olmec jade

Olmec mask.


The first known civilisation in Mexico started the long running tradition of carving life size masks carved from jadeite, nephrite and other similar stones. The famous mask of Lord Pakal from Palenque attests to the long life of this artistic tradition. The Aztecs some two thousand years later ritually buried a mask like this in the ruins of Tenochtitlan. The Olmecs flourished between 1,500 and 400 BCE, and were the product of a thousand years of cultural evolution in the region. They also invented the ritual ballgame that was to play such a central part in subsequent meso-American cultures.

Loz

Item in Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Brussels
Image credit: Michel Wal.

Celebrating The First Americans Means Green, Not Red White and Blue

American jade is made up of a group of semiprecious hard stones. Chief among them is a dense rock composed almost entirely of the mineral jadeite, a sodium aluminum silicate of the pyroxene family noted for its beautiful color when worked. All American works of art in jade are basically green, but they are vary widely in tone, ranging from a pale apple hue, like below, to a distinctive blue green, to almost black.

As in China, where semiprecious hard stones — also known collectively as jade — were worked from very early times, the initial use of jade in the Americas is thought to have developed from the production of tools, weapons, and ornaments of more common stone. Jade is particularly hard and therefore useful for tools and weapons. But jade’s beautiful color, and shine when polished, would have made it stand out. Over time, jade became more and more favored for works of special status, like jewelry and ceremonial items. By the Olmecs in 1000 BCE, jade was high enough of a status symbol that the stone was being carved into non-useful sculptures and being placed in royal burials, never to be seen or used again.

Olmec Jade Celt Depicting a Were-Jaguar
Origin: Mexico
Circa: 900 BC to 300 BC
Dimensions: 4.875" (12.4cm) high

The jaguar is one of the most potent symbols in Mesoamerican mythology. Often associated with the ruling power of the king, the jaguar was the most sacred beast in the animal pantheon. The veneration of this creature permeates the art of the Olmec. Considered to be the mother culture of Mesoamerican civilizations, the Olmec ruled a vast empire covering much of southern Mexico from around 1300-400 B.C. Today, they are famed for their colossal heads, giant sculptures that first alerted scholars to their existence in the latter half of the 19th Century. The figure depicted on this celt, a type of prehistoric tool shaped like an ax head, has taken the form of the “were-jaguar.” This is the name used to describe this type of figure (a mythical half man/half jaguar) exhibiting the puffy, fat cheeks and jowls of a human baby with the slanted eyes and curved mouth of the feline. We believe these works to represent a shaman in the midst of transformation. These great spiritual leaders were supposed to be able to transform and assume the powers of wild animals. The holes drilled into this celt reveal that is was a ceremonial object most likely hung on a string worn around the neck. Perhaps the celt would assist the shaman in his transformation. Overall, this celt attests to the artistic sophistication of the Olmec artists as well as to the cultures religious and spiritual beliefs.