Art of the Americas to World War I
Jade votive axe
Jade votive axe, Olmec, 1200-400 B.C.E., 29 x 13.5 cm © Trustees of the British Museum
The Olmec fashioned votive axes in the form of figures carved from jade, jadeite, serpentine and other greenstones. The figures have a large head and a small, stocky body that narrows into a blade shape. They combine features of a human and other animals, such as jaguar, eagle or toad. The mouth is slightly opened, with a flaring upper lip and the corners turned down. The flaming eyebrows seen on this example are also a recurrent feature, and have been interpreted as a representation of the crest of the harpy eagle.
Most axes, including this one, have a pronounced cleft in the middle of the head. This cleft has been interpreted by scholars variously as the open fontanelle (soft spot) on the crown of newborn babies, the deep groove in the skull of male jaguars, or that found on the head of certain species of toads. In some instances vegetation sprouts out of some of them. These combinations of human and animal traits and representations of supernatural beings are common in Olmec art.
Jade perforator, Olmec, 1200-400 B.C.E., jadite, 38 x 3 cm © Trustees of the British Museum
Perforators were used in self-sacrifice rites, which involved drawing blood from several parts of the body. Some representations of Olmec rulers show them holding bloodletters and/or scepters as part of their elaborate ritual costume.
Bloodletting was performed by the ruler to ensure the fertility of the land and the well-being of the community. It was also a means of communication with the ancestors and was vital to sustain the gods and the world. These rituals were common throughout Mesoamerica.
Jade perforator (detail of handle), Olmec, 1200-400 B.C.E., jadite, 38 x 3 cm © Trustees of the British Museum
Olmec jade perforators are often found in graves as part of the funerary offerings. Bloodletting implements were also fashioned out of bone, flint, greenstones, stingray spines and shark teeth. They vary in form and symbolism. Handles can be plain, incised with a variety of symbols associated to certain deities, or carved into the shape of supernatural beings. The blades, ending in a sharp point, are sometimes shaped into the beaks of certain birds, such as the hummingbird, or into a stingray tail.
This large perforator was probably not used as a bloodletting instrument; it might have been placed in a grave as an offering, or may have served a symbolic function.
Jade pectoral, Olmec, Middle Preclassic period, c. 1000-600 B.C.E., jadeite, 10.5 x 11 cm © Trustees of the British Museum
This pectoral (chest ornament), broken on both sides, was carved by an Olmec artist and reused by the Maya, as shown by the two Maya glyphs on the left side. The edges framing the head at the top and bottom indicate that it could also have been part of a larger pectoral.
Jade objects in Olmec style have been found throughout Mesoamerica and as far south as Costa Rica. Those found in areas of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, are decorated with different motifs and shapes from those found in the Olmec heartland, centered in present-day Southern Veracruz and Tabasco.
Although contacts between the Maya area and the Olmec heartland seem to have been limited, jade objects in Olmec style appear in Maya deposits dated to the Middle Preclassic (about 1000-400 B.C.E.). Its presence was probably the result of contact between the two areas or with areas that shared the same cultural traditions and similar imagery. Objects found in later deposits, for example at the Cenote of Sacrifice, in Chichen Itza, an Early Postclassic site (900-1200 C.E.), would have been reused over generations or found in earlier graves.
This portrait is a remarkable example of the finest Olmec lapidary art. It was designed to be worn as a pectoral and the pair of Maya name glyphs inscribed on one flange indicate that it was later reused by a Maya lord as a treasured heirloom. Unusually the glyphs are drawn backward so that they face the Olmec portrait, hinting at the power of the object as a symbol of ancestral, dynastic authority. The depressed iris of the eyes and the pierced nose probably bore additional shell work and ornament.
Michael Coe, The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership (Princeton, N.J., Art Museum, Princeton University in association with Harry N. Abrams, 1996).
E. Benson (ed.), The Olmec and their neighbors (Washington, DC, Dumbarton Oaks, 1981).
E. Benson and B. de la Fuente (eds.), Olmec art of ancient Mexico (Washington, National Gallery of Art, 1996).
C. McEwan, Ancient Mexico in the British (London, The British Museum Press, 1994).
The British Museum logo
© Trustees of the British Museum
Want to join the conversation?
- I know that jade is hard, but would the bloodletting devices have absorbed any blood, especially if used a large number of times?(4 votes)
- Wouldn't absorb it, technically speaking. But over time, over dozens, and or hundreds of uses by the same Votive or Preforator. It could stain onto the rock, but since Jade is a rock and it is most likely polished to the point of carving. It wont absorb or stain.(1 vote)
- If the Olmecs lived inland, and stingray tails are in the ocean, how did they know about the stingray tails to copy them into their bloodletting devices? I mean, really? How in the world did that ever happen?(3 votes)
- They were not that far from the Gulf of Mexico, and they could easily have met traders passing through carrying stingray tails. Already, they traded with different peoples to obtain the jadeite of various colors that they carved.(5 votes)
- I know they mentioned in the previous video and the very beginning of this video the Olmec axes. However, they very clearly stated in the last video that these were not actual axes, and were more than likely used for ceremonial purposes. I was hoping this report would explain how they received the title of axes, considering they hold no resemblance to the sharp, cutting object. Why were these sculptures dubbed Olmec axes? Was it simply the name they were given when they were found? Or does it have some sort of symbolism for the meaning behind them?(1 vote)
- Start here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hand_axe and read about Hand Axes, which are the longest known tool used in human history. They have no handles, but are, essentially, blades made for chopping. Look at the shape of them.
Then go here: http://nmai.si.edu/exhibitions/infinityofnations/meso-carib/163400.html
and look at the Olmec ceremonial axe. It's basically the same shape, and likely about the same size. It's a blade, not made for chopping, but similar to those that were.
Like the Venus of Willendorf, whom the cavemen didn't name "Venus", this "Axe" got named for being similar to something that already had a name.(3 votes)
- Ok so if the Olmec people used the so called "Bloodletters" to draw blood from the body, why would it matter for them to perform it on all parts of their body?
I have some questions relating these people because for one if jade was so hard to carve and chisel why and how did they manage to accomplish this without steel tools?(1 vote)
- Traditional methods include abrasion, using sand or hard stone dust on a stone, wood, or string and slowly grinding away the surface.(2 votes)
- In the last paragraph the article states that a Olmec pectoral was found in the hands of the Maya. Could the Maya have stolen it, or could it be that the Olmec gave the Mayan people the pectoral as a gift?(2 votes)
- "Direct cultural influences may be seen, in some sites, from the Olmecs and the Zapotecs and the cultural values of Teotihuacan and El Tajin but, in others, a wholly new culture seems to have emerged (such as at Chichen Itza where, though there is ample evidence of cultural borrowing, there is a significantly different style to the art and architecture)."
According to Ancient.eu, they did have trading. Also, that is most likely what occurred, since the Mayan's and Olmec's lived around the same amount of time, the Mayans lasting for another mere 250 years after the final downfall/decline of the Olmec's.(1 vote)
- Where did the Mesoamerican civilizations obtain jade?(1 vote)
- Jade is not at all uncommon. It is mined in Guatemala.https://www.magzter.com/article/Hobbies-Craft/RockGem-Magazine/GUATEMALAN-JADE(1 vote)
- who created the Olmec jade(1 vote)
- Like all jade in the world, it was created by God. The particular carvings of jade, wherever in the world they have come to exist, were made by unnamed artists and craftspeople.(0 votes)