Teaching Ideas

Early Learning

For Ages 3-5

Art Discussion

  • What do you notice about this work of art?
  • Have the children take the pose of the ruler. How do you feel sitting like this? Powerful? Relaxed? Strong? Point out that this ruler is sitting up very straight and staring right at us—even though the sculpture is small, he feels very powerful.
  • What do you notice about his mouth? The figure’s downturned mouth might represent the snarling mouth of a big cat. To the Olmec people of ancient Mexico, jaguars were very special because they are good hunters, can swim and can climb high into trees. Have the children make a growling, snarling face. How do you feel making this kind of face?
  • What is he wearing on his head? His headband represents the royal crown; a symbol of power.
  • If you could hold this sculpture in your hand, how do you think it would feel? What do you think it is made out of? If possible, pass around a polished stone for the children to touch.
  • This sculpture was carved from a very hard, green stone called serpentine; the red parts were made with cinnabar. For the Olmec people, the green color reminded them of plants, water, and life. What does the color green make you think of? Have a brief discussion with the children about the different meanings or feelings they associate with different colors.
  • If you were going to have a statue made of yourself that you wanted to show people the idea of “powerful,” what pose would you take? Have volunteers demonstrate.

Encouraging Dialogue

For Students K-12

  • Have one person sit in the exact position of the figure in Seated ruler in ritual pose while others talk with him or her. What does it feel like to sit in this position?
  • The green color of the serpentine and red color of the cinnabar were symbolically important to the Olmec peoples. Are there colors which have specific significance to your culture? Which ones and what is their meaning?
  • What would it be like to touch the surface of the sculpture? How might this texture compare to the texture of a real person?
  • Imagine how it might feel to carve stone like this. What tools would you use? Hard green stones, although difficult to work with, were carved into various animal forms and even masks by the ancient Americans. The stone used to make this sculpture was polished with sand to make it shiny.
  • This Olmec sculpture possesses both human and animal features. What are some examples of human/animal hybrid creatures from myths or legends outside of the Olmec culture? What qualities are traditionally ascribed to them? Why might hybrid creatures be so common across cultures?
  • Images of Olmec gods and rulers often have a mouth that looks like the mouth of a jaguar (like the mouth on this figure). A jaguar is a large feline or cat that lives in the jungles of Mesoamerica. What qualities of a jaguar do you think an Olmec ruler would admire?

Making Connections

For Students K-12

  • In photographs, this sculpture can look much larger than it appears in person. To better understand the scale of Seated ruler, measure and cut a block of Styrofoam to its dimensions (H: 7 ¼ x W: 5 3/8 x D: 3 1/16 inches). Consider and discuss the scale of the figure in relationship to how it was made as well as what it might feel like to hold this small sculpture in your hands.
  • Compare this Olmec sculpture to the Bamileke Elephant mask (1991.54.1). Both artworks associate rulers with powerful animals. Consider and discuss how each uses the image and qualities of an animal to convey authority or power. Also, compare and contrast the materials, scale, and function of both artworks.
  • Ancient American artists often used images of powerful animals which connected people to powerful spiritual forces. What kind of animal do you admire? Pick out qualities of your animal that are important. Make a drawing of yourself with the qualities of the animal you admire. For example, you may admire eagles because they are such strong flyers or because their eyesight is keen.
  • Seated ruler in ritual pose is made of greenstone which is not as rare as jadeite, and it is not as hard. Jadeite has a hardness between 6.5 and 7.0 on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness. Research the Mohs scale. What is it and when was it created? How many levels of hardness are on the Mohs scale? Why is it important to have a scale for hardness? Now that you have investigated hardness, consider this question: How could the difficulty of carving stone add to the importance of an Olmec sculpture?
  • Imagine you are an archaeologist discovering this small sculpture buried in a tomb or in an offering made to dedicate a sacred place or building. Make a list of questions that will guide your study of the Seated ruler. If you need some help getting started, consider what archaeologists do when working out in the field. They excavate, observe, and take notes about the landscape and areas where they find objects. They sometimes sketch and take pictures, and they also might think about what other objects or structures were found nearby.