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An Ingenious, Anciently "Splinted" Stone Sculpture from Meso-America

By Richard Michael Gramly PhD
American Society for Amateur Archaeology
P.O. Box 821
North Andover, Massachusetts

Amateur Archaeologist JournalHere I describe a large and heavy (weight = 4 pounds 10 ½ ounces or 2.11 kg) polished serpentine sculpture of a man’s head emerging from the mouth of an eagle (Figure 1), which is reported to have been collected during the 1920s by a German family on holiday. The sculpture was recently sold by an heir, and is now part of the George Correa collection, Buffalo, New York. Until recently, the sculpture is said to have borne a paper label with the single word – “Zapothek.” During the first and second quarters of the 20th century archaeologists were active at the monumental Zapotec ceremonial center of Monte Alban, on a mountaintop near Oaxaca, Mexico. These ruins date to the Pre-Classic and Classic Periods and were a magnet for tourists even long before Ignacio Bernal authored the first guidebook about the site in 1958. It is highly probable that the sculpture was acquired from a shop or dealer in Oaxaca during that era. Until the late 1960s export of antiquities from Mexico was permitted.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalWhat may have been the color of the serpentine when fresh is difficult to know as the sculpture appears to have been subjected to heat, causing crazing over much of its surface as well as clouding. Presently color ranges from moderate red (5R 4/5) to light brownish-gray (5YR 6/1). A few small translucent patches on the long tapering “stem” of the sculpture, however, may not have been severely affected by heat. These remnants of the raw material’s original (?) color are dark yellowish-orange (10YR 6/6).

Amateur Archaeologist JournalWhen the sculpture came to me for conservation, I noticed that the stem appeared to be fractured in two places (as indicated in Figure 1, arrows). A very tough cement, perhaps an early type of epoxy, had been applied across the fractures to mask them. After the cement had been removed and the sculpture taken apart, it was evident that the join nearer the end, because of its fresh appearance, was modern. Its recent vintage was confirmed with a blue-light “archeoscope” designed and manufactured by David Walley. Walley’s hand-held device failed to show areas of fluorescing aragonite at the break. One expects to see this mineral upon ancient surfaces that have lain in contact with organic remains.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe join farther from the end of the stem (Figures 2-4), to my surprise, was not a break at all but a low-angle scarf-joint with a cylindrical tenon that fit neatly into a drilled hole. The tip of the tenon did not quite reach to the bottom of the hole. By cutting the scarf-joint at an angle, the stem of the sculpture was prevented from rotating around the tenon. Had some glue or mastic been applied, this join would have been immobile and strong.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe archeoscope revealed fluorescing aragonite on every surface of the scarf-joint, confirming that it was ancient work and not a modern repair by a clever restorer. Also, since the colors of serpentine on either side of this join did not match exactly, it seemed safe to say that the work was not an ancient repair. I concluded that it was an ingenious splint allowing two pieces of serpentine to be joined, thus increasing the overall length of the sculpture to 11 3/4 inches (29.5 cm).

Amateur Archaeologist JournalWhy the need for a sculpture with such a long, tapering stem, necessitating a splint? In my opinion the ancient sculptor attempted to represent on a much magnified scale one of the sharply-pointed blood-letters used for ritual bleeding by some prehistoric Meso-Americans. Such “daggers,” usually made of jade or some other precious stone, were favored by Olmec ritualists. Illustrated examples (see Figure 5 which is a tracing of a specimen illustrated by Balser 1988: 102) have two edges meeting at an acute angle. Their shape is nearly identical to our Zapotec sculpture. The functional blood-letter from Costa Rica figured by Balser, however, is hardly one-third the length of our specimen made of serpentine.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalWhat connection an human figure emerging from the mouth of a raptor (eagle) may have had with ritual blood-letting is problematical. Man/animal transformation figures are well known for the Zapotec of Monte Alban (see Marcias 2003: 22 for examples). Perhaps the blood that was drawn was intended to represent bleeding at the time of man’s mythic emergence (birth) from his animal progenitor? Unwieldy votive sculptures of actual bloodletters, one is inclined to believe, were pure art and intended to grace the temples and tombs of the Zapotec elite.

Richard Michael Gramly, PhD
North Andover, Massachusetts

References Cited

Balser, Carlos

1988Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Jade Precolombino de Costa Rica. Instituto Nacional de Seguros. San Jose, Costa Rica. (Second edition).

Bernal, Ignacio

1958Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Monte Alban/Mitla, Official Guide (in English). Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia. Mexico City.

Marcias, Martha Carmona

2003Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Sitios Arqueologicos del Estado de Oaxaca, Monte Alban. Editorial Mexico Desconocido. Mexico City.

Captions and figures accompanying An Ingenious, Anciently "Splinted" Stone Sculpture from Meso-America

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Figure 1. Votive sculpture of a bloodletter (?), possibly from Monte Alban. Length 11 3/4 inches (29.5 cm). Colorful serpentine. Collected in 1929 by a German family on holiday. George Correa collection. R. M. Gramly photograph. Arrows indicate modern break (A) and ancient scarf-joint (B).

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Figure 2. Sculpture disassembled at the scarf-joint.

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Figure 3. Closer view of disassembled sculpture.

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Figure 4. View of wide, drilled hole for accepting tenon. Arrows indicate one of several modern fractures and where the lip of the joint’s articular surface has been restored with a wax fill.

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Figure 5. Tracing of functional bloodletter made of jadeite, after Carlos Balser 1988: 102. Note the crested avian figure. Length = 11.3 cm (approx. 4 1/3 inches).

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