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HOME : Pre-Columbian Art : Olmec Masks : Olmec Stone Mask
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Olmec Stone Mask - PF.1907
Origin: Mexico
Circa: 900 BC to 500 BC
Dimensions: 4" (10.2cm) high
Collection: Pre-Columbian
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 maskette.

Though not large, this stone mask projects an intense energy on the level of monolithic sculpture. Its features are quintessentially Olmec; part human, part snarling beast. Though the significance of this creature has vanished into the mists of time, its power still haunts us. Did such a race once walk the earth, or did they exist only in the imagination? Does this startling vision reflect some primal passion? As with any great work of art, this mask reaches across the bounds of time and culture to touch our very soul. - (PF.1907)


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