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Olmec, Middle Preclassic
900 BCE - 300 BCE
8.26 cm x 6.99 cm x 5.08 cm (3 1/4 in. x 2 3/4 in. x 2 in.)

Not on view


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Formerly in the private collection of Eva Hannstein in Panajachel, this small mask was reportedly found in the region of Nebaj, Guatemala. It is of dark green serpentine containing red flecks, probably caused by the oxidation of flawed areas. Remains of red pigment adhere in the drill holes, as well as in areas of the mouth and the upper portion of the hollowed back. This pigment is also present in the nicks on the back left side of the mask, revealing that this damage occurred before the object was stained. For suspension, the mask contains three biconically drilled holes, one at the top of the head and two through the back rim in the region of the ears. Drills also delineated the nostrils and the corners of the mouth. Although the drill holes at the corners of the mouth correspond to Olmec carving techniques and conventions, the eyes are not typical of Olmec stone carving. As in the case of the mouth, drill holes usually mark the corners of the eyes. Although the remains of drill holes can be discerned within the eye orbits of the mask, they are in the interior of the eyes, not at the corners. Following the initial drilling, the eyes were carved beyond the pairs of holes by a back and forth sawing motion. Thus, rather than having naturalistic contours, the eyes are schematic, linear grooves. Although this style of eye is not common to Olmec lapidary carving, it does appear on a fragmentary Olmec-style jade maskette reportedly found in Costa Rica. In addition to the schematic eyes, the incision marking the facial features is also unusual for Olmec fine stone carving. Both the upper lip and the exterior of the nostrils are carved by rather crude and unsteady lines. In the case of the nostrils, the incision reaches almost to the tip of the nose. There is also an incised horizontal line behind the right ear. However, in contrast to the nose and mouth, the front of the ears are schematic and tabular, with no marks of drilling or incision. When viewed face on, the mask is especially wide in the lower cheeks. Whereas the truncated top of the head has a width of some 5 centimeters, the cheeks swell to a width of 6.5 centimeters, giving the face an avocado or pear-like form. Although particularly striking in the case of this mask, Olmec figures frequently have lower cheeks that are broader than the cranium. In contrast to the frontal view, the mask profile strongly resembles Classic Maya proportions, with a long, curving nose and a soft recessed chin. In this regard, the Guatemalan attribution is noteworthy. Although possessing strong Olmec traits, it is quite likely that these small masks were carved in Guatemala, quite probably at the end of the Middle Formative or beginning of the Late Formative periods.

Benson, Elizabeth P. 1963 Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., p. 30, cat. 148.

Taube, Karl A. 2004 Olmec Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks; No. 2. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 151-2, pl. 31.

Exhibition History
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, October 1960 to April 1962.

Acquisition History
Formerly in the collection of Eva Hannstein, Panajachel, Guatemala

Acquired through Samuel K. Lothrop, 1960.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1960-1962.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.

Anthropomorphic | Masks | Olmecs