Celt with incised masked figure

CULTURE:
Olmec
DATE:
900–500 BCE
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General Description

Ground stone axe heads, or celts, were tools for clearing wood and brush from land to be farmed. Celts made of precious greenstone, jadeite, and serpentine were important in Olmec ritual and may have constituted a form of wealth. Celts were most commonly placed in caches and burials. Incised celts were produced late in the Olmec era. In form, they are adaptations of the common stone axe into luxury material. This apparently symbolizes elite control over agricultural processes and over the acquisition of luxury materials. The shift from three-dimensional sculpture to incised two-dimensional designs parallels a shift in the form of information toward writing and conventionalized symbols. These were used widely in formative period Mesoamerica and indicate shared concepts among cultures. Some of these were transmitted to and adopted by the Maya and appear in hieroglyphic writing.

When a ruler incised his image on a celt, he directly associated the power of the axe with his own political position. This celt depicts an elaborately dressed ruler, standing with head and legs in profile and a frontally positioned torso. Prominent among his regalia are a baton of power, closely associated with the World Tree that was raised on the first day of creation, and a towering royal headdress, the ultimate symbol of Olmec political authority. The headdress carries the symbols of the world directions, the deity of maize vegetation, and the deity of the portal at the center of the world. Dressed in this way, the ruler is symbolically identified as the interface between the natural and supernatural, the cosmic balance, and as the World Tree that links the levels of the cosmos.

Adapted from

  • Carol Robbins, Label text, A. H. Meadows Galleries, 2010.

  • Carol Robbins, Label text [1968.32], A. H. Meadows Galleries, 2010.

  • Carol Robbins, DMA unpublished material.

Fun Facts

  • Incised celts are relatively rare; approximately fifty are known. Several conventional symbols appear on this celt—the kan cross, the crossed bands, flame eyebrows, arm bands, knuckledusters, clefts, etc. These were used widely in formative period Mesoamerica and indicate shared concepts among cultures. Some of these were transmitted to and adopted by the Maya and appear in hieroglyphic writing. The image on this celt is very similar to that of the San Miguel Amuco stela from Formative Period Guerrero.