1200 AD to 1500 AD
3.5″ (8.9cm) high x 3″ (7.6cm) wide
This green stone amulet depicts an anthropomorphic face with skeletal qualities. The size suggests it would have served a private rather than public function, perhaps as a reminder of a deceased ancestor. The Taino flourished in the Caribbean c.1200-1500 and had a complex system of religious beliefs. As well as worshipping a pantheon of deities (known as zemis) believed to control the natural elements, they also venerated their ancestors and employed shamans to communicate with the souls of the deceased. The stylised facial features, especially the sunken orbits, small nose and wide gaping mouth recall larger Taino zemi sculptures. A band of lightly incised geometric motifs including triangles and coils runs across the protruding forehead and may represent a headdress or ritual tattooing. The ears are indicated by two circular incisions on both sides. The reverse is flat and unadorned but the surface does have several irregular indentations. It is not clear if these were deliberate, but their haphazard layout suggests they were the accidental result of repeated handling. The carving fits neatly into the palm of one’s hand and it is likely that it was held or touched in this way by its original owner to release its apotropaic/protective powers.
Although the skull-like features might strike a modern audience as slightly sinister, this emphasis on death is a recurring feature of Taino art. However the message is not all negative; the Taino believed in the existence of an afterlife and the ability to maintain contact with their deceased loved ones. This amulet undoubtedly served to reassure its original owner and must have been a prized possession. Today it continues to impress us with its aesthetic appeal and historical associations.