Olmec, probably from Las Bocas, 1200-900 BC
Terracotta, cinnabar
Height: 4-3/4 inches (12 cm)
Edward H. Merrin Gallery, 1968
Ex private French collection
Samuel Merrin collection, 1985
Published: Linda Schildkraut, The Merrin Gallery –Precolumbian Art [New York:2000] no. 2, illus.
N.B. This figure has been dated by thermoluminescence to 1330-0 BC. Stylistic comparison places it in the Preclassic period.


This solid terracotta figure is one of the finest Olmec ceramics known. He is modeled of solid tan clay that was cream-slipped. Select areas – the legs, hands, and face – were daubed with a dilute wash of pale red cinnabar. Burnishing produced a stunning, glassy polish which has survived quite well, granting him a jewel-like effect.

The seated male is more portrait-like and active in posture than most Olmec terracotta figurines. He leans toward his left with his head turned, as if rapt, listening to a discourse delivered by an unseen speaker. Likely, he was part of a multi-figure grouping. The concept brings to mind the Xochipala pair of seated shaman and youth, seemingly engaged in conversation, in the collection of the Princeton Art Museum. These two related figures are approximately contemporary with our Olmec example.

Our figure is an elderly man with slightly wizened features. Unique, thumbprint-like depressions indent his temples and shoulders and smaller ones make tiny flat plateaus on his cheeks. This may represent the particular physical appearance of an actual individual. He is totally human, totally engaging, and we yearn to know what has captivated him so.


Calo T.E. Gay, Xochipala – The Beginnings of Olmec Art (exh. cat.) The Art Museum, Princeton [January 11-February 13, 1972] Figures 7 a-d (1972-38 and 1972-39)