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Effigy Spear-Thrower

Olmec, Middle Preclassic
900 BCE - 300 BCE
33.02 cm x 2.22 cm x 2.22 cm (13 in. x 7/8 in. x 7/8 in.)

On view


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This object, along with another in the collection (PC.B.033), are the only known Mesoamerican examples of spear-thrower effigies fashioned from greenstone. In view of the quality of the jade, form, and workmanship, this example is almost surely Olmec. The color of the jade is bluish green, mottled with white flecks, a type relatively common to fine Olmec jades. As is typical of fine Olmec jadework, the carving is also extremely regular, subtle, and controlled. The handle region is only suggested by a pair of indentations cut into the sides near the butt end. It is quite possible that finger loops were originally attached to this portion. The hooked working end of the atl-atl is also slightly indented on both the front and back sides, creating a narrow, necklike feature in profile. A small, biconically drilled hole pierces the sides of the atl-atl slightly below the constricted neck region. Rather than being a working element of a spear-thrower, this hole probably served for suspension. Although the entire instrument is finely smoothed, only the tip of the handle exhibits high surface polish. Given its relatively small size, it is unlikely that the jadeite item was ever used as a spear-thrower. Instead, it was probably intended as an effigy copy of an atl-atl, perhaps as an insignia of rank or as a votive offering.

Although the spear-thrower is generally associated with the highland cultures of Classic and Postclassic Mesoamerica, this object, is one of the few indications that the Formative Olmec used such a weapon.

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. 31, cat. 154.

Bliss, Robert Woods 1957 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. Text and Critical Analyses by S. K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler and William F. Foshag. Phaidon, New York. p. 235, cat. 17a, pl. IX.

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. 136-8, pl. 25.

Exhibition History
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, January 1956 to July 1962.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, October 25, 1955.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1955-1962.

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

Olmecs | Ritual