This mask was probably worn around the neck as a pendant and may have given the wearer a new identity, perhaps that of an ancestor or a god. It was made by the Olmecs, the earliest known settled civilization of Central America.
Olmec stone mask, c. 900-400 B.C.E. Olmec, greenstone, 13 x 11.3 x 5.7 cm © Trustees of the British Museum
The Olmecs lived in the low-lying Gulf Coast area of what is now Mexico in about 1200-400 B.C.E. at sites such as San Lorenzo, Tres Zapotes, Laguna de los Cerros and La Venta.
These and the other Olmec centers were well planned and included many of the features that would be associated with later civilization in Central America including the Mexica (Aztecs) and Maya. Alongside impressive public spaces and large platform-mounds made of earth, there is evidence of a ceremonial ball game and complex astrological calendars.
Olmec art is very distinctive and clearly reflects their religion. Jaguars feature prominently because the Olmecs believed that, in the distant past, a union between a woman and a jaguar produced an earlier race of were-jaguars.
The Olmecs worked mainly in stone and particularly favored jade, or greenstone, which they believed had distinctive properties linked with fertility and procreation. These sought-after materials were brought into the region through long distance trade networks.
Earliest known writing in America
The head above is made from a dark green stone called serpentinite and would have been worked by skilled craftspeople using hand tools.
Olmec stone mask (detail with gylphs), c. 900-400 B.C.E. Olmec, greenstone, 13 x 11.3 x 5.7 cm © Trustees of the British Museum
On either side of the mouth (detail above) there are two Olmec glyphs (picture signs). Olmec glyphs are the earliest known writing in America. These fine-line motifs symbolically define the four quarters of the human world with the king as ruler at the center. The Olmec art style is found on objects as far afield as the Valley of Mexico to the north and the Pacific coast of Chiapas to the south. This suggests a widely-shared set of beliefs that was to have a profound influence on many later Mesoamerican stylistic traditions.
M. Coe, et al., The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership (New York, 1996).
R. Diehl, The Olmecs: America's First Civilization (London, 2004).
M. Miller, and K. Taube, The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion (London, 1993).
C. Pool, Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica (Cambridge, 2007).
K. Taube, Olmec Art at Dumbarton Oaks (Washington D.C., 2004).
S.T. Evans, Ancient Mexico and Central America: Archaeology and Culture History(London, 2008).
The British Museum logo
© Trustees of the British Museum
Want to join the conversation?
- Where did they dig it up? It says its Mexican (not to be rude) but it doesn't say where they found it....(6 votes)
- On the mouth of the last picture, why is there no teeth, and whats that under the gum? (its definitely not teeth by the looks of it)(6 votes)
- So, did they really wear stone masks? Or was it for cultural ceramonial purposes?(3 votes)
- They may have been worn as a remembrance for a dead ancestor or a worshiped deity. As stated above, it is likely that they were used for ceremonial purposes. The video about the Olmec mask states that it only about the size of the palm of one's hand. This means it likely wasn't too heavy to wear it quite often. It's unlikely they wore these masks on their faces. There doesn't appear to be any method to hold them onto the faces, and they are also not contoured to fit a face. The masks appear to have a flat background, with little to no indentations. It is unlikely that a face would be able to fit comfortably into the mask, if it was to be worn.(1 vote)
- What do the symbols mean and how did they figure out the name of it?(2 votes)
- They are Glyphs', and they are not named based on the language. Its a international English denunciation; The meaning is, "a hieroglyphic character or symbol; a pictograph." According to Wikipedia.(2 votes)
- How did they mine/dig this serpentinite up?(2 votes)
- It says that it is worn around the neck as a pendant. How come it appears to be considerably large? Or is that just how the photos depict it?(1 vote)
- is there any information on the social classes of the olmec civilization(1 vote)