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Pendant with Skull Motif

Maya, Preclassic, general
200 BCE - 300 CE
10.16 cm x 4.45 cm x 4.13 cm (4 in. x 1 3/4 in. x 1 5/8 in.)

Not on view


Tubular beads with skeletal imagery have been recovered at lowland Maya sites, including Salinas de los Nueve Cerros, Río Azul, and Chichen Itza. A comparison with artistic represen¬tations on Preclassic and Classic sculptures suggests this object was probably used as a chest pendant. The image of the human skull that wraps around the tube has the eyes and nose rendered with paired drill holes that run through the wall. The corners of the mouth are also marked by single drill holes. While these perforations are well inte¬grated with the design, three additional holes on either side of the tube served truly func¬tional purposes: they were probably used to attach additional elements to the tube with pins or strings.
The carved areas are well smoothed and rounded, and the surface is highly polished. The rounded quality of the carving suggests an early date for the work, no later than the Early Classic period and probably even earlier.
How was this tube employed? While the object might have been used in multiple ways, sculptural representations show similar works worn horizontally as pectorals, often comple¬mented with additional beads. Yet another pos¬sible use appears on Tikal Stela 31, in which a skull-shaped bead pierced by a thick, twisted rope hangs from the king’s headdress, passing in front of his earspool.

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. 433.

Dillon, Brian D. and Wes Christensen 2005 The Maya Jade Skull Bead: 700 Years as a Military Insignia? In Archaeology without Limits, Brian D. Dillon and Matthew A. Boxt, eds., pp. 369-385. Labyrinthos, Lancaster, CA. p. 376-377, fig. 5c.

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. 192-195, pl. 21, fig. 105.

Exhibition History
"All Sides Considered: New Research on the Maya Collection:, Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, 9/8/12 - 6/2/13.

Acquisition History
Purchased from John A. Stokes Jr., New York (dealer), by Dumbarton Oaks, 1965.

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