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“Beak-bird” jadeite pendants like this are typical of the Linea Vieja area, located in the Caribbean Watershed of Costa Rica. Characterized by representing the profile of a bird with long, exaggerated, and unrealistic bills, some of the beaks extend more than half the body of the represented bird; others, as this one, go further, creating circular or rectangular spirals.
This exceptional piece differs from most known “beak-birds” in that it is holding what appears to be a human head with its claws. Although rare in pendants, “beak-birds” and severed human heads appear together in other media in Costa Rica, such as decorated stone metates.
Carved from a single piece of light green jadeite, the production of this object involved several different techniques. The bill’s spiral shape was made with the use of a string saw, a cutting tool consisting of a cord made out of plant fibers or strips of animal skin held tight by a piece of curved wood, used in combination with water and abrasive materials like sand or ground stone. To give some anatomical accuracy to the beak, a fine line was carved to represent the space where the upper and lower mandibles meet. Three additional fine vertical lines were used to delineate the bird’s claws on the back of the human head, while the wings are represented in high relief. The use of a wooden drill is evident in the depiction of both the human’s and bird’s eyes, which are represented as rounded, conical, concave depressions. A similar tool was used to pierce the object under the bird’s eye creating a perforation with the purpose of holding string or cord for the pendant’s suspension. Finally, the object was polished, giving the final product its lustrous finish.
Balser, Carlos 1961 Some Costa Rican Jade Motifs. In Essays in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology Samuel K. Lothrop and others, ed., Cambridge. p. 215.
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. 40, cat. 212.
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 Yorkk. p. 40, pl. 212.
Lothrop, S.K. 1955 Jade and String Sawing in Costa Rica. American Antiquity 21 (1). p. 45, 47, fig. 20b.
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, January 1956-July 1962.
"Flights of Fancy: Birds in Pre-Columbian Art" Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 10/1/2009 - 2/28/2010.
Purchased from Carlos Balser by Robert Woods Bliss, 1955.
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1955-1962.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.