In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the ever-intrepid Lara Croft finds herself doing a spot of treasure-hunting while in Paititi, a hidden city deep in the Peruvian jungles and home to an isolated society which has its roots in Inca, Maya, and even Aztec cultural traditions and beliefs.
A jade burial mask is among the many ancient artefacts she unearths during her quest to save the world from a Maya apocalypse. What isn’t immediately clear from the game is whether this particular burial mask had been crafted by the descendants of the fictional Maya who had migrated to Peru centuries earlier or whether it had been crafted in Maya territory and then transported south during the migration. Perhaps if Lara hadn’t been too busy trying to prevent the destruction of the lost city and surrounding settlements, she could have found the time to date the artefact and confirm whether it was a cultural relic that pre-dated Paititi or a product of Paititi’s hybrid society.
As with most of the Tomb Raider artefacts I’ve written about over the years, this jade burial mask has a real-life counterpart that it was modelled after: in this case, it’s a near-perfect replica of the Calakmul Mask.
The Calakmul Mask was discovered in 1984 and was one of the many jade artefacts found by William J. Folan’s excavation team at the Calakmul archaeological site in Campeche, Mexico. Located deep within the jungles of the Petén Basin, Calakmul was once the seat of the so-called Snake Kingdom, whose settlements were marked with an emblem glyph of a snake’s head. At the heights of its power, Calakmul was one of the largest cities in the Maya lowlands – home to around 50,000 inhabitants – and administered a sizeable domain, which stretched across the south-eastern Mexican state of Campeche.
This particular mask was found in Tomb I of Structure VII at Calakmul and is believed to have been part of a mortuary offering for an unidentified ruler of the Kaan – or “Snake” – Dynasty. It dates back to between 660 and 750 AD and was crafted from a mosaic of jade pieces, grey obsidian, and white seashells. The face depicted on the jade burial mask was the face that Maya dignitaries wanted to present before the gods of the underworld: that of the Maya god of maize, who goes by the catchy name “God E” because his actual name is unknown or disputed.
Before we take a closer look at the mask, it’s worth considering the value that the Maya placed on jade, both as a commodity and as a material of religious import. Due to the arduous task of mining and transporting jadeite and nephrite from the quarries in Guatemala, jade was normally reserved for the gods and for royalty. This precious stone was commonly associated with vegetation and water – possibly because of its various green and blue hues – and was seen as symbolic of fertility, creation, and living breath.
Jade came to symbolise the cycle of life and rebirth – much like a new crop of maize – and the stone’s durability suggested timelessness and longevity. Because of the stone’s perceived life-sustaining qualities, jade became the material of choice for crafting burial masks and other funerary accoutrements.
Now let’s get back to the mask itself. Its almost circular ear-flares may look like trendy accessories but there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye. For starters, the outermost circles are, in fact, four-petalled flowers. This quatrefoil – or “four leaf” – motif is a commonly-used element in Mesoamerican art and architecture and represents the perfect Mesoamerican universe.
The Maya conceived the earth as a square, a four-cornered world centred around a fifth point, an axis mundi. This worldview was shared by the Aztecs and Toltecs and was most likely inherited from the Olmecs, who are also often credited for devising the Maya’s Long Count Calendar.
The four petals represent the four cardinal directions and the four directional winds. But it’s the centre point, represented by the two smaller concentric circles, that demands some further attention. These points of centrality were thought to be a nexus of sorts between the three cosmic realms – the sky, earth, and the underworld. They were seen as a place of transition and transformation. Everything – natural or supernatural – converged on these central points. It was here that the deceased ruler could cross into the supernatural world and be reborn. These ear-flares were miniature versions of the Maya cosmos and by wearing them, the late ruler could be in continuous contact with the gods.
The curved white seashells that adorn the nostrils, corners of the mouth, and earlobes aren’t just aesthetically pleasing; they serve a symbolic purpose too. The shells attached to the nostrils and mouth represent the deceased ruler’s final breath and vital essence leaving his body, while the ones attached to the base of the ear-flares represent a snake’s fangs.
As we mentioned earlier, Calakmul was home to the so-called Snake Kingdom and its rulers held the title K’uhul Kanal Ahaw, “Divine Lord of the Serpent”. These imitation snake fangs aren’t just a nod to the ruler’s homeland or social position. The Maya believed that snakes were creatures capable of moving between the three cosmic realms and by attaching these “fangs” to the mask, the artisans hoped that their dearly departed ruler would be granted the same ability.
One feature that’s easy to overlook is the butterfly design at the base of the mask. This stylised butterfly with its four extended wings (yes, there’s the number four again) represents the wind and, by extension, the soul of the deceased ruler. In Maya mythology, butterflies were often associated with the planet Venus, a planet thought to be in constant movement. Like Venus, the butterfly was believed to be in a continuous state of transformation, making it another perfect symbol of the cycle of life.
And, finally, let’s cast our eye to the headdress of the mask. The arch and aperture are meant to represent the entrance to a cave and for those who aren’t familiar with the sacred landscape of the Maya, caves were thought to be entrances to the Maya underworld. Caves were viewed as portals between the realms of the living and the dead and, thus, came to be associated with both life and death, creation and decay. Likewise, the mask’s open mouth is another metaphor for this sacred threshold.
The two jade “sprouts” growing inside the “cave” represent primordial maize grains. The Maya believed that humans were created from maize dough inside a cave and that these maize grains were the origin of agriculture. Not only do these two jade maize sprouts reference Maya origin myths, they also represent fertility, life, and the continuity of existence. In a sense, the growth of these maize seeds represent the desire for the rebirth and everlasting existence of the mask wearer, which seems to be a recurring theme where this mask is concerned.
Just like the jade it was crafted from, the Calakmul Mask’s aesthetic appeal and legacy has stood the test of time. Its striking visage has become the face of Campeche’s archaeological heritage worldwide, having spent the better part of a decade on tour and being exhibited in museums across the world. These days, the mask can be found on permanent exhibit in Room 4 of the Museum of Maya Architecture in Campeche, where it continues to captivate and inspire those who gaze upon its verdant splendour.
If you’d like to learn more about the Calakmul jade burial mask or the significance of jade in Maya culture, check out the articles listed below.
Sources and Further Reading:
- A Consideration of the Quatrefoil Motif in Preclassic Mesoamerica by Julia Guersey, in RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No.57/58 (Spring/Autumn 2010), pp.75-96.
- Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia, edited by Susan Toby Evans and David L. Webster, Routledge, 2013.
- Calakmul (Wikipedia)
- Calakmul Jade Mask Returns to Campeche (The Yucatan Times)
- Earflare Set by Lucia R. Henderson (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
- Jade in Mesoamerica (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
- Jade Use in Mesoamerica (Wikipedia)
- National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City Exhibits the Enigmatic Calakmul Mask (ArtDaily.Org)
- Symbols of Beauty and Power: An Analysis of Flower Depictions in Classic Maya Iconography by Maddie Brown, 2010.
- The Mask of Calakmul, a Jade Jewel, Once Again Exhibited in Campeche (Punto Medio)
- The Mask of Calakmul: A Jade Universe (GOB.MX)
- The Symbolism of Jade in Classic Maya Religion by Karl A. Taube, in Ancient Mesoamerica, Vol. 16 (2005), pp.23-50.