The Spanish conquistadors had gold in mind when they first arrived in the Americas. Seeing the soft metal adorning the rulers of many societies, the Spanish infatuation with the precious metal led them to believe there must be a neverending supply of it in the new land.
Had the Spanish arrived a century earlier, they likely would have seen the same style of tribal decorations, only in cloudy-green jade.
The Costa Rican Jade Museum puts this pre-Columbian society on display, demonstrating much more than just their innovative and beautiful use of the metamorphic rock.
Durable jade was the gold of Central American societies before the allure of the shiny metal became the downfall of those same peoples. Costa Rica rested between the major powers of the Maya and the Aztec to the north and the Inca to the south; this location proved favorable when it came to trade, says the museum’s archaeologist, Virginia Novoa.
As with any trade route, items, people and cultural beliefs spread along it. From Guatemala’s MotaguaRiverValley came the jade that decorated the ornamental headwear, piercings, necklaces and figures that called into reverence the deities of that region, Novoa says.
Two years ago, the JadeMuseum was relocated from the 11th floor to the first floor of the National Insurance Institute (INS) building, just north of downtown San José’s Parque España. Along with a much more accessible location, the five-room museum was redesigned to allow visitors to flow through the museum more naturally.
“It’s a design with a little more movement, and it’s a little more fluid,” Novoa says. “There’s also a (chronological) order to give context.”
Filled with artifacts dating back as far as 400 B.C., the museum displays decorative tables, formed in the shapes of jaguars and other revered animals, ornate pottery and ceremonial stone metates.
Explanations in Spanish and English describe how each item was used and where it came from. One section is dedicated to explaining the manner in which the jade and other artifacts were molded or cut into their current state – very informative when looking up close at the intricacies of the work.
“Sometimes in a museum, they don’t have a demonstration of how some things were used,” Novoa says. “We have put in displays to humanize the objects. It gives you the option of picturing what it was like to live at that time.”
There are models of people working with the different materials, as well as models that show how the communities functioned and lived on a daily basis.
The final room is dedicated to the time during which jade was most widely used, thought to be up to about A.D. 800, when it was replaced by gold. Here are carefully crafted flutes, necklaces and statues of the gods. Visitors are surrounded in a circular room dedicated to the radiant stone.
Finishing off the cycle of jade’s significance, a small display shows the evolution into gold. And while the material may have changed, Novoa says, neither the symbolism nor the images did.
The JadeMuseum, on the first floor of the INS building on Avenida 7, between Calles 9 and 11, is open Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Foreign visitor admission costs $7 for adults and $4 for students, with discounts offered for groups of more than 10. National and resident admission costs ¢1,000 ($1.75); free for kids under 12 and students; and free for everyone on Wednesdays and the first Saturday of each month. For information, call 2287-6034 or visit www.ins-cr.com.