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Archaeologists Find High-Quality Jadeite Tool at Ancient Maya Salt-Working Site in Belize

A team of archaeologists has found a jadeite gouge with a rosewood handle at Ek Way Nal, a Classic Maya salt-working site in Belize.

Archaeologists Find High-Quality Jadeite Tool at Ancient Maya Salt-Working Site in Belize
The jadeite gouge after discovery. Image credit: Heather McKillop.

Jadeite is a hard rock that varies from translucent to opaque. During the Classic Period of 300-900 CE, high-quality translucent jadeite was typically reserved for unique and elaborate jadeite plaques, figurines and earrings for royalty and other elites.

However, Louisiana State University’s Professor Heather McKillop and colleagues recovered the 1,200-year-old jadeite tool at Ek Way Nal, one of 110 ancient salt working sites comprising the Paynes Creek Salt Works.

“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. Salt was in demand for the Maya diet,” Professor McKillop said.

“We have discovered that it was also a storable form of wealth and an important preservative for fish and meat.”

The Ek Way Nal tool is made of exceptionally high-quality jadeite, which is surprising given its utilitarian context.

The translucent appearance of the artifact results from tightly woven grains in the material, which make the jadeite particularly durable and, therefore, even more desirable for use as a tool.

Wooden handle for the jadeite gouge. Image credit: Heather McKillop.

“This jadeite tool is the first of its kind that has been recovered with its wooden handle intact,” Professor McKillop noted.

Analysis of the wood’s structure shows that the handle is made from the Honduran rosewood (Dalbergia stevensonii).

“Although the jadeite tool was probably not used on wood or hard materials, it may have been used in other activities at the salt works, such as scraping salt, cutting and scraping fish or meat, or cleaning calabash gourds,” Professor McKillop said.

The team’s paper was published in the journal Antiquity.


Heather McKillop et al. 2019. Demystifying jadeite: an underwater Maya discovery at Ek Way Nal, Belize. Antiquity 93 (368): 502-518; doi: 10.15184/aqy.2019.35

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