Olmec culture, Arroyo Pesquero, Veracruz, Mexico, Mask

Olmec culture, Arroyo Pesquero, Veracruz, Mexico 

Mask, c. 8th century BC 

calcified carved jadeite 

Purchase, 1973 (4175.1) 

The Olmecs were the first major civilization in Mesoamerica, living in the low-lying Gulf Coast area of what is now Mexico from about the 15th to the 3rd century BC. The Olmecs are well-known for their colossal heads carved from volcanic stone, an example of which is displayed on the platform in the center of the gallery. They also made smaller sculptural objects, particularly from jadeite or greenstone, a rare material not found locally but obtained through long-distance trade networks. Among the most striking and beautiful objects are masks, such as this example, which shows the surprisingly naturalistic Olmec facial style—straight nose, wide-set eyes, round cheeks, and fleshy lips. It is difficult to determine the function of these objects. While this mask is perforated in the eyes, nostrils, and mouth, the weight of the material makes it unlikely to have been worn by a living person. Holes at the sides suggest that it was intended to be attached to another object, perhaps as a costume element or mounted on a burial. The pale color and calcified surface of the mask, which was found in a cache of jadeite masks and figures at Arroyo Pesquero in Veracruz, were perhaps caused by ritual burning, which the Olmecs are known to have done.