Small Mask, Pre-Classic Olmec, Las Bocas, Puebla, Mexico, circa 800–500 BCE
Mother of pearl shell with jade inlays, 3 1/4 x 3 3/4 x 1/2 inches (8.3 x 8.6 x 1.3 cm)
Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Early Americas, Exploration and Navigation, Miami Dade College, MDC PC 2022.1.29
Drilled to be worn as a shaman's pendant, this beautiful and rare mother-of-pearl mask is finely incised with the face of an enigmatic feline/water monster in the form of a jaguar-like fish with six original pale-green jade disks inlaid in the serrated eyebrows. The slanting rectangular eyes and the nostrils are perforated. The frontal drooping snout displays upper gums, splayed fangs, and central "water" dots. The original red cinnabar rubbed into the incisions marks the pendant as a ritual item, perhaps for burial.
This unusual image is best considered "Olmecoid," based on the unique visual vocabulary of the Olmec, one of the earliest and most significant of the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica (1200–600 BCE). Olmec iconography focused on its sole deity, the jaguar, depicted in many forms, from zoomorphic crouching felines to anthropomorphic faces with downturned mouths and fangs. Much of Olmec designs, with their organic metamorphoses of shamans, felines, and alter-egos, gradually became the basis for Maya imagery.