Jade Across Oceans: The Power of Green Stone in Ancient China and Mesoamerica

  • 1.30pm

  • Online

Chair: Dr Heather Pulliam

Dr Jamie Forde is a Lecturer of Pre-Modern Art at the University of Edinburgh. He specializes in the architecture and visual culture of prehispanic and colonial Latin America, with a focus on central and southern Mexico. He employs both art historical and archaeological methods in studying Indigenous Mexican societies during the colonial encounter, and he is the director of an ongoing archaeological research project based at the site of Achiutla, located in the Mixtec highlands of Oaxaca. He is currently finishing a book manuscript based on this work, which examines life histories of sacred architecture, how meanings surrounding ruins have endured and been reimagined over millennia, and how these ruins and meanings impinge upon contemporary understandings of community and heritage.

Dr Jiemin is teaching fellow at the History of Art department, University of Edinburgh. With a background in the art and archaeology of the Silk Road, she is interest in ancient China’s interaction with its steppe neighbours, and how foreign elements were appropriated and became integral to the Chinese material and visual culture. Her doctoral research explores the role of portable luxury goods, such as precious metals and silk textile, in diplomatic exchange along the Silk Road from the 6th to the 9th century. After her study, Jiemin helped create the exhibition Cultural Exchange Along the Silk Road: The Royal Court of the Tibetan Empire (2019) at the ancient Silk Road town of Dunhuang.

When the Spanish conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo was received by the Aztec ruler Moctezuma in what is now Mexico City, he was presented as gifts some green stones known to Indigenous peoples as chalchihuites. One could imagine his dissatisfaction with these small stones until the Aztec pointed out to him that each piece was worth two loads of gold. A similar encounter took place between the Chinese and the British in the 18th century: a jade sceptre (ruyi), presented to the Macartney embassy in the emperor’s own hand, fetched a mere £13 13s in the great auction after Queen Charlotte’s death. In both ancient China and Mesoamerica, jade surpassed even gold and other precious metals as the most sumptuous and prized of material in these societies. By analysing how jade functioned in these disparate cultures, we use green stones to reconsider what we presume to be ‘precious’ or ‘valuable’ in a global-historical perspective.