A Contextual and Technological Study of Ancient Maya Greenstone Mosaic Masks

Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2019

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



This research project was designed to approach the contextual analyses and technological study of a set of 259 tesserae that form part of 16 ancient Maya greenstone mosaic masks discovered in high-elite burials from the archaeological sites of El Perú-Waka’, El Zotz, El Tintal, Tikal, and a cache found in Tak’alik Ab’aj, all in Guatemala. I argue that the greenstone mosaic masks found in ancient Maya Lowland settlements and dated to the Late Classic (A.D. 550 – 800) were used as insignias by high-elite individuals belonging to one of the most powerful regimes of that time, the Kaanul. Coincidentally, the ancient settlements located in the Maya Lowlands where a large number of greenstone mosaic masks have been reported to date are those where the Kaanul regime had its seats of power during the 6th and 7th centuries (e.g., Dzibanche and Calakmul), or where diplomatic contacts and family ties were evident (e.g., El Perú-Waka’), or even where coercive actions were persistently undertaken by the Kannul regime (e.g., Palenque in A.D. 599 and A.D. 611), based on the decipherment of ancient Maya inscriptions. I also hypothesize that the finding of greenstone mosaic masks in Early Classic (A.D. 300 - 500) high-elite burials suggests that the Kaanul regime could have exerted its influence across the Central Maya Lowlands since this earlier period. Nonetheless, I consider that greenstone mosaic masks, besides being considered as potential insignias of affiliation in the Maya Lowlands, were also representations of ancestors, expressions linked to divinities such as the Maize god, as well as symbols of wealth and power among high-elite Maya individuals. To determine if the selected 259 tesserae that form the 16-greenstone mosaic masks included in my study were produced following similar or different manufacturing traditions, which could be related to specific or multiple technological trends, I carried out microscopic observations in order to identify and compare their micro-traces of manufacture. My results suggest a standardization for manufacturing this select group of 259 tesserae that form the 16 greenstone mosaic masks, where limestone was mostly used to abrade, jadeitite to polish, and hide to burnish most of their anterior sides. Likewise, obsidian blades or flakes were preferred to cut the edges of the tesserae. The preference for using a specific set of raw material of the tools used to modify the anterior and posterior sides of the tesserae, as well as their edges, suggest the existence of an established process of production in the manufacture of the tesserae. Based on the results of my study, I propose that the tesserae that form the greenstone mosaic masks were manufactured following a similar technological trend, perhaps linked to a specific circle of artisans, who besides manufacturing tesserae that were subsequently assembled into greenstone mosaic masks, transmitted their technological and likely esoteric knowledge to new generations of craftsmen.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

David A. Freidel

Committee Members

Nicola Aravecchia, Michael Frachetti, Tristram Kidder, Xinyi Liu,


Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.7936/5wfk-qx08

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