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Photo Credit: Joe Mills

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Human Skull With Mosaic Designs

Mixteca-Puebla, Late Postclassic
1300-1520 CE
14.4 cm x 13.85 cm x 10.1 cm (5 11/16 in. x 5 7/16 in. x 4 in.)
bone, stone and shell

Not on view


This skull was from a middle-aged adult, possibly male, perhaps 30–40 years old. The skull was not intentionally reshaped when the individual was an infant, nor are there cut marks indicating defleshing prior to inlaying. Root marks are present in the mandible, but roots and dirt are not present in the skull’s interior, probably because of thorough cleaning during its most recent treatment. Mandibular condyles are missing, but the mandible probably pertains to the cranium, based on the similar condition of upper and lower alveoli and matching curvature of the dental arch. The skull’s interior is reinforced with a thick layer of epoxy resin. Breakage around the foramen magnum includes destruction of the left side of the occipital. The cranial vault has been largely reconstructed, and other portions of the skull are also reinforced.
The turquoise tesserae are polished polygons, varying in size and shape. Dark and light green colors predominate, with small pieces of turquoise blue. None of the plaques from the skull have become loose, precluding further observations as to the technique of manufacture, but some edges of affixed tesserae have straight cuts. Others appear chipped, a condition suggesting pressure snapping in the process of manufacture. Mother-of-pearl eye inlays, unpolished, have small disk fillings to simulate the pupils—probably made of obsidian and 3.6 mm in diameter. The borders of the nasal aperture bear no evidence of internal decoration. Despite the lack of teeth, the undisturbed thin borders of the alveoli suggest that extant teeth were not covered with inlays.
The tesserae have been restored in modern times so it is unclear if the decoration in the forehead, that included a motif of a twisted double strand, is original to the piece.

Diego de Landa provides a tantalizing account that may hint at the origin and function of some decorated skulls in Mesoamerica: In antiquity, they cut the heads of the Cocom lords when they died, and once boiled, they defleshed them, sawing half of the skull at the top and leaving intact the face with the mandible and teeth. To these half “skulls” they supplied what was missing in flesh with a certain resin, and they sculpted it very faithfully as the original face, and they kept (the decorated skulls) with the wooden statues (containing the cremated remains of ancestors), all of which they displayed in the domestic altars, together with their idols, in great reverence and subservience; and on every festive occasion they offer them food so that they will not be in need of anything.

Mosaic-decorated skulls like the one found in Tomb 7 at Monte Albán (which, except for the lack of resin mimicking the physiognomy of a dead person, has modifications similar to those described by Landa) were most likely used as resonance chambers. Together with grooved human and deer bones, they were used as percussion instruments to produce a distinctive sound during the funerals of warriors, much like the exemplar painted on page 24 of the Codex Vindobonensis.

Other decorated skulls, seemingly decorated along the top of the vault, may have been used as ancestral symbols to validate the transgenerational transfer of rights and privileges. One Zapotec genealogical record from ca. 900 CE depicts the handling of one such heirloom skull during an important ritual centered on a child who is later enthroned in the same monument.

Berger, Martin (2013) "Real, fake, or a combination: examining the authenticity of Mesoamerican mosaic skulls." In: Creating authenticity: authetication processes in ethnographic museums. Sidestone Press, Leiden. pp 11-37.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, July 1959.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1959-1962.

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

Mixtecs | Skulls