The jade head was discovered at in the Belize District’s Mayan site of Altun Ha in 1968 by Dr. David Pendergast of the Royal Ontario Museum of Canada. The head, along with forty other objects, had been placed within a large tomb that was located below the stairblock on the Temple of the Masonry Altars. At the center of the tomb were the remains of an elderly adult male. This elite person was likely an important ruler of the site during his lifetime and may have commissioned an artist to produce the large carved object. We do not know the exact date that the head was carved, but analysis of cultural remains within the tomb suggests that the burial, and accompanying grave goods, were deposited in the structure sometime between 600 and 650 A.D.
Weighing 9.75 pounds and standing almost 6 inches high, the jade head remains the single largest carved jade object yet discovered in the Maya area. Its crossed eyes, fang-like elements on either side of the mouth, and the ahau glyph on the forehead all identify the head as a representation of the Maya sun god Kinich Ahau. Along with Chac (rain god) and Yum Kax (corn god), Kinich Ahau was among the most important deities in the Maya pantheon.
The Kinich Ahau head is truly a remarkable object and exquisite work of art. It is the only one of its kind in all of Mesoamerica. Because it was carved with nothing more than stone tools, we know that it may have taken many months, if not years, to produce. It was also carved from one large solid piece of jade that was imported from the Motagua River Valley region of Guatemala. Jade was also the most precious of stones to the Maya. Beside its exotic origins, its green colour reflected that of water and the corn plant, the two most precious, life sustaining substances to the ancient Maya of northern Belize.
As it undoubtedly was to the prehistoric inhabitants of Altun Ha, the jade head continues to be a most important icon to the people of Belize today. It is prominently displayed on all Belize currency and has become an important symbol of our nation.