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The Olmec mask in The Met Collection. Public Domain.

Uncovering the Met’s 3,000-Year-Old Olmec Mask (Video)


This ancient Olmec face, on display at the Met, stands as a remarkable exhibit that underscores the enduring power of art and the intriguing craftsmanship of the Olmec culture. While commonly labeled a face mask, a closer examination dispels the notion that it was meant for mortals. Strikingly lifelike, it lacks openings for sight or breath. Delicate indentations in the eyes and mouth, possibly once adorned with shell inlays, hint at its ancient vitality. Resonating with human fascination for faces, it reveals intricate details—the soft contours of flesh over the eye, the sturdy jawline, and the gentle curvature of the chin.

Yet, as one scrutinizes the mouth with its downturned corners and curious toothless gum above, a sense of mystery prevails. Is it the visage of an infant or an animal? Faint incisions along the lower lip hint at a cleft mark, symbolizing the husk of corn, a revered crop in ancient Mesoamerica. Crafted from resilient blue-green jade, this piece embodies endurance and cyclical life, mirroring the growth of corn and ideas of fertility. The painstaking artistry behind this jade work is a striking testament to the Olmec's dedication—hours of meticulous carving, percussion flaking, and tireless polishing.

Top image: The Olmec mask in The Met Collection. Public Domain.

By Robbie Mitchell

Robbie Mitchell's picture


I’m a graduate of History and Literature from The University of Manchester in England and a total history geek. Since a young age, I’ve been obsessed with history. The weirder the better. I spend my days working as a freelance... Read More

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