A Study of Small Sculpture from the Mesoamerican Societies

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The Olmec, Maya, and Aztec were dominating societies of Mesoamerica, rich in culture, community, and art. While life may not be completely interpretable yet, much in known about how these societies were constructed, and how their religion dominated their lives. Much is generally made of their massive stonework, their ceremonial complexes, and ritual sacrifices, but their small jade, ceramic, and stone sculpture deserves as much attention as the works of much larger size have received.
The Olmec were thought to have set many of the patterns seen in later cultures throughout Mesoamerica.1 San Lorenzo, the oldest known Olmec building site, as of the time of the Brittanica article, is known for its Colossal Stone Heads, all of which have prominent facial features. Las Bocas was excavated and many small jade figurines of people in the community were found. Some of these appear to have ritualistic purposes, judging by the incising noted on the sculpture.
The Olmec culture spread northwest and southeast, and seemingly influenced later cultures in artistic endeavors.2
The concept of sacrifice in Olmec art had ties to the belief of renewal; a birth-death scenario, where one is returned to the source - the underworld.3 Similar to monumental figures of men presenting children, wearing jaguar-baby masks, for sacrifice, human figures were sculpted in a much smaller scale, many of which are ceramic or polished jade (fig. 1).
The Las Bocas site of the Olmec produced many small figurines that are thought to represent the people who lived there. These objects display Olmec symbols on their hairstyles or bodies, and because they were found at or near grave sites, these pieces are believed to have more purpose than simply the depiction of daily life.4 An example of this type of sculpture is of a man and woman embracing (fig. 2).
The “Wrestler” figure is an example of Olmec sculpture that should be viewed from all angles, not just frontal. “The long diagonal line of the figure’s back and shoulders is as beautiful and commanding as the frontal view.”5 The pensiveness of the expression on the man’s face suggests individuality and portraiture (fig. 3).
Jade was a really p...

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...assic Maya Art and Architecture.” In The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes, ed. Richard F. Townsend, 159-169. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1992.

Miller, Mary Ellen. The Art of Mesoamerica from Olmec to Aztec, 2nd ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Reilly III, F. Kent. “Art, Ritual, and Rulership in the Olmec World.” In The Ancient Civilizations of Mesoamerica, eds. Michael E. Smith and Marilyn A. Masson, 369-399. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

Valdes, Juan Antonio. “The Beginnings of Preclassic Maya Art and Architecture.” In The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes, ed. Richard F. Townsend, 147-57. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1992.
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