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Ear Spool

Mixtec-Aztec, Postclassic, general
900-1520 CE
0.95 cm x 3.81 cm (3/8 in. x 1 1/2 in.)
Obsidian with gold

Not on view


Ear spool PC.B.088 is made of light-gray obsidian. Obsidian was one of the most important commodities circulating in the Postclassic economy, so essential that it was one of the limited set of resources that crossed political borders. It was critical as a raw material for cutting tools and thus for the manufacture of most other tools, as well as for the manufacture of goods. Its use as the material for ear spools renders this beautiful but utilitarian volcanic glass into a form of adornment for the working classes: merchants carried many expensive elite goods; they also carried obsidian ear plugs to be “used by the common folk” (Sahagún 1959 [1569]: 8).

The gold disk that covers the aperture of the ear spool was recently attached, having been removed from another ear ornament. Although our knowledge of Postclassic sumptuary laws and types of rewards for achievement in various lines of endeavor is incomplete, this composite piece seems anomalous, because it combines the material of commoner ear spools—obsidian—with gold, which was reserved for the elites.

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. 118.

Bliss, Robert Woods 1947 Indigenous Art of the Americas: Collection of Robert Woods Bliss. National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian institution, Washington, D.C., p. 24, cat. 118.

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. 68, pl. L.

Boone, Elizabeth Hill 1986 Ohrspule. In Glanz Und Untergang Des Alten Mexico : Die Azteken Und Ihre Vorläufer, Arne Eggebrecht, ed. vol. 2. 2 v. vols. P. von Zabern, Mainz am Rhein. cat. 261.

Hvidtfeldt, Arild 1987 Mexicos Kunst - Før Spanierne Kom. Louisiana Revy ; 28. Årg. Nr.1. Louisiana Museum, Humlebæk. p. 82, cat. 276.

Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo and Felipe R. Solís Olguín 2002 Aztecs. Royal Academy of Arts, London. p. 255, 448, cat. 195, (catalogue entry by Loa Traxler).

Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo and Felipe R. Solís Olguín 2003 Azteken. DuMont Literatur und Kunst Verlag, Köln. p. 255, 448, cat. 195.

Solís Olguín, Felipe R. and Martha Carmona Macías 1995 El Oro Precolombino De México: Colecciones Mixteca Y Azteca. Américo Arte Editores, México, D.F.

Exhibition History
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, April 1947 to July 1949, January 1956 to July 1962.

"Die Azteken und ihre Vorlaufer: Glanz und Untergang des Alten Mexico", Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum, Hildesheim, Germany, 6/30 - 11/9/1986; Ausstellungsleitung Haus derKunst, Munich, Germany, 12/6/1986 - 3/6/1987; Ober'sterreichisches Landesmuseum, Linz, Austria 4/3 - 8/2/1987; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark, 8/15 - 11/30/1987; Musees Royaux d'Art et d'Historie, Brussels, Belgium, 12/1/1987 - 3/30/1988; National Archaeology Museum, Athens, Gerece, 5/16 - 7/21/1988; Société du Palais de la Civilisation, Montreal, Canada, 7/30 - 10/30/1988.

"Aztecs", Royal Academy of Arts, London, England, 9/12/2002 - 4/11/2003; Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany, 5/11 - 8/3/2003; Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany, Bonn, Germany, 9/26/2003 - 1/11/2004.

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

Acquisition History
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, July 1941.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1941-1962.

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

Aztecs | Ear ornament | Mixtecs