This 3,000-year-old jade sculpture, called the Kunz
Axe after a former owner, is part human, part beast. It was reportedly found in
the hilly region of Oaxaca, where by 1,200 B.C. people were constructing
monumental buildings, producing sophisticated art, and trading with the Olmec.
The mouth in the shape of a jaguar and the almond-shaped eyes placed on top of
the head lead us to surmise that this figure may represent a chief or a shaman
who has transformed himself into a jaguar -- the most powerful hunter in the
forests of Mexico and Central America -- to partake of its power. With its
economical, taut carving, in which not a single line or mark is wasted, the brilliant
sculpture is among the finest jade carvings in history. It came to the Museum
Jade is an exceptionally hard material, and it took
great skill to carve it with the stone tools used by early artists. To create
the basic shape of a sculpture such as this one, the jade was probably chipped
and sawed with flakes of stone or hard fragments of pottery. It was then
scored, perhaps with a piece of bamboo, to create the intricate features. A
view of this sculpture from the side shows the bottom to be tapered to a point,
like an axe blade. Yet the Kunz Axe was not an ordinary tool, but most likely a
ceremonial object. Although this extraordinary carving was produced by a culture
vastly different from our own, its enormous power and energy speak to us still.
Figures, El Manatí, Early Formative, 1040 BCE, wood. Fig. 12
El Manatí is located at the foot of Cerro Manatí, some 15 km (9.3mi) southeast of the major Olmec center of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán. It is notable among Olmec sites for the absence of contemporaneous local ceremonial or domestic architecture.
Archaeologists have identified three separate phases of deposits at El Manatí: Manatí A Phase (ca. 1700 - 1600 BCE), Manatí B Phase, and the Macayal Phase (ca. 1040 BCE ± 150 years). The wooden busts were all found in this later phase.
El Manati may have been chosen as a sacred place because of one or more of its natural features:
The presence of a natural spring, often a feature of Mesoamerican sacred sites. The presence of red pigment, likely hematite, which symbolized blood. Its
location at the foot of a hill, Cerro Manatí. Many early Mesoamerican sites, including Chalcatzingo, Teopantecuanitlan, and Las Bocas, were situated east or west of a prominent hill.
Details of Discovery
•Of particular note are 37 wooden busts or sculptures recovered from the bogs in 1989 by INAH archaeologists, during the third excavational phase at El Manatí.These busts
were unusually well-preserved, owing to the anaerobic conditions of their interment and a stable water temperature that impeded microbial decay. Samples from two of these busts produced Carbon-14 dating results equivalent to a date of around 1200 BCE. Carved from the wood of ceiba and jobo trees, almost all of the busts had been ritually buried and wrapped in mats (petates) made from vegetable fibers—the earliest evidence of funeral wrappings in Mexico. The number of busts interred at or around the same time has led the INAH researchers to speculate that some widespread calamity, such as flood or prolonged drought, encouraged the ancient community to increase their offerings made in supplication to the mountain deities.
Despite the obviously stylized shape of the head, researchers suggest that, due to their individual expressions, the busts depicted actual people.
The wooden busts were usually accompanied by other objects. For example:
Sculpture 1 was associated with a wooden staff and a dark green ax (celt).
Sculpture 2 was associated with a large obsidian flake, tied bundles of leaves and plants, a hematite ball, a pile of sandstone rocks "common to a number of other sculptures,"as well as fragments of human infant bones. Nearby to its east was the skeleton of an infant.
Sculptures 5, 6, & 7 were interred as a group, each laid on their sides in a triangle, facing inward. These sculptures were associated with bundles of plant material and were covered with a mat. An incomplete wooden staff and an infant cranium were associated with this burial.
In addition to the dozen rubber balls and 37 wooden busts, the excavation has turned up many jadeite ceremonial axes (celts), pottery, greenstone beads arranged in clusters (likely once two separate necklaces), "baby-face" figurine fragments, carved wooden staffs, ritual obsidian knives (with no evidence of use), bones of newborn or unborn infants, and human and animal bone fragments. Most of these objects within the bog were found to be carefully arranged rather than being haphazardly deposited, pointing to a sacred sacrificial intent.
The bones of the newborn or unborn infants consisted of some whole skeletons as well as dismembered femurs and skulls. These remains are particularly intriguing since they point to the possibility of human sacrifice, a ritual without direct evidence in the Olmec archaeological record. The infant remains are each associated with, and subordinate to, the burial of a wooden bust. It is not known how the infants died.