Altun Ha Maya Site and The Jade Head

by McNab Editorial Team

Exploring Altun Ha

Like many ancient ruin sites, the Maya City of Altun Ha is filled with mystery and wonder. Known as Rockstone Pond in Mayan, it is located close to the coast, approximately 31 miles north of Belize City. It was once an ideal place for commerce in the ancient Maya world. Nowadays, the proximity to Belize City makes Altun Ha a popular destination for both locals and international travelers visiting Belize.

Artifacts found at the site link it with other major Maya cities such as Teotihuacan in Mexico and Copan in Honduras. Based on the size and grandeur of the buildings and monuments at Altun Ha, in its prime, this was a place of wealth and affluence.

It is thought by some that Altun Ha served as a manufacturing hub for the trade of precious stones, specifically jade. Over the years, archeologists have uncovered some strange and curious findings to support this idea. In one burial chamber, they found over 300 small fragments of jade. In another, the jade was burnt together with copal, a Mayan incense made from tree resin. This frivolous use of jade fragments in burial rituals is unique to Altun Ha.

Uncovering Treasure

Probably the most prominent discovery at Altun Ha is the uncovering of the famous Jade Head of K’nich Ahau. This treasure is a carved ornamental head weighing almost 10 pounds. Moreover, the relic discovery was in 1968 by the Canadian Archeologist Dr. David Pendergast. It is the largest jade object ever to be found in Maya lands.

Belize Jade Head
Image Credit:

It was discovered resting atop a corpse found buried in a chamber in the Temple of the Masonry Altars. According to the well-known and respected Belizean researcher Dr. Jaime Awe, no stone was more precious to the Maya than Jade, and while many believe that the design elements carved into the Jade Head are attributes of the famous Mayan sun god K’nich Ahau, others are not so sure. Certain details serve to link the artifact to other gods of the Mayan pantheon.

A National Symbol

The Jade Head is certainly a wonder and has become a national symbol for the nation of Belize. Take a look at any Belizean dollar bill and you’re likely to find a depiction of the Jade Head.

Once protected inside the depths of Altun Ha’s largest structure, the Jade Head now rests in the vault of Belize’s largest bank, and due to its rare and exquisite nature, only seldom makes any public appearances. Curiously, the vault of its new home is also shape in the style of an ancient Maya temple, perhaps a nod to its history.

Though the Jade Head is generally not available for showings, Altun Ha itself is open for tours 365 days a year. Tours from Belize City are easy to organize and often include lunch so if you’re in Belize this spring, don’t miss the opportunity to visit one of Belize’s most important ancient cities – Altun Ha.

Belize Currency
The Jade Head Depicted On Belizean Currency

Original Article By G. Michael Bowen

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