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An exquisite carved ancient Maya nose ornament was discovered by archaeologists during the course of excavations in the Archaeological Zone of Palenque in southern Mexico,. What makes this discovery even more intriguing – and somewhat spine-chilling – is that the material used to create this elegant nose ornament was human bone.
According to the information made available, this ornament was intended for priests and rulers who wore it during religious ceremonies to embody K’awiil, the god of maize and fertility in Maya culture.
The specific archaeological find is rather small, measuring only 6.4 centimetres in length and 5.2 centimetres in width (2.5 x 2 inches) and 5 centimetres in thickness at the thickest part at the bottom of the ornament. It was crafted from the front part of a lower leg bone, where the foot and ankle form a joint. This is because, according to the archaeological team that discovered the artifact, the natural curvature of the shin bone perfectly matches the central line of the nose.
The bone’s curvature also protrudes over the nose bridge, eliminating the separation between the forehead and the nose, giving the wearer a straight, seamless profile. Valuable information reveals that the Maya elite commonly employed skull shaping practices – even while the elite members were infants, and their skulls were still malleable – to achieve a head shape resembling that of the god K’awiil. Nose ornaments were only applied to heads with elongated skulls, a feature the elite had acquired, resulting in a perfect, continuous, straight nose.
As for the ornament itself, it is intricately carved with great detail and precision. On the left side, the carving depicts the profile of a man wearing bracelets, necklaces made of spherical beads, and earrings with pendants. The man’s left hand carries the glyphic symbol for “darkness” or “night,” a common scene in Maya art from the classical period (250-900 CE). His right hand extends and continues to the right side of the nose ornament, where he holds a long, slender rod vertically. At the bottom of the rod is a representation of a skull placed atop a pile of fabrics.
The bone’s profile, which was used to create the nasal ornament, is thought of as the invisible gateway that the wearer crosses to communicate with the gods and ancestors, a common motif in Maya art during the Classic period.
Arnoldo González Cruz, director of the Palenque Archaeological Project (PAP), explained that nose ornaments were part of the elite’s clothing in the city, as they are depicted in several sculptures, such as the sarcophagus of the Temple of the Inscriptions, the oval tablet of House E, and the throne of Temple XXI, worn by the ajaws (kings) Yohl Ik’nal, Sak K’uk’, Pakal I, and Pakal II.
The object was discovered during maintenance work in the palace complex at the heart of the ancient Maya city. It had been buried in a pit beneath a floor with a stockpile as part of a ritual conducted to mark the completion of a building during the Late Classic period (600-850 CE). It was buried in the earth along with seeds, fish bones, turtle shells, small mammals, obsidian blades, and large pieces of charcoal.