Skip to Content


Olmec, Middle Preclassic
900 BCE - 300 BCE
24.77 cm x 1.91 cm (9 3/4 in. x 3/4 in.)

Not on view


Additional Images
Click an image to view a larger version

Although this object may appear simply as a particularly large and impressive bead or pendant, it is actually a thinly walled jade tube that required a great many days of painstaking grinding to produce. The straight profile of the central perforation of this object is quite different from the hourglass-shaped holes common to biconically drilled beads. Whereas such beads are simply drilled from both ends, this large piece is carefully reamed to create a remarkably even, thin wall. The thickness of the jade at the opening averages some 2.5 millimeters, thickening slightly in the interior to some 4.5 millimeters. Due to this thinness, the fine, bluish green jadeite is wonderfully translucent. At both ends of one side of the tube, the stone is slightly red and somewhat fractured. This probably constitutes part of the original exterior cortex, or "rind," of the jadeite boulder, which commonly is discolored by natural exposure. This interpretation is supported by inspection of the opposite side of the tube, which is slightly flattened with a long groove running down the center. The groove and flattened area are probably the remains of the original slab sawing from the mother stone, which clearly corresponds to the interior rather than the exterior rind of the boulder. The remarkable expenditure of effort required to remove the more distant, interior portion of the tube is entirely unnecessary for the suspension of a simple bead, as the interior would not even be visible. In addition, the thinness of the walls makes it extremely vulnerable to breakage by chipping or fracturing, a hardly desirable quality for suspended beads. But if this object is no ordinary bead, what was its function? Like the two effigy spear-throwers in the Dumbarton Oaks collection (PC.B.032 and PC.B.033, this item may be a copy of a weapon, in this case a blowgun. It is perhaps noteworthy that the mottled blue jadeite is very similar to that of the jade spear-thrower of PC.B.032, as if they may have constituted part of an assemblage of jadeite weapons. In addition, this jade tube and the two effigy spear-throwers were all acquired from the same source, Earl Stendahl, during 1954 and 1955. According to Stendahl, however, the tube was not found with the spear-throwers in Puebla but, rather, derived from Guerrero. Aside from this possible Olmec example, elite blowguns fashioned of rare materials are known for the contact period Aztec. Like the stone effigy spear-throwers in the collection, this jade tube may been an emblem of elite power, here in the form of a blowgun.

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. 30, cat. 151.

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. 79, pl. LIV.

Bliss, Robert Woods 1959 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. 2nd ed. Text and Critical Analyses by S. K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler and William F. Foshag. Phaidon, London. p. 254, cat. 79, pl. LIV.

Taube, Karl A. 2004 Olmec Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks; No. 2. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 140-1, pl. 27.

Exhibition History
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, January 1956 to July 1960.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1954.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1954-1962.

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

Olmecs | Pendant