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On the Trail of Mesoamerican Jade: an Archaeologist in Training


Today’s guest post was written by Katje Lattik, Archaeological Research Intern in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress, who works with the Pre-Columbian objects in the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas.

Katje Lattik speaking in the Kislak Study Collection about the Mesoamerican Jades in the Collection. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

Katje Lattik (in the fashionable blue gloves) speaking in the Kislak Study Collection about the Mesoamerican Jades in the Collection. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Katje was a 2015 Library of Congress Junior Fellow with a strong interest in archaeology and Museum Studies, who is currently finishing up her degree in anthropology at Towson University in Maryland.

For those who might not know, the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas became part of the Geography and Map Division several years ago and is made up of Pre-Columbian archaeological objects, maps, like Waldseemüller’s famous 1516 Carta Marina, and manuscripts and rare books relating to the earliest history of America. The dates of the collection span a wide range from 1100 BC until the mid-18th century. Part of collection is on permanent rotating display in the Exploring the Early Americas Exhibit in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library, with the remainder of the objects housed in the recently opened Kislak Study Collection in the vaults of the Geography and Map Division. There they may be studied by scholars by contacting the collection curator John Hessler ([email protected]).

 

This post is part of an occasional series that will feature new research and highlight objects from the collection.

 


After spending a summer photographing and writing on the Mesoamerican jade and greenstone objects in the Jay I. Kislak collection, I am lucky enough to be back in the Geography and Map Division this semester to continue and expand upon my previous work which documented the style and form of the Kislak jades, and compared them to other large collections, like those published by Tatiana Proskouriakov (1909-1985) documenting the jades found in the Cenote of Sacrifice at the classic Maya site of Chichen Itza.  There are two main projects I intend to focus my attention on during my time here. The first project pushes beyond my previous work and involves creating 3d digital images of the jade pieces from the collection.

Copan Style Jade Pendant from the Jay I. Kislak Collection representing the head of a prisoner who has had the right side of his skull removed, exposing the brain. Late Classic Maya, 600-900 CE. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Copan Style Jade Pendant from the Jay I. Kislak Collection representing the head of a prisoner who has had the right side of his skull removed, exposing the brain. Late Classic Maya, 600-900 CE. Photography by Katje Lattik, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

This process creates what are essentially highly detailed maps of the surfaces of these objects and it allows for greater insight into the subtle details of the carving process that could be missed by the naked eye. The reflectiveness of polished jade, the prevalence of pieces that are carved in the round, and the intricacies of the carving process can all hinder our ability to fully examine the jade of the Kislak collection, making them ideal for 3d imaging. In addition, most of the jade objects are believed to have been burial objects, and as such are coated in a bright red mineral the that Maya used in burials.

Ceremonial Jade Mace Head. Classic Period Maya, 300-900 CE. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Ceremonial Jade Mace Head. Classic Period Maya, 300-900 CE. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

This mineral is known as cinnabar, a form of mercury sulfide, and can be toxic in large quantities. The cinnabar that lingers on some the Kislak jade’s necessitates the use of care when handling. The great advantage that 3d imaging provides, and part of why I am so excited to be involved in bringing it to the Kislak collection, is the ability to create virtual and even physical facsimiles. These facsimiles can be utilized safely for educative and research purposes and can even be accessed remotely.

Three-Dimension Model of Kislak Olmec Figurine 0155. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Three-Dimension Image of a Kislak Olmec Figurine produced using structure from motion imaging. This same technique will be used on the Maya Jades. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The second project I hope to complete in my time here involves the ceramic objects of the Kislak collection. I will be expanding my jade research from over the summer to include these ceramic pieces. The project involves taking comprehensive photos of each piece that include all sides and angles, as well as macro pictures of the details in each piece. I will then utilize the pictures and hands on experience with the objects in order to collect information on the stylistic conventions motifs of each piece. With proper documentation we can then begin compare these conventions and motifs to Mesoamerican ceramic pieces from other collections and archaeological resources in order to ascertain possible provenance for the pieces which have no clear origin.

Katje Lattik examining a Jade Mosaic Earspool in the Presevation Research and Testing Laboratories of the Library of Congress.

Katje Lattik examining a Jade Mosaic Earspool in the Presevation Research and Testing Laboratories of the Library of Congress.

All of my work on this project, including the photographs and written descriptions of each piece, will be added to the jade booklet which I created this summer, and which will be published in the near future. In this way, I am participating in the ongoing creation of a comprehensive on-line resource documenting the Kislak collection which will benefit scholars and researchers in the years to come.

One Comment

  1. Dr. Herbert Misigo
    June 14, 2016 at 9:25 am

    This is a very good article. I like it

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