Earflare with incised image of the principal bird deity

250–500 CE
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General Description

This intriguing object conveys important ideas about sacred Maya kingship through its material, shape, and imagery. Green stone that could be highly polished was a precious material for the ancient Maya. Jadeite and other varieties of greenstone ornaments were tremendously symbolic, connoting specifically water and corn and more abstractly fertility, breath or soul essence, and life itself.

The circular hole at the center identifies this piece as an ear ornament. Deities and dignitaries are usually depicted in Maya art wearing decorative ornamentation in or on the ear, which included spool-shaped ear ornaments and earflares that were worn through an enlarged hole in the earlobe. This example is asymmetrical in shape and sufficiently large to suggest that it could not have been worn by a human being—at least not in an ear lobe. Some scholars have suggested that larger ear ornaments of this type were used as headdress elements, through which hair was threaded, or to adorn masks. Regardless, they would have been an emblem of status.

The flat, polished surface of this object bears an incised image of a bird, and original traces of red hematite are visible in the finely carved lines. A necklace hangs below the head, feathers trail along the right side, and a bird foot can be seen in the right corner. The profile human-like head with prominent nose seems to represent Itzamnaaj, the Principal Bird Deity who is associated with writing and the creation myth (he is also referred to as the Cosmic Bird, Itz'am Yej, Itzam Ye, Itzam Yeh, Vucub Caquix). In Maya art, the avian creature is often shown descending from the sky to settle in the branches of a tree, an act that links the bird with the axis mundi, the center of the world.

Elaine Higgins Smith, Digital Collections Content Coordinator, 2016.

Drawn from

  • Carol Robbins, Label text [1968.20], A. H. Meadows Galleries, 2008.

  • Carol Robbins, Label text [2006.59], A. H. Meadows Galleries, 2008.

  • Carol Robbins, DMA unpublished material, 2008.

  • Getty Vocabulary, AAT (earspools: AAT: 300209300).

  • Getty Vocabulary, AAT (ear ornaments: AAT: 300211279).