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Jade - Pendants and Figurines


Olmec Figurines (Mexico)

Origin I Characteristics I Urgency of the Situation I Legislation I Bibliography

Click on the photo to see caption and an enlarged version

Click on the photo to see caption and an enlarged version

Olmec figurine,
jade, 10.8 x 3.2 cm
Olmec figurine,
jade, 6.5 x 4.5 cm
  © Museo Nacional de Antropología © Museo Nacional de Antropología




These jade figurines were most likely crafted along the Gulf Coast of Mexico, in the area comprised between Río Papaloapan in southern Veracruz and Laguna de Términos in the state of Tabasco. They date from the Middle Pre-Classic period (1500-500 BC) and are representative of the "Olmec period" of Mesoamerican civilization.
Olmec figurines were generally crafted in bright green or blue jade. Some are also made of other hard stones in colors ranging from different shades of white to dark green (almost black).They were individually carved and polished, following a set style. Bigger figurines measure 30 cm in height and the smaller ones 8 cm.
Figurines are mostly portrayed in a standing, sitting or sometimes laying position. These figures have wide downturned lips, that some have interpreted as elements representing jaguars. Most of these figurines have shaved heads displaying cranial deformation: the round lower part becomes much more narrow at the front. Others show a V-shaped incision in the front as if they were hit with an axe in the upper part of the skull. Most of them portray male characters. Even though their sexual organs are not shown, they lack breasts so they are easily identifiable as male figurines. Some wear a maxtlatl, or loin cloth, the traditional Mesoamerican male attire.


--Urgency of the Situation  

At present, there are only 40 archaeological pieces and at least 50 more that were obtained through looting.
Olmec culture was scientifically identified in 1940 and since then constant efforts have been made to collect objects representative of this culture. Olmec figurines stand out because of their aesthetics and their close relationship with these cultures' rituals and ceremonies. Furthermore, these figurines have allowed archaeologists to establish typologies for the study of Olmec material culture and they are also used as markers for the establishment of long distance commercial networks.
Nevertheless, these sculptures, taken out of their context, provide little information. As these figurines appear in different auction catalogues, there is no doubt that many of them have been obtained through illegal means in the past decades, which hinders their archaeological study making them art works without much scientific value.
Many Olmec sites located in what once constituted these cultures' metropolitan area are, nowadays, agricultural fields and cattle raring areas. Excavations by inhabitants in rural areas may bring to light these objects, which may then be subject to illicit trafficking.


--Legislation Protecting these Objects  

See Mexico

  • Benson, Elizabeth & Fuente, Beatriz de la (eds.). Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico. Washington, National Gallery of Art, 1996.
  • Clark, John (coord.). Los Olmecas en Mesoamérica. México, CityBank, 1994.

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October 2003