Beads were obviously decorative, but they are commonly found in caches and in situ in sacred places such as temples. Beads were made in a variety of forms and materials. They had symbolic value that likely differed according to the material from which they were constructed and their form.
Material and Form
Many beads were made from human and animal teeth, particularly the canine in the case of the latter, or bone. Most beads were composed of stone and the color of the stone was likely the strongest signifier. In the artifact sort, beads were categorized simply by color, but some of the red and white colored “stone” may have actually been polished shell. They were most commonly composed of greenstone, followed by red/pink stone, white stone, and finally black stone (serpentine). The fifth major Maya color, yellow, is absent. This follows Colonial descriptions testifying to the importance of green and red stones. During droughts, red and green stones were offered to the deity Itzam Na (Tozzer 1941: 146). Red stone beads worn by young woman during rites of passage symbolized virginity and were also used as a medium of exchange (Tozzer 1941: 106 and 117). Young boys wore a white bead in their hair (Landa 1941: 102). Beads were used as offerings to “idols” (i.e., effigy censers) during rituals such as Wayeb rites (Landa 1941: 166), but they had other uses as well. Among the modern Lacandon, newly made god pots are struck with red, black, and blue/green beads to awaken them (Davis 1978: 77). It is likely that the bead “offerings” described by the Colonial Spaniards were also awakening rites (Pugh 2001). Blue and green beads also appear to have been popular in Colonial period Peten, when they were largely composed of glass.