Mask, 10th–6th century b.c.
Jadeite; H. 6 3/4 in. (17.1 cm)
Bequest of Alice K. Bache, 1977 (1977.187.33)
Of the many stone masks known from the ancient Americas, few are as arresting as this example made by the Olmec peoples of southern Mexico. A work of no later than the mid-first millennium B.C., it is carved of hard, semiprecious jadeite worked with amazing subtlety. An elegant straight nose sets off the wide-set eyes, now missing their inlay. In spite of the lifelike details of square jaw, small rounded chin, and puffy eyelids, the mouth defines the mask as other than a realistic depiction. The fleshy, bilaterally symmetrical lips are open to reveal the toothless gums of a very young person; at each side of the lower lip is a raised cleft, the Olmec emblem for corn. Corn, or maize, was a plant of such profound material significance to ancient Mexico that it took on religious import from a very early date. To the Olmecs, masks such as this one carried many meanings, not all of which are clear today. Maize and the color green—both aspects of this mask—were associated with growth, renewal, and, ultimately, rejuvenation after death.
Masks of this size in stone have not been excavated in archaeological sites and it is difficult to determine their function. Lacking holes for eyes and nose, it could not have been worn over a living face, but there are attachment holes along the edges by means of which it might have been used as a costume element or adhered as a face to a mummy bundle. There is a polished, circular depression on the back of the mask.