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Duck-Billed Pendant

Olmec, Middle Preclassic
900 BCE - 300 BCE
8.26 cm x 3.49 cm x 1.59 cm (3 1/4 in. x 1 3/8 in. x 5/8 in.)

On view


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Fashioned from translucent, mottled blue-green jade, this finely worked pendant portrays an otherwise human head supplied with a massive duck bill. Although the face appears to have considerable depth, it is actually quite shallow, being cut from the same planar surface as the broad bill. Both the septum and earlobes are pierced, and it is possible that small pendants once hung from the ear holes. Rather than being an obvious mask, the duck bill curves organically with the contours of the lower cheeks, and connects directly to the nasal septum. The bill is incised with bold and fluid lines, with the vertical crescent elements representing nostrils. The curling form at the top of the piece, probably braided hair, is considerably thicker than the face and bill. A laterally drilled hole passing through the sides of this section provides the means of suspension. Complex in form, the coiffure, or headdress, is slightly cleft in the lower center, mirroring the curving edge and pointed center of the beak below. The cleft lies upon a central area marked with inverted V-shaped incisions, evidently denoting braiding. At the back of the head, this element ends with a straight rather than cleft edge. Similarly marked elements curl at the sides of this central section, effectively spiraling around the laterally drilled suspension hole.

Precious stone pendants with broad duck bills were notably popular and widespread in ancient Mesoamerica. This may derive partly from the broad and thin bill form, which allows light to readily passthrough translucent stone. These duck-head jewels typically appear as the central pendant on a necklace formed of large beads.

Rather than simply representing a duck, this object depicts a human face with a duck bill which allows it to been compared to the famous Tuxtla Statuette, which portrays a bald-headed man with a duck body and bill. As among later peoples of ancient Mesoamerica, the Olmec identified the duck with rain, water, and fructifying powers of agricultural fertility.

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. 7-8, cat. 33.

Benson, Elizabeth P. and Beatriz de la Fuente (EDS.) 1996 Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., p. 130, fig. 11.

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. 3, pl.I

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. 751, fig. 25.

Kelemen, Pál 1943 Medieval American Art, a Survey in Two Volumes. Macmillan, New York. p. 291, pl. 237c.

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. 169-73, pl. 36


Koontz, Rex 2009 Social Identity and Cosmology at El Tajin. In The Art of Urbanism: How Mesoamerican Cities Represented Themselves in Architecture and Imagery, William L. Fash and Leonardo Lopez Lujan, eds. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.

Exhibition History
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washignton DC, Novemner 1952 to July 1962.

Acquisition History
Formerly in the collection William Spratling

Purchased from William Spratling by Joseph Brummer , New York (dealer), Oct 3, 1936.

Purchased from Joseph Brummer , New York (dealer), by Vladimir G. Simkhovitch, New York (dealer), June 23 1947.

Purchased from Vladimir G. Simkhovitch, New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1948.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1948-1962.

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

Anthropomorphic | Duck | Olmecs