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Ear Spool

Mixtec-Aztec, Late Postclassic
1200-1520 CE
0.95 cm x 3.81 cm (3/8 in. x 1 1/2 in.)

Not on view


These obsidian ear ornaments are masterpieces of Pre-Columbian craftsmanship. Obsidian is volcanic glass and has the glass-like qualities of being both hard (5.0–5.5 Mohs scale) and highly brittle, making it extremely difficult to work. Obsidian is best known as Mesoamerica’s premier raw material for cutting tools, such as knives and blades, made by using such techniques as chipping, pressure flaking, and blade-core manufacturing. To craft hollow cylindrical pieces such as these ear spools would require great skill in the use of extremely laborious ground stone techniques, perhaps even employing simple rotary tools, not commonly associated with Pre-Columbian technology.

Because stone working is a technology of material reduction, we assume that the blank rough form for the hollow obsidian ear spool would be a cylinder of obsidian with a cylindrical hollow. The final steps would have required careful and laborious grinding and polishing to produce smooth surfaces.

Obsidian was associated with the “dark light” of Tezcatlipoca, the “Lord of the Smoking Mirror,” one of the most powerful Mesoamerican deities.

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. 117.

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. 71, pl. L.

Ries, Maurice Ruddell 1942 Ancient American Art, 500 B.C.-A.D. 1500; the Catalog of an Exhibit of the Art of the Pre-European Americas, April-June 1942, Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara. cat. 121.

Exhibition History
"Ancient American Art", Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA, April - June 1942; M. H. De Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, CA, July - August 1942; Portland Museum of Art, Portland, OR, September - October 1942 (catalogue # 121).

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

Outside/In: Martha Jackson Jarvis at Dumbarton Oaks, Dumbarton Oaks, Washinton DC, February 20 to Agust 19, 2018

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