Celt with Incised Profile


Not on view

A finely incised design appears on one side of this large, polished jadeite celt, or axe. A sculptor originally shaped and polished the hard greenstone into a long blade, the sharp edge of which was chipped in antiquity, and later a drill hole would have allowed the plaque to hang from a belt assemblage. Jade and greenstone axes were crucial components to Olmec dedicatory practices, also practiced in Chiapas and Guatemala after about 1000 B.C. On such celts, Olmec artists often incised images of deities, or even iconic or notational symbols, which developed and spread around Mesoamerica as proto-writing.

An incised disembodied hand with a knot around the wrist floats towards the center of the celt. The hand is stylized yet retains certain details like a thumbnail to suggest a human connection. Atop the back or palm of the hand is a large rectangular field lined with five smaller rectangles. The arrangement might reference a quincunx, a shape widely found in Olmec art and architecture, characterized by five points: the four corners and the center. Hands of this type represented syllabic and logographic signs in later Mesoamerican scripts, so this hand may have had a phonetic or conceptual reading to an Olmec viewer.

The other image incised on the broad side of the celt is the disembodied head of a supernatural figure in profile, wearing an elaborate headdress, facing the viewer’s left. The face is composed of a snarling, downturned mouth with prominent upper lip and protruding sharp incisor. A shape composed of four sets of two concentric circles frame the mouth, connected by two bands, again forming the quincunx shape with the mouth as the center. The eye is an L-shaped field punctuated by three semicircles. A large earflare assemblage splays to the right alongside the incised indication of a neck.

The headdress dominates the upper composition. In the center above the eye is a u-shaped element filled with crossed bands connected with a circle, again evoking the quincunx form. Two other elements protrude upward from the forehead and the rear of the head, representing further adornments. Above the u-shaped element, which itself is crowned by a v-shaped cleft, is another prominent v-shaped cleft. This form in Olmec art represents the hole in the earth into which maize seeds were planted, from which the sprouts would emerge. Here, a maize sprout is shown emerging from the headdress. It takes the form of a cross, with two central branches to the left and right, with three v-shaped fields evoking the fresh leaves on an immature maize plant.

The profile image incised on the upper portion of this celt has been identified as the Olmec Maize God, identifiable by the shape of the eye, the buccal mask, and headdress with the tall tripartite element emerging from the cleft. After about 1000 B.C., Olmec and Maya peoples depicted maize deities as their societies became more proficient at growing this staple crop. Even without incised imagery, hard, polishable jadeite, celts symbolized sprouts of maize. When planted in dedicatory caches, the makers of celts may have called for growth of their communities as they would hope for in a productive field of maize.

Further reading

Benson, Elizabeth P., and Beatriz de la Fuente, eds. Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1996.

Berrin, Kathleen, and Virginia M. Fields, eds. Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2010.

Cheetham, David, and Jeffrey P. Blomster, eds. The Early Olmec and Mesoamerica: The Material Record. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Clark, John E., and Michael Blake El origen de la civilización en Mesoamérica: Los Olmecas y Mokaya del Soconusco de Chiapas, Mexico. In El Preclásico o Formativo: Avances y perspectivas, Martha Carmona Macias, ed. Museo Nacional de Antropología, México City, 1989, pp. 385–403.

Clark, John E., and Michael Blake The Power of Prestige: Competitive Generosity and the Emergence of Rank Societies in Lowland Mesoamerica. In Factional Competition and Political Development in the New World, Elizabeth M. Brumfiel and John W. Fox, eds., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp: 17– 30.

Clark, John E., and Mary Pye, eds. 2000 Olmec Art and Archaeology: Social Complexity in the Formative Period. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art.

Coe, Michael D. The Jaguar’s Children: Pre-Classic Central Mexico. New York: Museum of Primitive Art, 1965.

Coe, Michael D. The Olmec Style and Its Distributions. In Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 3 (Robert Wauchope, gen. ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965, pp. 739–775

Coe, Michael D. (ed.) The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership. Princeton: The Art Museum, Princeton University, 1996, p. 262, fig. 1.

Coe, Michael D., and Richard A. Diehl 1980 In the Land of the Olmec: The Archaeology of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, 2 vols. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Covarrubias, Miguel Indian Art of Mexico and Central America. New York: Knopf, 1957, fig. 33. Origen y desarrollo del estilo artístico “Olmeca.” In Mayas y Olmecas: Segunda reunión de Mesa Redonda sobre problemas antropológicos de México y Centro América. Mexico City: Talleres, 1942, pp. 46-49.

Cyphers Guillén, Ann From Stone to Symbols: Olmec Art in Social Context at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán. In Social Patterns in Pre-Classic Mesoamerica (David C. Grove and Rosemary A. Joyce, eds.), Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1999, pp. 155–181.

Drucker, Philip La Venta, Tabasco: A Study of Olmec Ceramics and Art. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 153. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1952.

Drucker, Philip, Robert F. Heizer, And Robert J. Squier 1959 Excavations at La Venta, Tabasco, 1955. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 170. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1959.

Easby, Elizabeth Kennedy, and John F. Scott Before Cortés: Sculpture of Middle America. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1970.

Feuchtwanger, Franz Ceramica olmeca. Mexico City: Editorial Patria, 1989.

Fields, Virginia M., and Dorie Reents-Budet. Lords of Creation: The Origins of Sacred Maya Kingship. London and Los Angeles: Scala Publishers Limited, 2005, no. 13, p. 111.

Grove, David C. Olmec: What’s in a Name? In Regional Perspectives on the Olmec (Robert J. Sharer and David C. Grove, eds.): Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 8-14.

Joralemon, Peter David A Study of Olmec Iconography. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology 7. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1971.

Magaloni Kerpel, Diana, and Laura Filloy Nadal La Ofrende 4 de La Venta: un tesoro olmeca reunido en el Museo Nacional de Antropología. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2013.

Michelet, Dominique, Cora Falero Ruiz, and Steve Bourget Les Olmèques et les cultures du golfe du Mexique. Paris: Skira, 2020.

Pool, Christopher A. Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Pool, Christopher A. Pre-Columbian art of Latin America, 10th century B.C.-16th century A.D. Ithaca: Andrew Dickson White Museum of Art, Cornell University, 1966, no. 14, p. 36.

Reilly, Frank Kent, III The Shaman in Transformation Pose: A Study of the Theme of Rulership in Olmec Art. Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University vol. 48 no. 2, 1989, pp. 4–21.

Taube, Karl A. Olmec Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2004.

Celt with Incised Profile, Jade (jadeite), traces of red pigment, Olmec

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