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Fish Effigy Bottle

Olmec, Early Preclassic
1200 BCE - 600 BCE
17.46 cm x 11.43 cm x 24.45 cm (6 7/8 in. x 4 1/2 in. x 9 5/8 in.)

Not on view


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This fish bottle conveys a highly animated and almost playful quality. Staring with round, bulging eyes, the fish appears to spout water from its upturned mouth. A modeled gout of water serves as the vessel spout so liquid poured from the bottle mimics water ejected from the mouth of the fish. The spout and belly of the fish are delineated with rough, carved zones that contrast with adjacent, smoothly burnished black surfaces. The rough areas probably allude to water, as if the spouting fish lies only half submerged. The coarse regions seem to have been intentionally prepared to receive red hematite staining that still adheres too much of these surfaces. The patterns of abstract, broad, line carving in the belly region are similar on both sides of the fish, suggesting an intentional albeit highly abstract design.

While some Early Formative ceramics and Xochipala-style stone vessels have abstract halved images that become whole figures when placed against their mirror like opposing counterpart; such is not the case with this object. With its pleasing, rounded form and contrasting surfaces, this vessel is an excellent example of the Las Bocas ceramic tradition. The site of Las Bocas, in western Puebla, has yielded many such fine ceramic vessels in Olmec style. Unfortunately, because these materials have been obtained through looting, little can be said of the nature of this important site.

The spouting fish is a fairly common motif of Las Bocas-style effigy vessels. Similar to the treatment of the spouting fish, Early Formative duck effigy vessels have beaks as spouts, either for liquid or, in the case of one censer, for cloudlike coils of smoke. Smoke offerings commonly imitate or are to conjure rain clouds in contemporary Mesoamerican ritual, as they did in ancient times. As water creatures, fishes and ducks may have symbolically served as magical water bringers. Aside from a shark like entity with a crescent eye and toothed maw, fish are relatively rare in the iconography of the Olmec heartland. Early and Middle Formative bowls from Tlatilco, Tlapacoya, Chalcatzingo, and other highland sites, however, frequently contain incised representations of fish in various degrees of stylization. Although the fish may indicate what was eaten from these bowls, they could also be cosmographic allusions. Just as the double-line break on the rims of Middle Formative bowls refer to the sky, the fish may allude to the dark, aquatic interior of Earth.

Coe, Michael D. 1965 The Jaguar's Children: Pre-Classic Central Mexico. Museum of Primitive Art, New York. fig. 60.

Niederberger, Christine 1987 Paléopaysages Et Archéologie Pré-Urbaine Du Bassin De México (Mexique). 1re éd. ed. Etudes Mésoaméricaines, V. 11. Centre d'études mexicaines et centraméricaines, México. fig. 98.

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. 49, pl. 1.

Exhibition History
"Drink and Prosper", Dumbarton Oaks, Washington DC, 4/1/2015 to 8/24/2015.

Acquisition History
Formerly in the collection of Harold Kaye, London.

Purchased by Dumbarton Oaks from Alphonse Jax, New York (dealer), 1970.

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