Olmec stone mask

Contributed by British Museum

A stone head made by the Olmec civilisation in Mexico. © Trustees of the British Museum

Image 1 of 4

This Olmec mask was worn around the neck as a pendant. It may have provided the wearer with a new identity as an ancestor or deity - perhaps as the Olmec rain god. The distinctive toothless, down-turned mouth and infant-like face are typical of Olmec art. The ears are perforated and the mask may have originally been decorated with piercings. On either side of the mouth are two Olmec glyphs (picture signs). Olmec glyphs are the earliest known writing in America.

What is the legacy of the Olmecs?

The Olmecs are the earliest Central American civilisation and laid the foundations for subsequent societies. Features associated with the Mayans and Aztecs such as stepped-temples, the ceremonial ball game and complex astrological calendars all originated with the Olmecs. The apparent collapse of the Olmec civilisation is still not well understood. Their decline may have been caused by the overpopulation of the fragile tropical river valley environment, a volcanic eruption, or a shift in the flow of the area's rivers.

Olmec means 'people from the rubber country'

An ancient mask?

For the Olmec, we have many stone masks. Some were clearly made to be worn as masks with perforations for the eyes, but the scale of this one and the fact that the eyes are not pierced suggests it was probably an ornament of jewellery.

The Olmec created great sculptures in fine material and this stone mask is one example. Probably what they were greatest at working with, in terms of materials, was jadeite - a very rare stone not even native to the Olmec area. We now know, as a result of Hurricane Mitch, that they were obtaining their material way over in Motagua Valley in Eastern Guatemala, about 300 miles away.

Jadeite is an incredibly hard stone to work, it’s denser than quartz, and they had no metal tools, so it was simply by abrasion and scratching and finally polishing that these remarkable objects were made. They are so beautifully made it’s almost like they’re moulded in plastic, but this was a heck of a lot of work!

Professor Karl A. Taube, Department of Anthropology, University of California

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Comments

  • 3 comments
  • 1. At 06:19 on 27 August 2010, Meisam wrote:

    More precisely, Jadeite is not a rock, but it is a mineral. Rocks my be composed of several kind of minerals. Jadeite is a kind of pyroxene minerals which apparently because of its beautiful shade of colors makes the rock or material containig it a suitable object for working on to make ornaments. Even today, it is still used as a material for making jwellrey.

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  • 2. At 15:42 on 20 August 2011, slaninka wrote:

    Could somebody explain to me the role of Hurricane Mitch in helping to figure out how the Olmecs were obtaining materials from Eastern Guatemala? Thanks, much appreciated.

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  • 3. At 08:19 on 25 August 2011, charles harari wrote:

    I'm a great fan of your serie
    I use it for my pleasure, my culture and to improve my English. Helas I'm unable to find anymore the texts of each object. Would it be possible to have them ? By the way I have a curious object which I don't know the use of. Is it possible to send you a photo? Thank you very much an all my congratulation for this superb serie

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