Miniature mask

800–400 BCE
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General Description

The carved stone images Olmec kings wore on their foreheads and chests projected supernatural power. It is unknown if this small jadeite mask would have been worn, but it may have been suspended from a necklace or brooch by the smaller drilled holes at the earlobes of the figure. The almond-shaped eyes, flared nostrils, flattened nose, large lips, and down-turned mouth are common facial features among Olmec figurines. Although the characteristics of this figure are more human-like than supernatural, they may relate to the were-jaguar motif, a human-jaguar supernatural figure that is prominent in Olmec art. The term were-jaguar refers to the merging of human and jaguar characteristics, an analogy with the term werewolf. Although interpretations of the were-jaguar figure vary, the incorporation of animal attributes suggests that the Olmec held animals in high regard and may have attempted to channel the power of such creatures. Objects such as these often accompanied the king on his journey through death to the otherworld.

Elaine Higgins Smith, Digital Collections Content Coordinator, 2015.

Adapted from

  • Carol Robbins, Label text [1968.20], A. H. Meadows Galleries, 2010.

  • F. Kent Reilly, PhD, DMA unpublished material [1973.17], 1992.