Skip to Content
Showing 1 of 1

Standing Figure

Olmec, Middle Preclassic
900 BCE - 300 BCE
11.11 cm x 4.76 cm x 1.91 cm (4 3/8 in. x 1 7/8 in. x 3/4 in.)

Not on view


Additional Images
Click an image to view a larger version

Fashioned from a dark, almost black serpentine, this statuette is pierced through the ears and the crooks of both arms, with the lower and larger holes providing a ready means of suspension. The broad line cuts delineating the bent arms, eyes, and other portions of the sculpture create a rather hard and angular quality, despite the fact that it is carved from a relatively soft material. Whereas the deep diagonal lines marking the front of the arms appear to have been carved by a back and forth saw-like motion, the backs of the arms were hollowed by solid core drills, with the remains of drill pits obvious in the interior crooks of both arms. Fine line incision delineates the fingers, toes, and details of the two held objects. Re-mains of red hematite staining adhere to areas of the face and arms, as well as in regions of broad and fineline incision.

The two objects carried by the figure constitute a well-known pairing in Olmec iconography. Whereas the vertical cylindrical element tends to be referred to as a torch, the curving device covering the back of the hand is commonly called a "knuckle-duster". Although common in Middle Formative art, the pairing of these objects occurs also at Early Formative San Lorenzo. While well-documented for Middle Formative portable objects, the pairing of these motifs is relatively rare on contemporaneous monumental carving.

Karl Taube has argued that the torch motif is actually a wrapped feather bundle, an important item of commerce and tribute from the Formative period to the sixteenth century. In ancient Mesoamerica, precious feathers were frequently handled in bundles with bound cloth, paper, or basketry enclosing the lower portion of the plumes. Such wrapping not only held the feathers together, but also served as a means by which to handle the delicate and easily soiled plumes. The knuckle-duster also has been interpreted in a number of ways: as a weapon, ball game equipment, and bloodletter. In outline, knuckle-dusters do somewhat resemble Formative stone yuguitos. However, in many representations the knuckle-duster clearly has a cylindrical handle across the hollow U-shaped interior, an element entirely lacking from yuguitos, which appear to have been lashed rather than grasped. In addition, the knuckle-duster is typically marked with a serrated wavelike device that David Grove identifies as a shell motif suggesting that the knuckle-duster is formed from a large conch shell, quite probably the milk conch, or Strombus costatus. In this case, the rod-like handle derives from the central spire of the shell. Fashioned from white marine shell, the Olmec knuckle-duster may be an emblem of clouds and water, an appropriate companion to the feathered maize ear fetish.

Along with the "torch" maize ear fetish, the knuckle-duster was probably also a symbol of agricultural fertility.

The pair of objects grasped by Dumbarton Oaks statuette appear to be ritual items concerning the generation of rain and agricultural abundance and wealth. By wielding these objects, the figure may be portrayed as the controller and provider of rain and agricultural abundance.

Angulo V., Jorge 1994 Observaciones Sobre Su Pensamiento Cosmogónico Y La Organización Sociopolítica. In Los Olmecas in Mesoamérica, John Clark, ed., pp. 223-237. El Equilibrista, México, D.F., fig. 14.4.

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. 7, cat. 27.

Benson, Elizabeth P. 1971 An Olmec Figure at Dumbarton Oaks. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art & Archaeology ; No. 8. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C. vol. 8, p. 19-20, fig. 26.

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. 233, cat. 5, pl. I.

Cervantes, María Antonieta 1969 Dos Elementos De Uso Ritual En El Arte Olmeca. Anales del Instituto Nacional de Antropología 7a (I):37-51. fig. 4.

Coe, Michael D. 1965 The Olmec Style and Its Distributions. In Handbook of Middle American Indians; Vols. 2-3: Archaeology of Southern Mesoamerica, Gordon Randolph Willey, ed. University of Texas Press, Austin. p. 743, fig. 8.

González Calderón, O. L. 1991 The Jade Lords. O.L. González Calderón, Coatzacoalcos, Ver., pl. 425.

Joralemon, Peter David 1971 A Study of Olmec Iconography. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art & Archaeology, No. 7. Dumbarton Oaks Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., cat. 7, fig. 20.

Joyce, Rosemary, Richard Edging, Karl Lorenz and Susan D. Gillespie 1991 Olmec Bloodletting: An Iconographic Study. In Sixth Palenque Round Table, 1986, Merle Greene Robertson and Virginia Fields, eds., pp. 143-150. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. fig. 7.

Miller Graham, Mark 1998 The Iconography of Rulership in Ancient West Mexico. In Ancient West Mexico: Art and Archaeology of the Unknown Past, Richard F. Townsend, ed., pp. 191-203. 1st ed. Thames and Hudson; Art Institute of Chicago, New York, Chicago. p. 200, fig. 14.

Niederberger, Christine 1987 Paléopaysages Et Archéologie Pré-Urbaine Du Bassin De México (Mexique). 1re éd. ed. Etudes Mésoaméricaines, V. 11. Centre d'études mexicaines et centraméricaines, México. fig. 101, 613-1.

Schele, Linda 1995 The Olmec Mountain and Tree of Creation in Mesoamerican Cosmology. In The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership, pp. 105-117. The Art Musuem, Princeton University Princeton, N.J., fig. 6b.

Soustelle, Jacques 1979 Les Olmèques : La Plus Ancienne Civilisation Du Mexique. Arthaud, Paris. pl. 59.

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. 79-85, pl. 12.

Exhibition History
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washignton DC, May 1948 to July 1949, November 1952 to July 1962.

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

Acquisition History
Acquired by Robert Bliss before 1957.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1957-1962.

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

Anthropomorphic | Olmecs