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HOME : Pre-Columbian Art : Olmec Masks : Olmec Stone Mask
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Olmec Stone Mask - PF.4725
Origin: Mexico
Circa: 900 BC to 500 BC
Dimensions: 4.5" (11.4cm) high
Collection: Pre-Columbian Art
Medium: Stone

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 many permanent settlements. Their influence, both cultural and political, extended far beyond their boundaries; the exotic nature of Olmec designs became synonymous with elite status in other (predominantly highland) groups, with evidence for exchange of artefacts in both directions. Other than their art (see below), they are credited with the foundations of writing systems (the loosely defined Epi-Olmec period, c. 500 BC), the first use of the zero – so instrumental in the Maya long count vigesimal calendrical system – and they also appear to have been the originators of the famous Mesoamerican ballgame so prevalent among later cultures in the region. The art form for which the Olmecs are best known, the monumental stone heads weighing up to forty tons, are generally believed to depict kingly leaders or possibly ancestors. Other symbols abound in their stylistic repertoire, including several presumably 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. Technically, these include all non- secular items, of which there is a fascinating array. The best- known forms are jade and ceramic figures and celts that depict men, animals and fantastical beasts with both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic characteristics. Their size and general appearance suggests that they were domestically- or institutionally-based totems or divinities. The quality of production is astonishing, particularly if one considers the technology available, 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 deliberate expressionist interpretation of some facial features (notably up-turned mouths and slit eyes) that can be clearly seen in the current mask.

For the Olmecs a mask was an icon of transformation. When worn by a shaman in a ritual dance, the mask would take on the 'character' of spirits invoked, and thus add to the charismatic aura of the shaman. Large masks often depict images of kings, seen through the medium of stone or jade as possessing supernatural qualities. This very lovely mask was designed either to be worn as part of a necklace, or hung from wooden armatures as was later a practice in Teotihuacan. Its features are classic Olmec, with beautifully curved lines of the forehead and cheeks, oval eyes, horizontal ears and full lips. The open mouth is a distinctive attribute of Olmec masks and may be intended to express a euphoric state of being. The stone's natural coloration wonderfully highlighted with green perfectly suits the facial contours. This mask is not simply a sculpture, though it is a beautiful one. It is something full of mysteries beyond our reckoning that the skill and intent of a talented artist long ago wished to convey in eternal stone. - (PF.4725)


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