A jade blade for the salt of the earth

This is a blade fashioned over 1000 years ago for use by a Mayan worker at an ancient salt works called Ek Way Nal in southern Belize.

The implement was made of jadeite, a semi-precious stone that during the Classic Period of the Mayan civilisation – 300 to 900 CE – was generally reserved for use in plaques and jewellery owned by the elite. 

It was originally attached to a handle made of rosewood. Both parts of the tool, separated, were recovered by a team of researchers led by anthropologist Heather McKillop from the Louisiana State University in the US. Today, Ek Way Nal is a saltwater lagoon fringed by mangrove forest.

The use of such a high-status mineral for the blade, McKillop says, shows that salt workers in the Mayan world were held in very high regard.

“The salt workers were successful entrepreneurs who were able to obtain high-quality tools for their craft through the production and distribution of a basic biological necessity: salt,” she says. 

“Salt was in demand for the Maya diet. We have discovered that it was also a storable form of wealth and an important preservative for fish and meat.”

The find, and its implications, are reported in the journal Antiquity.

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