Archaeologist tells story of lost jade mines

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 19, 1999

The lost jade mines of Guatemala. No, it’s not a working title for the latest Indiana Jones sequel. It’s the real life story of local anthropologist and archaeologist Mary Lou Ridinger.

A resident of both Sligo Plantation in Adams County and Antigua, Guatemala, Ridinger will be featured on the series Discover Magazine on The Discovery Channel Nov. 5 at 8 p.m. central standard time. She will tell the tale of how she and husband Jay Ridinger found three separate sources of jade in the Motagua River Valley of Guatemala and established jade quarries there.

The story starts with a family history of daring individuals.

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Great granddaughter of the strong-willed Judge George W. Armstrong for whom the Natchez Public Library is named, Ridinger spent her formative years in Mexico, Texas, Spain and Switzerland. It was in Mexico that Ridinger developed her love of the Mexican people and culture during long horseback rides to ancient ruins.

“We have deep roots in Mexico,” Ridinger said. Her mother, Betty Jane Thompson Kempe, operated a hotel and guest house in Mexico for 20 years.

After completing her undergraduate degree in Latin American Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Ridinger went on to earn her master’s degree in anthropology and archaeology from the University of the Americas in Mexico.

“After college, I worked for the Mexican government on various field projects,” Ridinger said. During this time, she lived in San Miguel Allende, Mexico and developed a reputation as a respected archaeologist.

Then a friend named Jay Ridinger started talking to her about lost jade mines. He invited her to Guatemala to check out his theory.

“He kept talking about this lost Maya source of jade,” she said. “I didn’t believe him.”

But, he had quite a bit of research to back his theory. After reading his documentation, she decided he was onto something.

“He was right and I was wrong,” she said. “He convinced me.”

All the necessary pieces for their search came together when they met another archaeologist from the University of Pennsylvania who showed them a field test for jade, which would allow them to test any samples they might find right in the field – greatly speeding their hunt.

With their research, their field tests and the determination to put them to use, Mary Lou and Jay Ridinger began their search.

In 1975, the Ridingers found their first jade outcropping. Surface artifacts showed that Maya had found and worked jade from that area. What was astounding to Ridinger is that the jade they’d found in Guatemala was actually jadeite – the rarer and more valuable form of jade.

Ridinger founded a company called Jades, S.A. in Antigua, Guatemala to work the new jade being quarried in the Motagua River Valley.

The Ridingers found two other quarries in the valley.

In 1987, the Ridingers found a quarry with no light colored jade. It was a darker green and black jade with metallic inclusions, or metal deposits in the jade itself. They found the inclusions to contain Pyrite, an iron compound as well as traces of gold, silver, platinum.

In 1998, the Ridingers found their most unusual surprise yet – lavender.

“Quarry three was a total surprise,” she said. “The Maya hadn’t worked it. There were no artifacts on the surface of this one.”

Two of the three quarry sites are believed to have been mined by the Maya Indians during the pre-Columbian period, 150 B.C. to 1400 A.D.

It is from these Maya artifacts that many of the designs for Jades, S.A. is conceived.

“One of the most wonderful things about jade is that is meant to be touched,” Ridinger said. “the more you wear it, the prettier it gets.”

Ridinger’s company actually produces between 10,000 and 15,000 designs that are Maya.

During her interview for The Discovery Channel, Ridinger also discussed in some detail the process of cutting jade. An extremely dense material, jade is very heavy and only a harder substance can cut it.

While diamond saws are used at Jades, S.A. in Antigua, the ancient Maya had to use more primitive means to carve their masks, figures and jewelry.

Taking garnet dust from the Motagua River, they bound it to a cutting tool with animal fat or some other compound to make the cuts into the jade.

At Ridinger’s present day quarries and factory in Antigua, many of the workers are of Maya origin and continue to rework the modern jade into traditional Maya designs.