If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:5:36

Video transcript

we're in the American Museum of Natural History in a hall devoted to the ancient art of Mexico and Mesoamerica and we're looking at one of the most famous Olmec objects it is this extremely large piece of jade or green stone which is often referred to as an axe blade but it's actually a carved figure that could never be used as an axe these are found all over the Gulf Coast of Mexico and very very early on and while they've always been referred to as votive axes the places we find them and when we see them in images it's very clear that they're used for ritual and that they were very powerful objects so by votive we're talking about a ritual object that is meant to commemorate or to honor a God exactly so this is the most valuable material in all of Mesoamerica Mesoamericans consider jade much like the ancient world considered gold this was the valuable material par excellence we're talking about jadeite which is an extremely hard stone one of the things that they really valued was not only its ability to achieve a very high polished but also its color exactly there are particular colors that were obviously viewed as more valuable than others and finally they found a source very high in the Guatemalan mountains that they preferred the blue-green Jade most and it's really interesting that in fact in all Mesoamerican languages there is no word for blue and no word for green it's blue green or in my Yosh that literally is the color that they designate well it's gorgeous more than 50% of the object is the head a lot of the meaning in fact rests in this head and so it's a good thing that the Carver gave it so much room and so what we have is a being I could not consider this a human but some sort of human-like being that has almond eyes a flat nose and then a mouth that is incredibly complicated sometimes referred to as a Jaguar snarl while it's often called a Jaguar mouth that upraised upper lip there's been a lot of ideas about what that mouth could mean everything from the Jaguar some people have said that it looks more like a toad and other people say that the entire image is of a fetus is whatever this is it is the Olmec God the Olmec supernatural and on that everyone agrees when we use the term Jaguar that has become a kind of signifier for this shape but it may have nothing to do with the actual cat and it is so stylized the eyes are so stylized the very simplified ears that are quite elongated the volumes of the chin the volumes of the nose of the upper lip are so articulated are raised in this high relief it's in very sharp contrast to the lower part of the body where you see a very shallow relief and we're not quite sure what that figure is clutching but whatever it is it's being clutched close to his chest one of the interesting things about Olmec carving in general is the ability to focus the viewer on in this case the face and specifically the mouth and then this much shallow or much less work carving towards the bottom you have these two hands grasping something that we're not sure what it is exactly we are sure though that it's not as important as all of that stuff that's going on in the face and in fact the entire body is simplified and made of secondary to the mouth amounts to more observations one is concave hemispherical depressions at each corner of the mouth which is a typical of Olmec art and then we also see a concave area that separates the head from the body which suggests to me that this body might have originally worn something that there might have been a necklace perhaps and that would be not unusual in Mesoamerican art in fact even during the colonial period and today people regularly dress statues in Native villages for particular ceremony and the holds on a lower side of the mouth are almost certainly drilled and it's interesting to think about how this was made because there were no metal tools in Mesoamerica not only at this time but basically there was no functional metal tools throughout the history of Mesoamerica so this would have been made by an abrasion method robbing the same kind of very hard stone and think about the labor required to actually produce this it's breathtaking you would have had to get a drill sand and water and you would have just drilled and drilled with the sand and the water mixture acting as an abrasive slowly but surely carves out that hard jade surface and it's amazing to me to think about how much work and how much expertise would have gone into this so early in the history of Mesoamerica almost as soon as they create cities they create these specialized artists who have this amazing skill with very hard stone all characteristics that we associate with the ancient Olmec this originally people of Mesoamerica and in fact these originally people of Mesoamerica or at least the first civilization of Mesoamerica the first people who created cities in Mesoamerica and this face are intimately associated because it is the most popular motif in all of Olmec art this truly ancient object so expressive looking out at us across thousands of years you