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Pair of Ear Spools

Mixtec-Aztec, Late Postclassic
1200-1520 CE
1.91 cm x 4.13 cm (3/4 in. x 1 5/8 in.)

On view


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These obsidian ear ornaments are masterpieces of Pre-Columbian craftsmanship. Obsidian is volcanic glass, and has the glasslike qualities of being both hard and extremely 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 techniques such 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 reduction of material 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. The pair of hour glass shaped ear spools is unusual in form, producing a precise uniform angle at the narrowest point required extraordinary skill on the part of the artisan.

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. 24, cat. 116.

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. 114.

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. 246, cat. 72, pl. L.

Piña Chan, Román 1960 Mesoamérica: Ensayo Histórico Cultural. Instituto Nacional De Antropología E Historia. Memorias 6. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México, D.F., fig. 66.

Exhibition History
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, April 1947 to July 1949, February to July 1954, January 1956 to July 1962.

Acquisition History
Purchased from John Wise, New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1947.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1947-1962.

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

Aztecs | Ear ornament | Mixtecs