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Spoon with Incised Designs

Arts of the Americas

The Olmec, whose civilization flourished on the Gulf Coast of Mexico from 1200 to 400 B.C.E., excelled at jade carving. The rarity, beauty, and hardness of the stone, with its variety of colors ranging from light green to a rich blue green, made it a desirable material for small objects. Jade was symbolically related to water, plants, and fertility. Spoons, often with incised designs, were likely used by shamans to ingest hallucinogens that induced visions and allowed them to communicate with the supernatural world. The shape of the plaque seen here is interpreted as a corn symbol, an indication of the crop’s importance. Images incised on Olmec celts (ceremonial axes) show figures wearing plaques like this one as headdress ornaments.
CULTURE Olmec
MEDIUM Jade, red pigment
  • Place Found: Veracruz, Mexico
  • DATES 800-500 B.C.E.
    PERIOD Preclassic Period or Middle Formative
    DIMENSIONS 5 x 1 3/16 x 5/16 in. (12.7 x 3 x 0.8 cm)  (show scale)
    COLLECTIONS Arts of the Americas
    ACCESSION NUMBER L73.15.1
    CREDIT LINE Collection of Christopher B. Martin, Dana B. Martin and Catherine S. Martin
    CATALOGUE DESCRIPTION Carved jade spoon with incised designs filled with red pigment (probably cinnabar). The spoon's slim handle widens into a bowl and then narrows into a smaller concave extension. The bowl is incised with a face in profile with typical Olmec features including the thick, drooping lips. Two other abstract, eyeless profiles appear in front of and behind the main profile head suggesting a mask that has been cut away to reveal a human face. Behind the head, a hand-paw-wing motif represents an abbreviated version of the Olmec dragon. The three, lobed designs incised in concentric lines on either side of the bowl have been interpreted as jaguar fur. Based upon representations of clothing, ornaments and ceremonial paraphernalia on stone sculptures, spoon-like objects appear to have been used by high-status individuals as insignia and worn (when there are drill holes) as pectoral ornaments. These spoons may have also been used by shamans for the consumption of hallucinogens to induce visions.
    MUSEUM LOCATION This item is not on view
    CAPTION Olmec. Spoon with Incised Designs, 800-500 B.C.E. Jade, red pigment, 5 x 1 3/16 x 5/16 in. (12.7 x 3 x 0.8 cm). Collection of Christopher B. Martin, Dana B. Martin and Catherine S. Martin, L73.15.1. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, L73.15.1_transp5629.jpg)
    IMAGE overall, L73.15.1_transp5629.jpg. Brooklyn Museum photograph
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