art. It is the only one of its kind in all of Mesoamerica. Because it was carved with nothing more than stone tools, we know that it may have taken many months, if not years, to produce. It was also carved from one large solid piece of jade that was imported from the Motagua River Valley region of Guatemala. Jade was also the most precious of stones to the Maya. Beside its exotic origins, its green colour reflected that of water and the corn plant, the two most precious, life sustaining substances to the ancient Maya of northern Belize. The Motagua River river runs in a valley in the western highlands of Guatemala near the border with Honduras. That valley has the only known source of jadeitite (jade) in Mesoamerica.
As it undoubtedly was to the prehistoric inhabitants of Altun Ha, the jade head continues to be a most important icon to the people of Belize today. It is prominently displayed on all Belize currency and has become an important symbol of our young nation. It is truly a remarkable work of art and everyone should make every effort to view it whenever it goes on display.
Article Contributed By Dr. Jaime Awe Belize Archaeological Commissioner
Article Updated November 2022 with larger photograph of Kinich Ahau