- 900–500 BCE
The vast Mesoamerican culture area encompasses most of what is today central and southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, and the western areas of Honduras and El Salvador. Its first highly developed civilization, the Olmec, built Mesoamerica's earliest planned ceremonial centers and, through colossal stone heads and figural sculpture, established a tradition of portraiture. This life‑size mask is one of a number recovered from Rio Pesquero, Veracruz, after fishermen discovered hundreds of Olmec jade and serpentine objects there, underwater, in the late 1960s. The quantity and quality of the ritually cached objects, together with nearby evidence of ceremonial architecture and monumental sculpture, suggest that Rio Pesquero was an important Olmec shrine from about 900 to 500 BCE.
Many objects from the site, including the Dallas Museum of Art's mask, have an altered surface color, which may indicate that they were burned, possibly in ritual cremation. The mottled white of the museum's mask represents such altered color. The Arroyo Pesquero masks represent predominantly human faces. With pierced eyes and holes at the top and sides, they could have been worn by living men. Western cultures tend to think of masks as obscuring the real face. But for Mesoamerican peoples, masks have always revealed the true inner being of an individual. Masks worn by living people often showed their supernatural forms. Masks worn by deceased rulers preserved for eternity their human form.
Bonnie Pitman, ed., "Olmec Mask (1973.17)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 36.
Carol Robbins, "Olmec Mask (1973.17)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Suzanne Kotz (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 1997), 182.
Carol Robbins, Label text, A. H. Meadows Galleries, 2010.