Jadeite Sources and Ancient Workshops: Archaeological Reconnaissance in the Upper Río El Tambor, Guatemala
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Research Year: 2004
Chronology: Late Classic
Location: Central Motagua Valley, Guatemala
Sites: Río El Tambor Region
Table of Contents
Sitio Cerro Chucunhueso
Sitio Carrizal Grande
Los Encuentros 1 & 2
Sitio La Ceiba
Site Composition and Distribution
List of Figures
Appendix: Jade Samples from the Motagua Region
Since the first documentation of jade sources by Robert Leslie at Manzanotal in 1952, it has been known that the Central Motagua Valley of Guatemala is an important jadeite-bearing region (Foshag and Leslie 1955). Today, large amounts of jadeite are being collected from a number of sources on the northern side of the Motagua River, including the lower Río La Palmilla and areas in the vicinity of Río Hondo (Figure 1, Figure 2, Figure 3, Figure 4, Figure 5; and Appendix, Figures 1, 2 and 3). Most of this material is transported to the city of Antigua, where it is carved into jewelry and sculpture for the tourist trade.
Although jadeite of varying quality and color is now well known for the Middle Motagua Valley, there has been considerable debate whether this region was the only ancient source of jadeite in Mesoamerica and Central America. A number of researchers have argued that the translucent blue-green jadeite known for the Formative Olmec as well as ancient cultures of Costa Rica did not derive from the Motagua River region, but from some other distant area, such as Guerrero or Costa Rica (Coe 1968:100-103; Easby 1968:87; 1981:138; Griffin 1981:219; 1993:203; Hauff 1993:93; Paradis 1981:206). In addition, Ronald Bishop and colleagues have noted that the types of jadeite analyzed from artifacts and known sources are chemically and structurally too different to derive from a single source or region (Bishop et al. 1985; Bishop et al. 1991; Bishop and Lange 1993). However, George Harlow (1993) has argued that due to the metamorphic process in creating jadeite, its chemical composition can vary greatly in a single region. According to Harlow (ibid.), the types of jade known for ancient Mesoamerica may all have derived from a single area, the Central Motagua Valley. As it turns out, both positions are probably correct, as it is becoming increasingly apparent that the jade bearing region in the Motagua area is far larger than originally thought, and that there are also many distinct sources in mountainous regions approximately 40 kilometers on either side of the Middle Motagua Valley (Figure 1; Seitz et al. 2001; Taube et al. 2004).
In 1998, the disastrous flooding of Hurricane Mitch exposed large amounts of jadeite alluvial cobbles, or "float," in tributaries both to the north and south of the Motagua. In terms of color and translucency, some of this material was comparable to "Olmec blue" jadeite. Local jade prospectors soon followed the jade cobbles upstream to major jadeite outcrops, that is, geological sources of the stone. In 2000, the jadeite prospector Carlos Gonzalez led Russell Seitz (Seitz et al. 2001) to one such outcrop, located high in the Río Blanco drainage of the Sierra de las Minas, north of the Motagua Valley (Figure 6, Figure 7, and Appendix, Figure 4). In addition, large bodies of jadeite were being discovered south of the Motagua (Figure 8). As early as 1995, archaeologist Francois Gendron (Gendron et al. 2002) discovered a pebble of bluish-green jadeite in the Río El Tambor, a southern tributary of the Motagua River (Figure 10 and Appendix, Figure 5). However, after Hurricane Mitch, local prospectors located major jadeite bodies further up the Río El Tambor, in canyons near the modern communities of La Ceiba, San Jose, and Carrizal Grande (Figure 9, Figures 11-20, and Appendix, Figures 6-11). One of the major sources occurs in Quebrada Seca, close to the town of San Jose (Figure 15). One of the many jadeite bodies in this ravine is of some 300 tons, among the largest jadeite boulders known (Figure 16).
Since the first discovery of jadeite sources near Manzanotal, it has been known that ancient jade working was performed in the Middle Motagua Valley (Foshag and Leslie 1955:81). In fact, Smith and Kidder (1943:165) had previously noted "jade-worker's material" from Guaytán, one of the major sites in the Middle Motagua region, although the investigators were not aware of natural jadeite in the region. Included in this Guaytán assemblage were partially made beads, conical drill cores, and sawed items in various stages of manufacture (Figure 18, above). In subsequent years, a number of archaeological projects have focused on jade workshops in the Middle Motagua Valley (Becquelin and Bosc 1973; Feldman et al. 1975; Hammond et al. 1977; Walters 1982). A number of ancient jade workshops occur in the region of Río Hondo, including large areas of jadeite debitage as well as jadeite anvils (Figure 19a and Figure 19b). However, no archaeological reconnaissance had been performed in the recently discovered jade bearing regions in the upper Río El Tambor, namely Quebrada El Silencio tributary, which begins near Cerro El Tobón above Carrizal Grande, and connects downstream with the Río La Puerta and finally to the confluence of the Río El Tambor in the region known as Los Encuentros (Figure 1 and Figure 9). Although significant jadeite deposits are not known for the Río de la Puerta, they also do occur upriver in Quebrada del Mico and Quebrada Seca, tributaries of the Quebrada El Silencio (Figure 15 and Figure 29). In terms of jadeite sources in Mesoamerica, this area of Quebrada El Silencio, Quebrada del Mico and Quebrada Seca is of special importance as it contains major natural outcrops of translucent blue jadeite, the type favored by the Formative Olmec (Seitz et al. 2001; Taube et al. 2004; Hruby et al. 2005).
As part of the larger Programa de Arqueología de Motagua Medio, the Proyecto Arqueológico del Jade was initiated in February of 2004 to document archaeological sites and jadeite sources in the upper Río El Tambor drainage. The project team was composed of Luis Romero, Karl Taube and Zachary Hruby as co-directors, and with assistance and participation of two students from the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, Liliana Padilla and Orlando Moreno. Two experienced jade prospectors, Carlos Gonzalez and Rolando Alvarado served as guides in the region. The main area of research focused on the jade bearing regions and associated sites between the modern communities of Carrizal Grande and La Ceiba, a distance of some 8 kilometers (Figure 9). Due to the rugged nature of the terrain, it was usually necessary to hike down trails from the modern communities of San José, La Crucita, Carrizal Grande and La Ceiba. During the 2004 field season seven sites containing architecture and jade production debris were located with the aid of GPS, with these sites then placed on the 1:50,000 San Diego map of the Instituto Geográfico Nacional (NAD 83 / WGS 84). Three of these sites were mapped, with particular emphasis paid to the largest and most complex site in the area, Sitio Aguilucho. In our reconnaissance, a major focus was on regions in, and adjacent to, ravines and canyons, as these are both natural sources of water and areas where jadeite bodies have been exposed by alluvial erosion. In addition, reconnaissance was also performed in the hilly regions above, both in search of sites and jade outcrops. Given the extremely dense nature of jadeite, initial lithic reduction tended to occur near major jadeite bodies, such as alluvial boulders or outcrops. In other words, where there are major jade bodies, there are frequently ancient workshops nearby.
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Submitted 01/18/2005 by:
Dept. of Anthropology, U.C. Riverside