Celt with incised plant motif

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 jadeite and serpentine were important in Olmec ritual and may have constituted a form of wealth. Great numbers of them were placed in caches. When they were planted vertically, these celts defined the central axis mundi, or World Tree, and the corners of the four-sided world, or cosmic maize field. Celts may even have symbolized ears of corn. Because the compact form was useful in revealing the quality of the stone and was easy to transport, jadeite and serpentine were widely traded in the form of celts, which could be incised with symbols or recarved as figures or other forms.

This carved, finely finished serpentine celt features a subtlety incised plant motif. Though it is unclear to the specific type of foliage depicted, the vines with flowering buds may represent maize. The dark green color of the stone is further associated with maize, vegetation, water, sky, and life. Celts such as this were likely objects that had ritual or specialized use and sacred significance, rather than a working tool.

Adapted from

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

  • F. Kent Reilly, PhD, DMA unpublished material [1973.17], 1992.