900 BC to 500 BC
9.45″ (24.0cm) high x 8.2″ (20.8cm) wide
This striking jaguar head ornament pertains to the Olmecs, who are generally considered to be the ultimate ancestor of all subsequent Mesoamerican civilisations. Thriving between about 1200 and 400 BC, their base was the tropical lowlands of south central Mexico, an area characterized by swamps punctuated by low hill ridges and volcanoes. The consolidation of their city-states led to notable cultural influence far beyond their heartland, and throughout the Mesoamerican region. It would appear that the Olmec style became synonymous with elite status in other (predominantly highland) groups, with evidence for exchange of artefacts in both directions. A non-literate group, the Olmecs nevertheless paved the way for the development of writing systems in the loosely defined Epi- Olmec period (c. 500 BC). Further innovations include arguably the first use of the zero, later to be instrumental in the Maya long count vigesimal calendrical system. They also appear to have been the originators of the famous Mesoamerican ballgame so prevalent among later cultures in the region, and either retained or invented several religious symbols such as the feathered serpent and the rain spirit, which persisted in subsequent and related cultures until the middle ages.
The art forms for which the Olmecs are best known, the monumental stone heads weighing up to forty tons, are generally assumed to pertain to some form of kingly leader or possibly an ancestor. The smaller jade figures, celts and pectorals of which this is one are believed to be domestically or institutionally based totems or divinities. The quality of production is astonishing, particularly if one considers the technology available for production, the early date of the pieces, and the dearth of earlier works upon which the Olmec sculptors could draw. Some pieces are highly stylised, while others demonstrate striking naturalism with interpretation of some facial features (notably down-turned mouths and slit eyes) that can be clearly seen in the current figure.
Jaguars seem to have occupied a particularly prominent place in the iconography and ritual behaviour of the Olmec. The most unusual forms show what appears to be a lycanthropic – perhaps more properly “felinanthropic” -transformation between a human and a jaguar, while the quality and evident importance of other jaguar-themed pieces seem to suggest that they were identified with high-status groups or people within the society. This example has been drilled in both ears, implying that it was suspended and worn – perhaps as a pectoral, or a mark of authority. The face is roughly oval, with gentle brows framing large, almond-shaped eyes which may once have been inlaid. It has a flat nose with drilled nostrils, and an upper lip drawn back in what appears to be phlemen behaviour (when a large feline “smells” the air in a state of watchfulness). The deep pits at each corner of the mouth are of uncertain function, but were probably originally inlaid. What at first sight appear to be teeth in fact more closely resemble forked tongues – so the fact that the figure has two of these raises iconographic questions that cannot yet be answered. It is however possible that the figure represents another of the zoomorphic transformations evidently beloved of Olmec artists, such as the feathered serpent, or the were-jaguar. The investment of work in this piece means that it must have been commissioned by a person of considerable standing, either in terms of chiefdom, or perhaps pertaining to a magico- religious leader of note. While it was doubtless designed to strike fear into the hearts of contemporary populations, it has now become a brilliantly conceived and superbly executed work of ancient art.Login to view price