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Eccentric Flint

Maya, Late Classic
600-700 CE
24.13 cm x 13.02 cm x 1 cm (9 1/2 in. x 5 1/8 in. x 3/8 in.)

On view


Three heads emerge from this eccentric flint. They each wear a serrated headdress and a flaming torch or axe protruding from their forehead, a characteristic of the god K’awiil, the personification of lightning. K’awiil was a patron of noble lineages and the essence of mental and physical fertility. He is often represented on scepters taken by Maya kings upon their accession to the throne, and he could be invoked in rituals and ceremonies where he was brought forth out of the mist or smoke.

The Maya prized flint for their weaponry, ritual implements, and offerings. They believed that flint was formed where lightning struck, giving it the very essence of K’awiil. When creating eccentrics, specialists sought out a rare, very dark flint, whose source has not been found. The material’s perceived supernatural origin, as well as its sharpness and translucency, made it at once physically dangerous and ideologically compelling. An artist of great skill created this object by chipping a larger piece of flint into a long, flat form and then shaping it carefully using a delicate pressure technique, probably involving the use of a soft but sturdy material such as deer antler to remove small flakes from the edges. The precise facial profiles and serrated headdresses show great attention to detail and tremendous expertise with a material that can slice like a knife but shatters if hit with stone. Eccentric flints have been found in offertory caches at many Maya sites. The shape and size of this piece suggest that it may have been used as a scepter, perhaps topping a staff made of wood or bone.

Bühl, Gudrun (ED.) 2008 Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 226-227.

Joyce, T. A. 1932 The "Eccentric Flints" of Central America. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland LXII. p. xvii-xxvi.

McAnany, Patricia A. 1995 Living with the Ancestors: Kinship and Kingship in Ancient Maya Society. 1st ed. University of Texas Press, Austin. p. 46, fig. 2.11.

Miller, Mary Ellen and Simon Martin (EDS.) 2004 Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. Thames & Hudson, New York. p. 150-151, pl. 81.

Pillsbury, Joanne, Miriam Doutriaux, Reiko Ishihara-Brito and Alexandre Tokovinine (EDS.) 2012 Ancient Maya Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Pre-Columbian Art at Dumbarton Oaks, Number 4. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 272-273, 275, 282, 285-287, pl. 50, fig. 158, 159, 165.

Robicsek, Francis 1978 The Smoking Gods: Tobacco in Maya Art, History, and Religion. 1st ed. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. p. 76, fig. 79 g.

Titmus, Gene L. and James C. Woods 2003 The Maya Eccentric: Evidence for the Use of the Indirect Percussion Technique in Mesoamerica from Preliminary Experiments Concerning Their Manufacture. In Mesoamerican Lithic Technology: Experimentation and Interpretation, Kenneth Hirth, ed., pp. 132-146. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City. p. 135, fig. 9.3.

Exhibition History
"Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, 4/4 - 7/25/2004; California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA, 9/4/2004 - 1/2/2005.

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

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

Anthropomorphic | Mayas