Dominican Republic; Taino
H. 3 in. (7.6 cm)
Purchase, Oscar de la Renta Gift, 1997 (1997.35.3)
Death imagery in the form of skeletal figures and skulls with deep eye sockets and huge grimacing mouths is common in Taino art, perhaps reflecting an obsessive fear of death. This small pendant carved of a white speckled stone, shows a seated skeletal figure holding his knees and wearing two pairs of earspools. The posture, seen on many ritual Taino objects, is conceptually linked to duhos, or ceremonial seats, which were symbols of social prestige and political and spiritual power in Taino culture. Decorated with elaborate carvings, chiefs sat on duhos during important social events and religious specialists used them in rituals involving communion with the spirit world. The figure represents a deity or zemi and may have been worn for protection.
Many of the small Taino cult objects and amulets are carved of dense, hard stone that must have been valued because of its color and grain. In the absence of iron tools in the Precolumbian world, stone carvers used flint chisels, and bone and hardwood drills for carving as well as fine sand and water for polishing.