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Photo Credit: Joe Mills

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Human Skull With Mosaic Designs

Mixteca-Puebla, Late Postclassic
1300-1520 CE
21.27 cm x 14.92 cm x 16.51 cm (8 3/8 in. x 5 7/8 in. x 6 1/2 in.)
bone, stone and shell

Not on view


This skull appears to have been from a young adult, possibly female, probably between 24 and 28 years old at the time of death. Cranial remodeling is of the tabular erect type and led to a broadening of the skull. The skull is fairly complete except for a broken portion around the foramen magnum as well as the posterior portion of the right parietal bone. The cranium’s external surface has many root marks they are close to the mosaic-covered area and probably continue beneath it. The scalloped and pointed shape of the tooth, attained by the process of filing the edges of the crown, has been widely documented in other Mesoamerican burials that span from ca. 300 BCE to the early colonial period. In the center of its labial surface, the tooth had a now-missing inlay, but the perforation (about 3 mm in diameter) has traces of a residue, perhaps remnants of adhesive. Dental embellishment frequently involved other teeth, but this pattern of modification has not been documented for PC.B.097, and the decorated tooth’s size suggests that it does not belong to this skull.
The available evidence indicates that the skull and the associated mosaic pieces are of Pre-Columbian origin. However, their integration as decorated items is questionable.

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.

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. 26, cat. 125.

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 Helmut de Terra, New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, May 2, 1960.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1960-1962.

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

Mixtecs | Skulls