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Fragmentary Figure

Olmec, Middle Preclassic
900 BCE - 300 BCE
5.08 cm x 3.18 cm x 1.91 cm (2 in. x 1 1/4 in. x 3/4 in.)

Not on view


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This figure is carved in angular fashion from a dark, virtually black serpentine. The hands are highly schematic, paddle-like forms with no delineation of the fingers. In contrast to the abstract treatment of the arms and torso, considerable attention was paid to the carving of the face, which suggests the portrait of a specific individual. The highly expressive face displays slit, virtually shut eyes and a full and relaxed mouth, qualities suggestive of powerful inward reflection, such as from trance or meditation. The long, straight hair was carefully incised down the back of the head to the nape of the neck. A pair of shallow, drilled pits delineates ear spools. In contrast to many Olmec stone statuettes, the holes do not penetrate through the earlobes.

The figure is probably from a statuette broken at the waist. A drilled hole within the now smoothly finished base may have secured the bust to a staff or other object. It is also possible that this hole originally held a pin that connected to a similar hole in the now missing lower half of the sculpture; in other words, the two halves of the broken sculpture may have been rejoined with an interior pin.

Despite the fact that there is no clear delineation of breasts, the coiffure of this figure suggests it portrays a female. Although longhair also can be found on Olmec portrayals of men, this particular hairstyle features bangs and hairs spreading out from a central point at the top of the head, rather than from a part. In addition, the unparted hair is rendered as incised lines radiating from the crown. Although probably portraying a female, it is difficult to determine whether she is an historical individual, an idealized ancestor, or a goddess.

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. 21.

González Calderón, O. L. 1991 The Jade Lords. O.L. González Calderón, Coatzacoalcos, Ver., pl. 420.

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. 86-7, pl. 13.

Exhibition History
"Lasting Impressions: Body Art in the Ancient Americas" , Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 10/1/2011 - 3/4/2012.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Robert Stolper, New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1960.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1960-1962.

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

Anthropomorphic | Olmecs