This small sculpture, carved from serpentine, represents an important royal Olmec figure. The elongated head of the figure refers to the Olmec practice of cranial modification. The figure’s mouth, turned down at the corners, is meant to resemble the mouth of a jaguar, an animal revered by the Olmec peoples.
The materials of this sculpture also had symbolic significance for the Olmec peoples. The green color of serpentine was associated with water, maize, vegetation, and the sky while the red cinnabar, some of which is still present in the sculpture’s details, represented the life force of blood.
Around 900 B.C., jadeite and other varieties of greenstone, such as the serpentine used for Seated ruler in ritual pose, replaced clay as the preferred material for precious, small-scale objects. More rare and difficult to work than clay, jadeite and other greenstones derived ideological value from their green color which was associated with water, maize, vegetation, the sky, and life. As one of several objects deposited in a burial cache, a green-stone figure such as Seated ruler in ritual pose may have signified the renewal of life, especially when it was coated with cinnabar, a mineral whose red color represented the life force of blood. A small amount of the original cinnabar can be seen in the grooved surface of Seated ruler in ritual pose.
This figure was probably carved using a variety of tools and materials. Drills, made of stone or perhaps bamboo, were rotated at fast speeds to form holes or depressions on the serpentine, while saws made of stone, wood, or flexible string served as cutting tools. Quartz sand, crushed jade, and garnet could be mixed with water, creating a gritty substance used to drill, saw, grind, and polish the object.
Seated ruler in ritual pose has a number of characteristics which had significance to an Olmec viewer. For instance, the mouth of the figure, turned down at the corners, resembles the snarling mouth of a jaguar. Human and jaguar characteristics appear together in certain Olmec figures, suggesting that the jaguar could be an animal spirit companion. Animal companions represent a connection between a human and an animal on a powerfully spiritual level. The Olmec believed that a ruler or religious specialist could transform himself into his animal spirit companion during a trance. Because the jaguar was renowned for its abilities to hunt, swim, and climb high in trees, it was considered master of the three levels of the Olmec world: water, earth, and sky. Depicting the ruler with the mouth of a jaguar may also suggest that he was able to call on powerful spiritual forces in the animal world.
The Olmec practice of cranial modification, indicated by the unusually long head of this figure, is thought by some scholars to mimic the shape of an ear of corn, the most basic food of the Olmec and source of their agricultural wealth.
The ruler’s clothing also had significance to an Olmec viewer. The simple headband, meant to resemble a crown, and the figure’s loincloth, incised with two vertical lines, which form the shape of a stone celt (a tool used for farming), were symbols of royal authority. The seated position of this figure, with one knee upraised, seems relaxed, but it suggests authority. We can imagine a ruler seated on a carved stone throne or a woven mat, participating in a ritual event.
Over 3,000 years ago, Mesoamerica’s first complex civilization developed in the swampy lowlands of Mexico’s Gulf Coast states of Veracruz and Tabasco. We know this civilization as Olmec. Works of art in the Olmec style have also been found in the highlands. This figure comes from the highland state of Puebla. In addition to creating a sophisticated symbol system, the Olmec built the earliest monumental architecture and carved the first large-scale stone sculptures. Through colossal stone heads and a range of figural sculpture, the Olmec established the tradition of portraits of rulers. Olmec ideas about religion and kingship influenced other Mesoamerican peoples, especially the Maya.
Ancient American Art in the Dallas Museum of Art
The term Ancient American Art refers to hundreds of objects in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art. These objects were made by cultures that flourished in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans. They are often called “pre-Columbian,” because they were made before the voyages of Christopher Columbus. The objects range in date from about 1000 B.C. to about A.D. 1550.
They represent diverse materials—stone, ceramic, gold, cloth, and feathers. They were not considered works of art in their original settings, nor were they displayed in museums. Rarely do we know the name of the artists, but we know the names of the cultures.
The cultures featured in the DMA collections include: Colima, Maya, Mixtec, Olmec, Calima, Moche, Nasca, Paracas, Cupisnique, Chimú, and Sicán. Through the work of archaeologists, anthropologists, and art historians we can learn more about these ancient cultures and the objects they created. By studying the artworks we can begin to learn more about the way the people of these ancient cultures lived and viewed the world around them, as well as consider their place in world history.
1. Describe this seated figure. Be sure to include his facial expression, his body position, and what he wears.
2. Have one person sit in the exact position of the figure in Seated ruler in ritual pose while others talk with him or her. What does it feel like to sit in this position?
3. The green color of the serpentine and red color of the cinnabar were symbolically important to the Olmec peoples. Are there colors which have specific significance to your culture? Which ones and what is their meaning?
4. What would it be like to touch the surface of the sculpture? How might this texture compare to the texture of a real person?
5. This Olmec sculpture possesses both human and animal features. What are some examples of human/animal hybrid creatures from myths or legends outside of the Olmec culture? What qualities are traditionally ascribed to them? Why might hybrid creatures be so common across cultures?
1. In photographs, this sculpture can look much larger than it appears in person. To better understand the scale of Seated ruler, measure and cut a block of Styrofoam to its dimensions (H: 7 ¼ x W: 5 3/8 x D: 3 1/16 inches). Consider and discuss the scale of the figure in relationship to how it was made as well what it might feel like to hold this small sculpture in your hands.
Compare this Olmec sculpture to the Bamileke Elephant mask
. Both artworks associate rulers with powerful animals. Consider and discuss how each uses the image and qualities of an animal to convey authority or power? Also compare and contrast the materials, scale, and function of both artworks.
3. What associations do you make with the colors green and red? Listen to the audio recording of a poem by Cristina Henriquez while looking at an image of Seated ruler. Think about the significance of green and red to the Olmec. Choose a color that is important to you, then brainstorm your associations with the color. Write a poem about this color and create an illustration to accompany your poem.
4. Ancient American artists often used images of powerful animals which connected people to powerful spiritual forces. What kind of animal do you admire? Pick out qualities of your animal that are important. Make a drawing of yourself with the qualities of the animal you admire. For example, you may admire eagles because they are such strong flyers or because their eyesight is keen.
5. Seated ruler in ritual pose is made of greenstone which is not as rare as jadeite, and it is not as hard. Jadeite has a hardness between 6.5 and 7.0 on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness. Research the Mohs scale. What is it and when was it created? How many levels of hardness are on the Mohs scale? Why is it important to have a scale for hardness? Now that you have investigated hardness, consider this question: How could the difficulty of carving stone add to the importance of an Olmec sculpture?
6. Imagine you are an archeologist discovering this small sculpture buried in a tomb or in an offering made to dedicate a sacred place or building. Make a list of questions that will guide your study of the Seated ruler. If you need some help getting started, consider what archaeologists do when working out in the field. They excavate, observe, and take notes about the landscape and areas where they find objects. They sometimes sketch and take pictures, and they also might think about what other objects or structures were found nearby.
Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. Dallas, 1997. Page 183.
Diehl, R. The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.
Miller, Mary, and Karl Taube. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993.
Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1996. Cat. no. 55, page 219.
The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership. Princeton, N.J.: Art Museum, Princeton University, 1995. Cat. no. 15, page 145.
Princeton University. The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership. Princeton: The Art Museum, Princeton University, 1995.
Rediscovered Masterpieces of Mesoamerica: Mexico-Guatemala-Honduras. Boulogne, France: Editions Arts, 1985. Fig. 7, p. 36.
Taube, Karl A. Olmec Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2004.
Books for Students:
Baquenado, Elizabeth. Clarke, Barry. Aztec, Inca and Maya. DK Children, 2005.
Childress, David H. The Mystery of the Olmecs. Adventures Unlimited Press, 2007.
Hinshaw, Kelly C. Art Across the Ages: Ancient Mexico. Chronicle Books, 2007.
Soneborn, Elizabeth. The New-York Public Library. Amazing Native American History: A Book of Answers for Kids. Wiley, 1999.
Vigil, Angel. The Eagle on the Cactus: Traditional Stories from Mexico. Libraries Unlimited, 2000.
A geologist with the American Museum of Natural History presents this web site about jade, a hard greenstone similar to serpentine.
This audio file from the BBC discusses Olmec stone masks.
This article from the New York Times discusses some recent research on the Olmec peoples.
This page discusses a work of Olmec art that shares some similarities with the DMA’s Olmec sculpture.
This resource contains an example of Olmec stone mask and explanations about the Olmec art.