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Photo Credit: Joe Mills

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Human Skull With Mosaic Designs

Mixteca-Puebla, Late Postclassic
1300-1520 CE
14.9 cm x 16.2 cm x 17.5 cm (5 7/8 in. x 6 3/8 in. x 6 7/8 in.)
bone, stone and shell

Not on view


This skull apparently belonged to a middle-aged adult, possibly a woman, between 30 and 40 years old at the time of death. The skull is broad and seems to have been subjected to intentional reshaping, but irregular flattening is perceptible only on the occipital bone. Reshaping caused the formation of a noticeable bun at the bregma. The lack of visible cut marks implies that no defleshing preceded its decoration.
Except for some evidence of soil inside the right mental foramen, the skull is now thoroughly clean, but rodent damage is perceptible at the opening on the left side of the foramen magnum. Root marks are present on the cranium’s external surface and on the mandible. There is no evidence that the nasal cavity’s interior was decorated.
Glued tesserae were polished and vary in size and color. Dark and light blue and green colors are present, but turquoise-blue predominates. Several large plaques on the mandible have special, irregular forms and/or incisions. These tesserae are undoubtedly of Pre-Columbian origin, but evidently not enough of the original pieces were present for the conservator who treated it in modern times to create a meaningful pattern.
On the skull’s forehead the restorer assembled a rectangular pattern of contrasting turquoise plaques with tesserae of pink shell. The first row above the eyebrow, of shell, is made from thicker plaques. The adhesive under the mosaic varies in color and texture, probably from differences in gluing material used by the restorer, because they coincide with the rows of differently sized plaques. The round eye inlays differ in color and texture: the right one appears to be from a thin animal bone, whereas the left one may be shell. The pupil on the latter is a circular plaque of black color, possibly smoked quartz rather than obsidian. The eye inlay without pupil filling has a straight perforation measuring 7.6 mm in diameter. In contrast, the pupil on the left eye is only 3.9 mm in diameter.

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. 126.

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