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Pair of Carved Ornaments

Maya, Early Classic
500-600 CE

Not on view


A set of two matching human head profiles exemplifies the skill of Classic Maya shell carvers. These exquisite and delicate objects were probably cut from juvenile true conch (Strombus sp.) shells using a combination of tools and techniques. The outer side of the shell was carved, while the inner side was only smoothed and polished. Both shell pieces are slightly curved and feature two drilled holes for mounting or suspension. There are depressions for inlays in the shape of earspools at the base of the ears. The carved surface of one of the ornaments is noticeably more damaged, possibly due to exposure to the acids of a decomposing body.

The pair belongs to a broad class of objects called ornaments or adornos, which were mounted on the elaborate costumes of Classic Maya nobility. The material culture of dress is notoriously hard to understand because garments were largely perishable. The only clues to this culture are provided by the position of surviving pieces in relation to human remains in burials and by carved and painted images of Maya lords. The situation is complicated by the fact that the archaeological contexts of the discovery of many exceptional pieces have been lost because of looting.

The Dumbarton Oaks adornos are mirror images of the profile head of a young male with prominent teeth, an elongated cranium, and tonsured hair that ends in a tassel decorated with beads. A flower ornament with a long tassel is tied to his forehead. He wears earspools and additional earflare assemblages behind his ears. There can be no doubt that this is the head of the Classic Maya maize god. His eyes are closed, so he is most likely dead. The life cycle of maize was at the heart of Classic Maya religion, and Maya lords embodied the maize god in life and in death.

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. 438.

Goldstein, Marilyn M. and Lourdes Suáres Diez 1997 Conchas Precolombianas: Mesoamerican Art Created from Seashells. Hillwood Art Museum, Long Island University, C.W. Post Campus, New York. p. 74, fig. 148

Pillsbury, Joanne, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito and Alexandre Tokovinine (EDS.) 2012 Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 440-443, pl. 81, fig. 251, 253.

Exhibition History
"Conchas Precolombianas: Mesoamerican Art Created From Seashells", Hillwood Art Museum, Long Island University, Brookville, NY, 11/5 - 12/24/1997.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Alphonse Jax, New York (dealer), by Dumbarton Oaks, 1969.

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

Anthropomorphic | Heads | Mayas