Jade Bird Celt

Object of the Month: 04/2006

What is it?:

Jade Bird Celt


Western Costa Rica


~11 cm L

Jade Bird Celt - Zoom in button
The figure shown is a jade celt pendant from western Costa Rica. It is an important piece of Costa Rican history and represents an ancient culture where jade was highly prized for its ornamental value. To wear this pendant, string was placed through perforations of the neck to provide suspension for the owner. Another critical aspect of this pendant is the incorporation of the bird and celt (stone axe) form.

The term jade is a generic name archaeologists use to refer to stones and minerals of green color. The finest stone used in Costa Rica is jadeite which is found in different colors ranging from white to emerald green. Although translucent emerald green or deep blue-green were the most highly prized colors, the symbolic representation carved into the stone was more important than the specific material used.

Map of central america showing Coast Rica on the east

Jade artifacts in Costa Rica have been dated between 300 B.C. and A.D. 700. Recent excavations suggest the possibility that jade was used as early as 500 B.C. and continued to A.D. 900, although its use appears to have declined significantly after A.D. 700.

No source of jadeite has been identified in Costa Rica. One of the nearest known sources is in the Motagua River valley in Guatemala. Considering the thick vegetation in Costa Rica it is no surprise that a source has not been found, though it is also possible that one simply does not exist.

To work the stone, chisels and hammer stones were used to break apart the larger jadeite pieces. Portions were sliced using a saw with plant fibers or strips of animal skin held tightly by a piece of curved wood along with water and abrasives such as ground quartz or sand. Drills with stone tips were used to make perforations for the eyes, mouth, legs and other human and/or animal representations. The jade object was then polished with beeswax, plant fibers, or a piece of sandstone.

The appearance of jade marks the beginning of ranked or hierarchical societies in Costa Rica. It was seen as a symbol of rank and designated the wearer as a member of a particular group. The usage of jade was not restricted by age or gender, though larger better worked pieces must have belonged to shamans, chiefs and other important individuals. Although lower-ranking members had objects of lesser quality they still lparticipated in the wearing of jade because it signified position or ethnic identity.

The Costa Rican pendant form is usually that of a celt or stone axe. Functional or working celts were wood-splitting and forest clearing tools usually associated with agricultural societies. The celt form is represented at the bottom of the pendant while the top end are depictions of human beings, animals or combinations of the two. The celt shape is considered to be based on that of the working stone tool. The jade pendants were not made from working celts, but rather shaped to resemble them. This form is associated with clearing land for agriculture.

The incorporation of the bird form can be seen in the object above, especially in the triangular beak. The combining of human and bird forms into symbolic objects was common for this culture. Birds are seen as communicators between the earthly and celestial realms and part of mythic communication.

For more information:
Jade in Costa Rica from the The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Read the Book

Jade in Ancient Costa Rica by Mark Miller Graham, Juan Vicente Guerrero M., Michael J. Snarskis, and Zulay Soto Mendez