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Head of Figurine

Olmec, Middle Preclassic
900 BCE - 300 BCE
7.8 x 4.4 x 3.5 cm (3 1/16 x 1 3/4 x 1 3/8 in.)

Not on view


Along with fashioning small statuettes, the Olmec also carved fairly large standing figures of jadeite and serpentine. This bust seems to have been originally part of such a sculpture. Although bust-like wooden sculptures were discovered at the site of El Manatí, the shoulder and upper chest area of this figure were cut. Although the exterior surface has been whitened by oxidation during its long burial, the interior of the cut area retains the original dark green of serpentine, indicating that the cutting was done after exhumation. The relatively common occurrence of greenstone busts as opposed to headless bodies reflects patterns of stone reuse. In reworking large jade and serpentine sculptures, nondescript limbs and trunks were probably recarved into smaller objects, while heads may have been frequently preserved for their beauty and quality of carving.

This serpentine bust displays many characteristics of Middle Formative Olmec carving, including the widespread use of drills. The earlobes and nasal septum are biconically pierced by drilling. The corners of the downcurving mouth and the eye orbits were also carved by drills. Within the center of the eye orbits, there is a balanced pair of deeper pupil-like pits, indicating that the figure probably never had eye inlays. The strongly modified cranium of the figure exhibits the same form commonly seen among serpentine and jadeite statuettes at La Venta. As has been previously noted in regard to another object in the collection (PC.B.006), the cranium is elongated and tubular and is considerably narrower than the face below, giving the head a pear-like shape. For the Middle Formative Olmec, this cranial form appears to be largely restricted to males. Female figures are typically depicted with long hair and lack extensive cranial elongation. Moreover, the La Venta jadeite and serpentine statuettes displaying this form of cranium commonly have loincloths, a clear indicator of male gender. Although the lower body of the serpentine sculpture is now missing, the cranial modification suggests that the figure probably was male.

Benson, Elizabeth P. 1969 Supplement to the Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D. C., cat. 427.

González Calderón, O. L. 1991 The Jade Lords. O.L. González Calderón, Coatzacoalcos, Ver., pl. 335.

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. 73-4, pl. 9.

Exhibition History
"Lasting Impressions: Body Art in the Ancient Americas" , Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 10/1/2011 - 3/4/2012.

Acquisition History
Purchased from John A. Stokes Jr., New York (dealer), by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, 1962.

Gift to Dumbarton Oaks by Mrs. Mildred Bliss, 1963.

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

Anthropomorphic | Olmecs