Pre-Columbian, southern Mexico/Guatemala, Olmec culture, ca. 1150 to 550 BCE. A ceremonial deep green stone hand axe (celt), one of its faces incised with fantastical iconography of a skull-like face. The thin incised lines are filled with pale red cinnabar pigment. The axe itself is teardrop-shaped, polished to a matte sheen, with a thick, almost cuboid stem and a gently sloping, dull blade end. Peter D. Joralemon, in his 1971 publication, "Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, Number 7, A Study in Olmec Iconography", has classified many of these stylistic motifs, and his work allows us to understand that these greenstone celts symbolized ears of corn (maize). Many are incised with iconography of the corn god, but this example draws on another Mesoamerican stylistic motif, that of the trophy head. Size: 2.9" W x 10.45" H (7.4 cm x 26.5 cm)
Artists in ancient Mesoamerica commonly depicted disembodied human heads which are probably meant to represent trophy heads. Although the Mesoamerican use of war as a tool for acquiring resources and consolidating control under specific leaders is the same as ours today, theirs also had a supernatural element to it. We believe that the taking of the head was seen as an organized form of violence related to shamanism, whose role was to protect the community from any evil, including disease and sorcery. If a shaman's head was taken, then due to his or her supernatural skills, it could still have power, even separated from the rest of the body. Looking at the fierce face on this axe head, the artist's belief in this power is clear.
Provenance: private Los Angeles County, California, USA collection, collected prior to 1985
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