File_3403, 4/12/12, 2:39 PM, 16C, 3000x1558 (0+1296), 50%, Custom, 1/10 s, R115.0, G96.4, B115.0


Olmec, Preclassic Period, ca. 600 BC
Terracotta, cinnabar
Height: 5-1/4 inches (13.4 cm)
Published: Linda Schildkraut, The Merrin Gallery – Precolumbian Art, [New York, 2000] no. 11.
Provenance: Ex private Chicago collection (since the 1940’s)
Edward H. Merrin Gallery 1967.
Edward Merrin collection.
N.B. A Thermoluminescence test has placed the date of last firing at some time between 1,600 and 2,600 years ago (i.e., 600 BC-AD 400). Style suggests the early range of this time span.


This male figure, exquisite even in its present state, is modeled of solid buff-gray clay with a very high polish on its slipped surface. The back of the skull has a circular hollow, suggestive of the surgical procedure called trepanning. Note, too, the deep channel demarcating where the skull was removed and that area’s contrasting unburnished surface. The facial physiognomy is distinct from that of the idealized, solid clay figures from the Valley of Mexico, where most such objects originate. It has neither the bullet-shaped nor the bulbous skull of the Las Bocas figurines. In fact, the high cheekbones, jutting chin, naso-labial creases, and fleshy lips more closely represent an actual person than does an idealized Olmec figurine. A closer comparison exists in a different medium: the stone figure of a Kneeling Shaman in Transformation Pose, in the collection of the Art Museum, Princeton University. In addition to the facial shape, they also share almond-shaped, hollow eyes (undoubtedly originally inlaid) and sharply etched clavicles.

In classic Olmec style, the body is treated in a more simplified manner than the head. The shoulders are broad and the waist is slender. The pectoral muscles are subtly indicated. The angle of the torso and the creases flanking the navel show a carefully observed abdominal contraction. One assumes that the figure sat, probably with his arms resting on his folded legs. Intact, its scale would have been similar to that of the Princeton Shaman (height: 17.5 cm). Our figure, too, may represent a shaman or, perhaps, a patient undergoing a shamanic curing ritual.