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HOME : Pre-Columbian Art : Olmec Art : Olmec Terracotta Hunchback Figurine
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Olmec Terracotta Hunchback Figurine - PF.4546
Origin: Mexico
Circa: 900 BC to 500 BC
Dimensions: 1.5" (3.8cm) high
Collection: Pre-Columbian
Medium: Terracotta

Location: United States
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The Olmecs are generally considered to be the ultimate ancestor of all subsequent Mesoamerican civilisations. Thriving between about 1200 and 400 BC, their base was the tropical lowlands of south central Mexico, an area characterized by swamps punctuated by low hill ridges and volcanoes. Here the Olmecs practiced advanced farming techniques and constructed permanent settlements, including San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, La Venta, Tres Zapotes, Laguna de los Cerros, and La Mojarra. However, the consolidation of their city-states led to notable cultural influence far beyond their heartland, and throughout the Mesoamerican region. This was confirmed in 2005 with the use of NAA (Neutron Activation Analysis) and petrography to demonstrate the spread of Olmec ceramic vessels. It would appear that the Olmec style became synonymous with elite status in other (predominantly highland) groups, with evidence for exchange of artefacts in both directions. A non-literate group, the Olmecs nevertheless paved the way for the development of writing systems in the loosely defined Epi- Olmec period (c. 500 BC). Further innovations include arguably the first use of the zero, so instrumental in the Maya long count vigesimal calendrical system. They also appear to have been the originators of the famous Mesoamerican ballgame so prevalent among later cultures in the region, and either retained or invented several religious symbols such as the feathered serpent and the rain spirit, which persisted in subsequent and related cultures until the middle ages.

Comparatively little is known of their magico- religious world, although the clues that we have are tantalising. The art forms for which the Olmecs are best known, the monumental stone heads weighing up to forty tons, are generally assumed to pertain to some form of kingly leader or possibly an ancestor. The smaller jade figures and celts of which this is one are believed to be domestically or institutionally based totems or divinities. The quality of production is astonishing, particularly if one considers the technology available for production, the early date of the pieces, and the dearth of earlier works upon which the Olmec sculptors could draw. Some pieces are highly stylised, while others demonstrate striking naturalism with interpretation of some facial features (notably down-turned mouths and slit eyes) that can be clearly seen in the current figure.

Olmec artists and sculptors are famous for their intricate work in miniature, and there are few examples more remarkable than this very rare and very endearing figure. He is a shaman with a hunchback. These two attributes are special in their own right; yet, the combination of the two signifies someone possessing exceptional qualities and engendering great respect. In a general sense, the shaman was someone knowledgeable in nature, an herbalist, who also understood the supernatural. He was able to travel in his spirit form to other realms of existence and contact spirits of ancestors or other entities, entreating with them to offer their assistance to someone in need. It was through an altered state of consciousness that the shaman could travel to the astral plains, and by doing so; act as a mediator between humans and non-physical beings. Such a talent was highly prized, and a shaman who proved his or her worth was treated with awe. A physical manifestation of this innate ability was the hunchback, which the Ancient Mexicans believed was an indication of special gifts. Someone with a hunchback possessed the power to “access” the supernatural and journey more easily out- of-body. For an artist to create something with such power on such a small scale is not only pure art, but also a touch of magic. - (PF.4546)


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