In Focus

Maya Eccentric Flint Blades

As a material, flint was valued by the Maya and other peoples of Mesoamerica for its ability to strike fire. The Maya associated flint with lightning and believed that where lightning struck, flint was formed. Flint seems to have been fairly accessible in the Maya area (southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador), but the finest quality is thought to have come from Belize. And it was in this area, during the period 600-900 CE, that the Maya perfected the art of chipping flint to create thin, flat blades (tok ') for sacrificial and ceremonial use. The reductive knapping process did not allow for error, and Maya archaeologist and scholar David Freidel has described it as requiring the concentration of a chess master. The complex shapes of these objects, which are too fragile for use as cutting tools, have earned them the designation "eccentric flints." They have been found archaeologically in elite tombs, offertory caches associated with dedication and termination rituals for architecture, and stone monuments such as stelae.

In terms of imagery, the most characteristic subject among eccentric flints is a human-like head shown in profile. These often have an element that projects from the forehead, the torch or axe that identifies K'awil, the god of royal lineage. Flint has been described as the essence of K'awil, which may explain the frequency of K'awil profile heads. The word k'awil can also mean image or idol, as well as the supernatural spirit that can occupy a material object. Maya glyphic texts include mention of nobles "conjuring K'awil," or calling forth the spirit in order to empower ceremonies. Such symbolically charged objects may also have functioned as talismans for living kings.

Adapted from

  • Carol Robbins, “Maya Creation and the Stars,” in Dallas Museum of Art 100 Years, eds. Dorothy Kosinski, et al. (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), 46.

  • Carol Robbins, DMA unpublished material, 2009.

Related Multimedia

Collection smARTphone video; Carol Robbins discusses Eccentric flint depicting a crocodile canoe with passengers, from Mexico or Guatemala, Maya culture (DMA collection, 1985.45.McD)