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Bead of a Crocodile

Maya, Early Classic
200-650/750 CE
1.59 cm x 4.45 cm x 0.95 cm (5/8 in. x 1 3/4 in. x 3/8 in.)

Not on view


Carved from a mottled piece of jadeite, this crocodile ornament clearly exhibits traits of Early Classic lapidary arts. As with many Early Classic Maya jades, the carving is deep and rounded. The artist obviously wanted to maximize the intense green vein running through the stone, which is fully exposed on the frontal, sculpted side; in order to do this, considerable amounts of jade were removed, creating a rather irregular and undulating surface—another common characteristic of Early Classic jade carving. This deeply carved surface is in marked contrast to the back side of the piece, where the uniformly gray-colored jade was simply smoothed and rounded. Drilled through the long axis, the pendant may have been worn horizontally, with the belly of the creature oriented downward.

The snout of the creature is sharply upturned, a common trait of serpents and crocodiles in Classic Maya art. In addition, the limbs are tightly flexed, with the knees almost touching below the belly; this position also recalls many Classic Maya portrayals of crocodiles. Another important detail is the low ridge of bumps extending along the back of the creature. In ancient Maya art, both crocodiles and iguanas display such body crests. They probably allude to a crocodile’s scutes or to the prominent crest of spines that runs from the nape of the neck to the tail of the large, central Mexican Black Spiny-tailed Iguana. Although the natural characteristics of iguanas and crocodiles are quite distinct, they overlap considerably in ancient Maya conceptions of the saurian earth monster. Despite being a diminutive carving, this Dumbarton Oaks pendant clearly relates to some of the greatest and most powerful cosmological creatures of ancient Mesoamerica.

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. 251, cat. 116-O, pl. LXVII.

Bliss, Robert Woods 1959 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. 2nd ed. Text and Critical Analyses by S. K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler and William F. Foshag. Phaidon, London. p. 259, cat. 116-O, pl. LXVII.

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. 224-227, pl. 32, fig. 128.

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

Acquisition History
Purchased from Robert Stolper, New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1956.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1956-1962.

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

Animals | Bead | Mayas | Reptile