Like other objects in the colletion, this statuette has received little academic interest or recognition because it was too early for its time. When it was purchased by Bliss, little was known about Late Preclassic sculpture. Although clearly not Olmec, the statuette does not reflect canons of Classic Maya art. With its odd proportions, including thick limbs and oversized ears, the work could almost seem like a caricature of Classic-period sculpture. However, this dissonance from Classic Maya art is not because it is from another culture or a recent forgery but rather because it is a rare example of Preclassic Maya carving in hard and precious stone.
The statuette is carved from jadeite. The finest and less mottled stone is in the region of the chest and face, which is dark green. The proportions of the figure strongly suggest that it was carved from a petaloid celt, with the thicker end at the feet and the flaring blade in the region of the shoulders and head. The carving of human figures from greenstone celts is a well-known tradition for the Middle Formative Olmec. Carving figures from celts probably had major symbolic significance. For the Middle Formative Olmec and Classic Maya, jade celts concern the symbolism of maize, especially the verdant ear surrounded by its green husk. However, another basic symbolic meaning of celts and hafted axes is lightning—axes are one of the more common weapons wielded by lightning gods, including Chahk and Tlaloc.
As with most Mesoamerican lapidary pieces, the Dumbarton Oaks statuette was carved—or, more accurately, ground—through four processes. They generally proceeded from sawing to broad surface grinding, secondary carving for the head and limbs, and solid core drilling of various bore widths. One of the most visually aberrant aspects of this statuette is the legs, which appear disproportionately long but also have a broad space below the loins on the frontal side. Rather than a loincloth, this area is probably intended to portray negative space, as the upper portion is bordered by male genitalia projecting over this region. This arrangement may well reflect a problem faced by the artist, as carving this space would require an exponentially greater amount of labor to cut through the thick mass. Traces of the two ground channels delineating the legs can be discerned on upper points of the hands, indicating not only the considerable effort spent but also the conscious decision by the artist to stop further carving. Clearly, the unusual orientation of this figure, in terms of most known celt-derived statuettes, created many obstacles, and some were more successfully surmounted than others.
Even before the deep vertical lines were carved into the lower front, the entire piece was shaped by grinding, possibly on a boulder with rough granules, such as sandstone. Along with the legs, more detailed grinding with a slab of rough stone or grit-embedded wood delineated the belt, arms, neck, ears, and face. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the belt only extends to the sides of the figure, with the back entirely plain aside from a very small vertical cut at the base, probably an initial guide for carving to delineate the back of the legs. The top of the head and neck area are framed by two roughly parallel cuts that angle inward toward the right cheek of the figure, creating a basic and virtually irresolvable problem concerning the symmetry of the head and face.
Drilling also formed an important part of the process, as the definition of the inner edge of the upper portion of the ears attest. Remains of a drill hole can be discerned on the edge of the left ear. As with Olmec lapidary works, solid core drills delineated the corners of the mouth, which were then connected by grinding a horizontal channel. These holes also guided the carving of the sides of the lips and nose to the inner corners of the eye, a known technique of Olmec jade carving. The eye orbits were created from multiple conjoining drill holes rather than cut from a single, large bit. Because of the aforementioned asymmetry created by the initial carving of the face, the holes for the eye orbits and the corners of mouth do not match, with the mouth and eye on the left side of the face further apart than their counterparts on the right. In other words, although this piece is based on Olmec methods, certain basic points of correct orientation were not well observed when the design was first outlined. In contrast to the eye orbits, much smaller bore drills delineated the nostrils, and, in contrast to Olmec conventions, they are very shallow and do not join to pierce the septum. Another shallow hole can be observed in the lower left torso area between the biceps and forearm; this mark is probably the remains of a pair of holes to guide the depth and direction of carving for the arms. Pairs of biconically drilled holes pierce the tops of the ears, and although these may have been used for suspension, this is not the case for the drilled pair of holes at the top of the head, which could accommodate only very fine thread. Although this piece may have hung as a pectoral or from the back of a belt, the base is entirely flat, allowing it to readily stand.
The bent, powerfully thick arms turn into the central axis of the body, the hands almost touching in the belly region. Finer incision delineated the nostrils and the brows, which are trilobate in shape, a common trait of Chahk and other deities during the Late Preclassic period. The brow incision is very light and scratchy, recalling both Olmec carving as well as other Late Preclassic examples in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, including the elaborate scene and text incised on the back of an Olmec plaque.
This statuette may be a Late Preclassic rendering of Chahk: along with the thick muzzle, snarling face, and finely incised trilobate brows, the figure displays the horn or cranial fin commonly found on early depictions of the Maya god of rain and lightning. Although the facial features are somewhat muddled by the asymmetry, when the left side of the head is reduplicated and reversed to form its right side counterpart, the face strongly resembles that of Chahk. In addition, the large earlike elements are probably versions of the Spondylus earpieces commonly found with Classic Maya examples of Chahk. During the Late Preclassic and Early Classic periods, these shell earpieces turn sharply upward into points at the upper edges, quite like the ear elements of the Dumbarton Oaks statuette. Carved from a jade celt, this fig¬ure is a compact symbol of the powers of rain and lightning.
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. 6, cat. 24.
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. 168-173, pl. 15, fig. 95.
Formerly in the Dehesa Collection, Mexico.
Acquired by Robert Woods Bliss before 1960.
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1960-1962.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.