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A Fertility Idol of Questionable Authenticity

Dumbarton Oaks is a historic estate in Washington, D.C. which has an unusual artifact among its impressive collection of Byzantine and pre-Columbian objects – a fertility idol known as the Birthing Figure. The idol is about 20 cm (8 inches) tall and carved out of scapolite. Some say it’s a representation of Tlazolteotl, an Aztec deity associated with purification, but the authenticity of the artifact is a source of controversy.

Originally, the sculpture was said to be of Aztec origin and made circa 900–1521. However, the first mention of the idol appears in 1899, when Ernest-Théodore Hamy reported seeing it in an antique store in Paris. It was purchased by a French collector and eventually ended up in the collection of Robert Woods Bliss, the founder of Dumbarton Oaks, in 1947.

For decades, people have debated whether it’s truly a remarkable piece of pre-Columbian art or a 19th century idealized representation of Aztec art. The main arguments against the piece’s authenticity claim that images of birthing women are uncommon in Aztec art and a disbelief that the idol could have been made without modern tools.

Credit: Johnbod/ CC BY-SA 4.0

What do you think?

Fertility idol

Hi Alicia

No, I really don´t think so. It does not look like any of the pre Columbian art I have been happy to seen so far. Not the facial grin, the material, nor the baby´s hands or expression resembles any other kind of Aztec art that I have seen. Anita

Material

Dumbarton Oaks birthing figure could be dated as pre Columbian because of the material it's made of. Aztec artifacts are known to be made out of clay and just clay itself; I believe this is pre columbian because of material and how they position the figure, if compared to Aztec artifacts, they share similar sitting positions and similar form. Fertility figures arn't known to be positioned in that type of form. 

Jessica Garcia

Statue Authenticity

The Fringe or part - headdress is comparable to pre Columbian figures from the same period, but this seems very refined in its appearance, detail wise, where has a lot of the pre Colombian figures I have seen are more rustic and simplistic in appearance, Pre Columbian sculpture features, seem more exaggerated in pieces from that era, this is to detailed and in proportion, the refinement, detail and the exactness in the artists application here could very well imply that it’s a more of modern creation as already suggested.

 

Birthing figure

The Dumbarton Oaks birthing figure does not appear to be pre-Columbian to me, and it appears to be more modern. It definitely shows the pain of birthing no matter when it was made.

Karen K. King

Pre-Col Birthing Figure

The figure is not Aztec but, in all probability, is Quimbaya (Colombia). A similar figure made of tumbaga was recognized by Dumbarton Oaks; photos available, please let me know how to send them. Thanks, George Fery 

Perhaps the true nature of the idol revealed ?

Hi Alicia

TIAZOLTEOTL…... Represents the many facets of fertility and the view from some quarters is that the Aztec deity has some characteristics, that are associated with European Witches. I don’t think this statue was ever intended to deceive as an early 19th century fake, it was probably used as the embodiment of the goddess as a symbol in ritualistic ceremonial worship in performing carnal acts etc. Because In the early part of the 19th century, France saw the emergence of many Cults and Sects, which during this time worked in both interests of developing an alternative to Christianity which were developed from preceding centuries at the time and seen as somewhat of an occult revival.  Thanks Paul

birthing statue

Alicia,

I have to agree with some of the others that think the material is not the usual Aztec choice, it is usually clay.  I see nothing wrong with the mouth display of the rictus of pain and I don’t know enough to criticize the hand position.  But overall I just don’t believe it is Aztec, but I can’t say it is not pre-columbian.       Murrell

Murrell E Mathis, Jr

Nice quality content

Wow, this would bring a lot of untold stories from the past, great collection!

Ryan | http://www.grandrapidsdeckbuilders.net/