New Acquisition: Olmec maskette

The Museum recently welcomed to its Ancient Americas collection an arresting Olmec-style stone maskette, a gift from Gillett G. Griffin. Such diminutive faces occasionally appear in large-scale Olmec sculpture as adornments, primarily as diadem frontals. Two drilled holes at the top of the maskette suggest that it too once served as a bodily ornament. The sculpture epitomizes Olmec notions of beauty, including not only the diagnostic thick upper lip and downturned mouth but also attentive treatment of supple flesh, especially of the eyelids, chin, and cheeks. Middle Formative (1000–500 B.C.) sculptors carved serpentine and other hard stones using only stone abrasives, leather, and friction, and these specific methods remain clearly evident on the maskette. The corners of the eyes and mouth reveal marks of drilling, while the irregular, scratchy lines defining the upper eyelids index stone-on-stone incision. Most notably, the basic facial forms, such as the triangle comprising the nose and mouth, indicate that these features were defined by simple, linear stringsawing. The characteristic Olmec mouth, then, may derive from the techniques of lithic production. Similar economy of labor is revealed by planar shapes in the composition, such as the continuation of the curve forming the tip of the nose and the upper lip, evident when the mask is viewed in profile.

Olmec, Mexico, Middle Preclassic: maskette, 1000–500 B.C. (2012-46).Although Olmecoid maskettes are known in great formal variety, several, including this example, accord to a single visage that likely refers to an Olmec ideal—a rendition of healthy youth, neither fat nor starved, neither excessively robust nor effeminate. The face may  represent the eternal, amalgamated “ancestor” and, simultaneously, the maize deity, who was the ideal, original human. The earliest examples of the maize god in Maya art borrow this idealized Olmec face, as best attested by the recently discovered murals of San Bartolo, Guatemala.

Concurrent with the shift of Olmec political power from San Lorenzo, Veracruz, east to La Venta, Tabasco, around 1000 B.C., widely distributed Olmec-style ceramics—a hallmark of Early Formative Mesoamerican art in the preceding centuries—fade from the archaeological record, replaced by fine, small-scale carving in stone, especially blue-green jadeite and serpentine. Celtiform human figures, incised jewelry, so-called “spoons” and masklike faces carved in Olmec style, all of Middle Formative date, have been  discovered throughout most of Mesoamerica, ranging from Costa Rica to the central Mexican Highlands and the southwest Mexican coast in the modernday state of Guerrero, where this maskette was discovered. Research in Guerrero has revealed Olmec outposts in the mountainous Balsas region, most notably at the major sites of Chalcatzingo and Teopantecuanitlan, which flourished in the Middle Formative lithic heyday, probably as Gulf Coast Olmec became increasingly interested in greenstone, a resource plentiful in this region. The maskette may have been created by Olmec immigrants to Guerrero, or by local peoples who had adopted Olmec style and carving techniques. Alternatively, it is possible the raw Guerrero serpentine was exported to the Gulf Coast, carved, and subsequently imported back into the region.

Bryan R. Just, Peter Jay Sharp, Class of 1952, Curator and Lecturer in the Art of the Ancient Americas