The Olmecs "masks" were created by the Olmec civilization between the 9th and 4th century BCE. These sophisticated people lived around three major cultural centers in present-day Mexico along the Gulf of mexico; their cities were the first in Central America.
The object is carved from serpentine, a dark green stone, commonly used in Olmec artwork. Due to its small size (13cm x 11.3cm x 5.7cm), the object was most likely worn as a pendant rather than a mask. The face is probably a depiction of an Olmec king. The Olmec people are more well-known for the colossal stone heads depicting their kings (pictured below).
In many ways, this civilization is the "mother culture" of Mesoamerica and disseminated its practices and developments to the Aztec, Maya, and Zapotecs [See Hardman 2003, 5]. Today, the piece resides in the British Museum far away from its home, yet it continues to tell us a great deal about this mysterious American culture.
Featured on BBC Radio's History of the World in 100 Objects in Episode 29, the Olmec stone mask has immense importance to Mesoamerican culture. It displays many of the characteristics unique to Olmec art, as well as characteristics later adopted by other Mesoamerican cultures. Carving of stones like jade and serpentine is extremely laborious and requires immense skill, and although rare in global terms for this time period, they were the most common mediums for Olmec sculptural art during the civilization's later years (post 900 BCE) [See Lemonick 1996, 3]. By this time, Olmec art had began tu encompass mostly pieces of carved stone as opposed to the ceramics of earlier years [See Lemonick 1996, 3].
ic piece is a dark-colored green and gray serpentine that was obtained through trade with cultures along the Pacific coast, as it is not available along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico where the Olmecs resided [See Foster 2009, 26]. They traded their surpluses of crops and rubber for various stones (obsidian, jade, and serpentine) with peoples from the Pacific coast, central highlands, and southeastern lowlands of Mexico to make tools, ornaments, and pyramids [See Foster 2009, 26]. The availability of rubber from nearby gum trees gave them their name "Olmen" by the Aztecs, meaning "people from the rubber country" [See BBC Transcript 2010].
They used the same tools from stone age until the arrival of the Spanish and had surprisingly little technology for the great buildings and artwork they created [See Foster 2009, 26]. The sculpture was likely created through the use of "rope-and-water abrasion assisted with drilling" (Foster 2009, 26). This specific object is not only beautifully carved but also extremely polished, which is also common among carved stone pieces from this period. Shamans, or priests, often created mirrors of jade or iron ores for ritual use to communicate with their gods [See Foster 2009, 26].
Like other Olmec art, the face displays "squarish facial features with full lips, a flat nose, pronounced jowls and slating eyes" [See Lemonick 1996, 3]. The two pairs of holes drilled into the sides of the face probably served as a way to either add ornamental gold earrings or to tie twine so that the face could be worn as a pendent or attached to a head dress [See BBC Transcript 2010]. The circular marks on the sides of the mouth may depict the common indigenous practice in Central America of facial "beautification," where large holes were pierced into the face and adorned with plugs. This was not the only kind of Olmec bodily alteration, as they are also known for binding infants heads to force the skull to a shape reminiscent of an ear of corn [See BBC Transcript 2010].
Although Olmecs often combined the form of the black jaguar with the form of man into a creature known as the werejaguar, this piece appears to be depicting only the human form [See Shorris 2004, 352]. Other glyphs on the face may actually be examples of the earliest known writing system in America, which the Olmecs created [See BBC Transcript 2010]. The lighter indentions are similar to depictions of facial tattoos found in other Olmec art [See BBC Transcript 2010].
The cheek markings on the mask have a special significance. To understand the importance, we must consider the Olmec's great focus on centrality and directions. During the BBC broadcast, Olmec specialist, Karl Taube, explains that Olmecs were fascinated by the idea of a world center [See BBC Transcript 2010]. They believed their king served as the world axis and origin of the four directions [See BBC Transcript 2010]. The cheek markings most likely depict the four directions and serve as further evidence that this face is meant to be a portrayal of an Olmec king [See BBC Transcript 2010].
The main Olmec cultural centers (San Lorenzo, Tres Zapotes, and La Venta) were discovered in the late 1800's and excavated after World War II; it was during this period that radiocarbon dating allowed archeologists to discover the age of the civilization [See Foster 2009, 24]. The data surprised scientists when it proved that the Olmec were much older than nearby civilization like the Mayans; this proved that the Olmec were likely the "mother culture" of MesoAmerican rather than a later branch of Mayan culture like previously believed [See Foster 2009, 24]. Archeologists put many of the artifacts (most of which were found buried as offerings to the Underworld) into museums around the world. The findings included "deity masks, stone mosaics, colored clays, 3,022 pieces of precious polished jade, and in one burial alone, 1,000 tons of serpentine" [Foster 2009, 26]. Today, the Olmec artwork and remaining architecture is almost all that archeologists have found to learn about this mysterious culture.
Local Historical Context
The Olmec Civilization is believed to have started around 1400 BCE and lasted until 400 BCE when they abruptly disappeared. The culture pioneered in many areas including art, science, and state formation. There were no significant surrounding civilizations at the time, so they were their own influencing force. Although they appear to have had a distinct class structure, there is little evidence of a complex political structure. Instead, the Olmecs were likely a groups of unified chiefdoms with an elite class that controlled trade routes [See Lemonick 2009, 2]. However, this development is groundbreaking because at this time when most tribes were nomadic hunter-gatherers, the Olmecs were the first to settle down and slowly become dependent on agriculture [See Lemonick 2009, 1]. As more groups settled and basic political structures formed, chiefdoms began to associate with one another and eventually united into what we consider the Olmec civilization [See Lemonick 2009, 2]. This structure allowed for the development of specialization and a local culture that incorporated artisans and fostered the development of class structure. Through charisma and leadership, an elite class emerged and gained control of trade and people eventually forming a society with rich culture and art by 1200 BCE [See Lemonick 2009, 2].
It is difficult to describe the state of Olmec civilization when this piece was made. The Olmecs lasted a millenium, yet very little is known about them. The time period of the mask spans half the life of the civilization, so they may have been flourishing or crumbling when it was created. Since most of the civilization's remains were comprised of art pieces, we do know a good deal about the nature and progression of their art. By the time this mask was sculpted, Olmec art had began to encompass mostly pieces of carved stone as opposed to the ceramics of earlier years [See Lemonick 1996, 3]. The artwork between these two periods shifted not only in medium but also in purpose; while ceramics were generally created for decorative purposes, carved stone pieces were meant for ruler and elites to wear [See Lemonick 2009, 4].
It is reasonable to assume that the face portrayed in this object is of an Olmec king since most of the artistic subject matter in Olmec art involved kings and their lifestyles [See Hardman 2003, 5]. For example, each of the 17 collosal heads is believed to depict an individual Ol
mec king. Along with depicting kings, most artistic items made from jade or serpentine were created for the rulers to wear [See Lemonick 1996, 3].
The facial features depicted in Olmec artwork are different than those commonly found within the Mexican population because the Olmec's were Pre-Hispanic and Pre-Columbian. The Olmecs had broad noses and short faces with angular eyes and appear to have a combonation of Asian and African characteristics [See Hardman 2003, 5]. Most likely the original inhabitants of Mesoamerican traveled from Asia across the Bering land bridge and established chiefdoms and states throughout Central and South America [See Lemonick 1996, 2].
World Historical Significance
Olmecs flourished during the Preclassic period (1200-400 BCE) of Mesoamerica and are likely the original and most influential culture for later cultures like Aztecs and Mayans. They were the first in
America to create a writing system, chart the stars, build pyramids, use greenstone, practice human sacrifice, use primitive printing techniques, play ball games, create the concept of zero, and develop a calendar [See Transcipt; Hardman; Lemonick 1996, 2].
The dissapearance of the Olmecs is very mysterious. It seems one day they were there and the next day they were suddenly gone without any apparent cause. No disaster seems to have occured; no mass burials have been discovered; no signs of relocation have surfaced, yet almost all their art pieces and belongings were carefully buried underground before they abandoned each of their cultural centers one-by-one [See Shorris 2004, 352].
Despite their abrupt disappearance, the OImecs left a legacy: "their trade [and] the spread of their art and ideas geographically defined Mesoamerica" [Foster 2009, 26-28]. Their trade with neighboring tribes and chiefdoms supported development of emerging civilizations centuries later [See Foster 2009, 28]. The glyphs found on Olmec art distincly resemble later advanced writing systems of the Mayan, which proves that they sparked the beginning of written communication in America [See Hardman 2003, 5]. They laid the foundation for every major Mesoamerican civilization by creating a precedence of unity and cooperation. Their transition from hunter-gatherers to settled chiefdoms allowed Mesoamerica to flourish culturally, economically, and agriculturally.
2010. "Olmec." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition 1. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 18, 2011). http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/about/transcripts/episode29/
Foster, Lynn V. A Brief History of Mexico, 4th Edition. (New York: Checkmark Books, 2009).
Hardman, Chris. 2003. "Writing at the Start." Americas 55, no. 5: 5. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 18, 2011).
Lemonick, Michael D., and Andrea Dorfman. 1996. "Mystery of the Olmec." Time 148, no. 2: 56. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 18, 2011). Wilford, John N. 2005. "Mother Culture, or Only a Sister?." New York Times, March 15. 1. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 18, 2011).
"Oldest Writing in New World Discovered, Scientists, Say." http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/09/060914-oldest-writing.html
"Olmec Giant Heads: Colossal Heads of the Olmec Civilization" http://www.suite101.com/content/olmec-giant-heads-a214775
"Olmec Stone Mask." The British Museum. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aoa/o/olmec_stone_mask.aspx (accessed April 18, 2011).
Shorris, Earl. The Life and Times of Mexico. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004).
"Taube, Karl A." http://anthropology.ucr.edu/people/faculty/taube/index.html