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Fan Handle

1300-1520 CE
2.54 cm x 14.61 cm x 2.22 cm (1 in. x 5 3/4 in. x 7/8 in.)

Not on view


The head of a serpent is rendered on the proximal end of this handle for a composite object; the distal portion is hollow to allow the hafting of a now-lost attachment. The handle is tubular, but the serpent’s head is quadrilateral. Its eyes are marked by perforations 5 mm deep, probably for inlays, but no traces of the bonding material remain. The snake’s maw is hollowed, rendering its jaws open and menacing. No manufacturing marks are visible, but the hollowing of the mouth must have been accomplished by drilling. The frontal view of the serpent reveals three teeth, and a protruding bifid tongue, slightly embossed, wraps over the posterior surface of the object.

The handle’s distal end is hollow, accomplished by a perforation 1.22 cm deep into the object’s longitudinal axis. In the interior of this perforation are marks typical of a hollow drill bit, including a clearly defined ring at the bottom and striations perpendicular to the longitudinal axis, caused by an abrasive medium and the rotation of the drill. There is no wear indicative of hafting. A small portion of the distal end, on the left side, is now broken and missing.

Adhered to one side of the handle, just behind the serpent’s head, is a tiny piece of a thin gilded sheet, a fragment that must be part of the material that made up the missing part once hafted into the handle. The manner in which the gilded upper part of the object was hafted to the handle remains unknown, but small holes on the distal end must have facilitated its fastening. This type of composite object may be similar to one called the coxoliecaceoaztli (crested guan feather fan covered with troupial feathers at the bottom), one of the most prestigious insignia bestowed on professional Aztec merchants who were successful in military campaigns while trading. Among Mixtec-speaking peoples, feathered fans marking high rank were referred to as huichi.

An early twentieth-century description of an heirloom fan or whisk suggests that the hafted piece consisted of a wooden arched plaque on which up to five rows of feathers of increasing size were inserted. Each row contained 18 feathers and was a different color, including—from the handle to the tip of the object—red, blue, red, green, and yellow feathers. Following Sahagún’s informants’ description of the coxoliecaceoaztli, Caso also suggested that the opening in the serpent’s jaw in some of the known examples was used to suspend additional feathers.

Fans and whisks were important insignia in Mesoamerica since very ancient times, although not necessarily or exclusively related to long-distance merchants. Despite the differential preservation of the two main parts of this type of object, at least 10 examples of serpent-headed handles in jade, jadeite, and cast gold with false filigree are known. Hollow tubular objects without serpent heads on one end but with small perforations on the other may have also been handles of fans or whisks that signaled high social rank. Examples manufactured in various materials are known. Some are stone, either plain or spirally grooved (see PC.B.136); others are elaborately incised or carved animal bone. The majority of known handles—with or without serpent heads—date to the later part of the pre-Hispanic sequence (ad 1300–1520).

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. 25, cat. 121.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, July 1961.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1961-1962.

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