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Aztec, Late Postclassic
1200-1520 CE
6.99 cm x 6.35 cm x 4.76 cm (2 3/4 in. x 2 1/2 in. x 1 7/8 in.)

Not on view


The subject of this small sculpture is death, which was a rather lively part of Aztec culture. Skeletons and death transformations were important themes in sculpture: consider the skull racks where the remains of sacrificial victims were curated in Tenochtitlan’s Templo Mayor precinct, or the great goddess Coatlicue, decapitated and with snakes emerging from her severed neck.
This spherical piece is worked to emphasize circular shapes, and the focal point of the face is the eyes, incised into the sculpture as two concentric rings. The central ones, delineating the irises, are much shallower than the outer rings that mark the skull’s orbital cavities. That the eyes are detailed seems not in keeping with a true representation of a skull, but in Aztec art, human skulls were decorated with insets of lapidary materials to indicate iris and sclera.
The mouth is an incised horizontal line, and the upper and lower teeth are semicircles extended with straight lines. The lapidarian may have established the outlines of these semicircles and of the concentric circles of the eyes by drilling with a hollow reed and sand, and then continued working them by grooving.

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. 111.

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. 63, pl. XLVIII.

Charlot, Jean 1958 The Indian beneath the Skin (Review of 1957 Catalogue). In Art news, New York. p. 42-43.

Willey, Gordon R. 1966 An Introduction to American Archaeology. Prentice-Hall Anthropology Series. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., p. 162, fig. 118.

Exhibition History
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, May 1948 to July 1949, November 1952 to July 1962.

"Carved in Stone: Hardstone Objects from the Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss," Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 7/15/2010 - 1/15/2011.

Acquisition History
Acquired by Robert Bliss before 1948.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1957-1962.

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

Aztecs | Skulls