Labrets or lip plugs (bezotes in Spanish) were decorations worn through a hole pierced in the lower lip. They have an uneven distribution in the ancient Americas and appear sporadically in such places as coastal Alaska, the Northwest Coast, and at various other points along the Pacific Coast. They also appeared in Central Mexico, where they became one of the defining culture traits of Mesoamerica.
Lip plugs were popular among the elites of the Central Highlands in the Postclassic period, and they were among the most basic pieces of jewelry. They are mentioned in Sahagún’s encyclopedic 12-volume General History of the Things of New Spain as part of a set of essential types of adornment.
Many known lip plugs include an animal in their design. The Dumbarton Oaks lip plug has been identified as an eagle by Lothrop, but Nicholson notes that the knobbed crest on the top of the head is also found on other birds, whereas the supraorbital ridge is characteristic of reptiles, as are the depictions of the fangs and the treatment of the mouth. We may also note that teeth, as shown, are not found in birds. Nicholson suggests that the head is of a composite creature.
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. 28, cat. 136.
Bliss, Robert Woods 1947 Indigenous Art of the Americas: Collection of Robert Woods Bliss. National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian institution, Washington, D.C., p. 19, 90, cat. 89.
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. 244, cat. 67, pl. L.
Lavender, David Sievert 1992 De Soto, Coronado, Cabrillo: Explorers of the Northern Mystery. Handbook; 144. Division of Publications National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C., p. 28.
Nicholson, H. B. and Eloise Quiñones Keber 1983 Art of Aztec Mexico: Treasures of Tenochtitlan. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., p. 154, cat. 68.
Solís Olguín, Felipe R. and Martha Carmona Macías 1995 El Oro Precolombino De México: Colecciones Mixteca Y Azteca. Américo Arte Editores, México.
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, April 1947 to July 1949 and November 1952 to July 1962.
"Art of Aztec Mexico: Treasures of Tenochtitlan", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 9/28/1983 - 4/1/1984.
"Lasting Impressions: Body Art in the Ancient Americas" , Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 10/1/2011 - 3/4/2012.
Purchased from Charles L. Morley, New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1947.
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1947-1962.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.