Profiling the “Axe-Gods”

In class, while discussing Olmec art, we took a look at the “Kunz” jadeite axe in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History.

“Kunz” Axe, from Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico (Berrin and Fields 2010: Plate 2)

This class of items, although few are known from stratigraphic excavation, were likely funerary offerings, such as the one recovered in Tomb E at the site of La Venta. The principal features include the prominent head proportionally larger than the rest of the body, downturned mouth often with feline dentition, hands grasping or held parallel, and sometimes Olmec “flame eyebrows” (see Taube 1996).

Celt, Tomb E, La Venta

One of my students, new to the field of Pre-Columbian art, asked an excellent question: why are these objects known as axes or celts?

I then brought up the images of one of the great Olmec pieces in the collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art, for which they provide profile views.

Celt with Deity, Cleveland Museum of Art

Whereas we are accustomed to focusing on the frontal view of these figures, the profile view enhances the sense of sharpness or “axe-iness” of these three-dimensional sculptures. On the Olmec examples, most have a visible groove where, presumably, the stone could have been hafted to a shaft.

As many have noted, (e.g., Snarskis 2003:163-168; see also Easby 1981; Graham 1995, 1998), the practice of incising or modeling figures out of stone celts also became a widespread practice in ancient Costa Rica. In fact, many of these objects have complex biographies, found in Costa Rica after having been incised and worn by other Mesoamerican peoples. However, it is unclear whether or not the numerous Costa Rican examples were former celts worked into pendant figures, or whether they were influenced by the movement of peoples and ideas from the Olmec tradition (e.g., Graham 1992:173, 189; Pohorilenko 1981; Salgado González and Guerrero Miranda 2005; Snarskis 1998:63; *Update, Hoopes has brought to my attention an in-press work by David Mora Marín that further examines relationships between pendants in Costa Rica and Mesoamerica, see Mora Marín n.d.). The greenstone pendant tradition may extend beyond the Isthmo-Columbian area to the circum-Caribbean as well (see Rodríguez Ramos 2011:Fig. 1h).

When Colin, Juan Antonio, and I started to look at the many “Axe-Gods” (see Easby 1968:26-27; Lothrop 1955:46; Stone 1973) in the Dumbarton Oaks Intermediate Area collection, the obvious question came to us: what do we mean when we say “axe-gods?”

Perhaps the profiles can reveal new clues.

Two obvious types of pendants emerge when examining the collection: those with avian and anthropomorphic features. Several “axe-god” pendants with avian imagery, including beaks, cleft crests and sometimes tail feathers, and incised wings or feathers, exist in the Dumbarton Oaks collection, such as PC.B.225, PC.B.229, PC.B.230, PC.B.231, PC.B.239, and PC.B.293.

Avian “Axe-Gods” at Dumbarton Oaks

As with the Olmec carved axes, the “axe-gods” often have a hafting groove, whether real or only indexing axe-iness. Although with these jadeite objects, the perspective of the imagery is shifted vertically so that the “heads” of the bird figures are at the narrow end, rather than at the wider face as with the Olmec celts (Graham 1995:20-21). Furthermore, Costa Rican jades are almost universally perforated to be worn, while Olmec celts were not (Easby 1981:138).

Few are known from archaeological contexts (see Garber et al. 1993:219-226; Guerrero M. 1998: Pl. 11, Fig. 11; Snarskis 1977: Fig. 7). Below are two of the best examples to date from modern-day Costa Rica.

(l) Pendant, Talamanca de Tibás, Guerrero M. 1998: Pl. 11; (r) Pendant, La Regla, Guerrero M. 1998: Fig. 11.

These Costa Rican objects also recall the recently discovered pendant in a tomb at Takalik Abaj, Guatemala (see also Easby 1963).

Jade Pendant, Takalik Abaj
Archaeology Magazine

In his recent address at the Symposium “Revealing Ancestral Central America” at the National Museum of the American Indian, John Hoopes remarked that the Takalik Abaj pendant perhaps originated in Costa Rica rather than the highlands or Pacific Coast of Guatemala (see Mora Marín n.d.).

Other “axe-gods” are not overtly avian at first glance from the front, especially some of the smaller-scale pendants such as PC.B.228, PC.B.233, PC.B.234, or PC.B.238, until one examines the objects from the side.

Avian Pendants, Dumbarton Oaks, File Photos

Subtle incisions or deep carving evoke feathers, crests, and beaks of tropical birds.

Avian Pendants, Dumbarton Oaks, Profile Views

The representation of the tail feathers in the lower part could hold clues when considering the particular species represented, if there were a taxonomic association in the first place. The likelihood is high that the peoples of ancient Central America and Colombia had a fluid concept of species, remote from our own Linnaean taxonomy. The long, sharp tails of the example Dumbarton Oaks pieces could represent parrots, such as macaws, sought after for colorful feathers used in personal adornment. Other prominent candidates are important large birds in the area, including King Vultures or Harpy Eagles, both with distinctive features (see Graham 1992:194-195; Dumbarton Oaks past exhibit “Flights of Fancy: Birds in Pre-Columbian Art“).

So the avian pendants such as the ones above might not be proper targets for the “quaint” (Easby 1981:139) descriptor “axe-god” upon further study. It seems that the reexamination of ancient Central American spirituality and “life on the ground,” such as that discussed by Rosemary Joyce in her address at the NMAI Symposium, calls for a new look at these symbolic systems (see Fernández  2013). The lack of explicit “supernatural” or “godlike” features on most of these pendants may lend credence to alternative interpretations, such as ancestral or hunting talismans.

So, perhaps it’s time to axe the term “axe-god”? Maybe it’s for the birds.


Berrin, Kathleen, and Virginia M. Fields, eds. 2010. Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico. New Haven, Yale University Press.

Easby, Elizabeth Kennedy. 1963. Un “dios hacha” de las tierras altas mayas. Estudios de Cultura Maya 3: 97-106

1968. Pre-Columbian Jade from Costa Rica. New York, Andre Emmerich, Inc.

1981. Jade. In Between Continents/Between Seas: Precolumbian Art of Costa Rica. New York, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Fernández, Patricia. 2013. Between Beliefs and Rituals: Material Cultures of Ancestral Costa Rica. In Revealing Ancestral Central America, Rosemary Joyce, ed., pp. 59-67. Washington, Smithsonian Institution.

Garber, James F., David C. Grove, Kenneth G. Hirth, and John W. Hoopes. 1993. Jade Use in Portions of Mexico and Central America: Olmec, Maya, Costa Rica, and Honduras – A Summary. In Precolumbian Jade: New Geological and Cultural Interpretations, Frederick Lange, ed., pp. 211-231. Salt Lake City, University of Utah Press.

Graham, Mark Miller. 1992. The Early Art of the Atlantic Watershed of Costa Rica. In Wealth and Hierarchy in the Intermediate Area, Frederick W. Lange, ed., pp. 165-206. Washington, Dumbarton Oaks.

1995. Iconography and Jade in Costa RicaVinculos 21(1-2): 17-28.

1998. Mesoamerican Jade and Costa Rica. In Jade in Ancient Costa Rica, Julie Julie Jones, ed., pp. 39-57. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Guerrero M., Juan Vicente. 1998. The Archaeological Context of Jade in Costa Rica. In Jade in Ancient Costa Rica, Julie Julie Jones, ed., pp. 23-37. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lothrop, Samuel K. 1955. Jade and String Sawing in Northeastern Costa Rica. American Antiquity 21(1): 43-51.

Mora Marín, David F. n.d. The “Charlie Chaplin” Silhouette Figural Theme: A Pan-Middle American Theme. Unpublished manuscript.

Pohorilenko, Anatole. 1981. The Olmec Style and Costa Rican Archaeology. In The Olmec & Their Neighbors: Essays in Memory of Matthew W. Stirling, Elizabeth P. Benson, ed., pp. 309-327. Washington, Dumbarton Oaks.

Rodríguez Ramos, Reniel. 2011. The Circulation of Jadeite Across the Caribbeanscape. In Communities in Contact: Essays in Archaeology, ethnohistory and ethnography of the Amerindian circum-Caribbean, Corinne L. Hofman and Anne van Duijvenbode, eds., pp. 117-136. Leiden, Sidestone Press.

Salgado González, Silvia, and Juan V. Guerrero Miranda. 2005. La distribución de la jadeíta en Centroamérica y su significado social. Cuadernos de Antropología 15: 53-64.

Snarskis, Michael J. 1979. El jade de Talamanca de TibásVínculos 5: 89-107.

1998. The Imagery and Symbolism of Precolumbian Jade in Costa Rica. In Jade in Ancient Costa Rica, Julie Jones, ed., pp.59-92. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

2003. From Jade to Gold in Costa Rica: How, Why, and When. In Gold and Power in Ancient Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia, Jeffrey Quilter and John Hoopes, eds., pp. 159-204. Washington, Dumbarton Oaks.

Stone, Doris Z. 1973. El dios-hacha de jadeíta en la América Central: Su localización geográfica en el tiempo. Atti del XL Congresso Internazionales degli Americanisti, Rome-Genoa 1: 213-218.

Taube, Karl A. 1996. The Rainmakers: The Olmec and their Contribution to Mesoamerican Belief and Ritual. In The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership, pp. 82-103. Princeton, The Art Museum.

Intermediate Area Catalog, Beginnings

Since beginning at Dumbarton Oaks in July, I’ve begun traveling intellectually south from the Maya area and into the Intermediate Area. With the goal of producing a definitive catalog of the Dumbarton Oaks collection from the Intermediate Area in the coming years, I’ve begun working with my colleagues in Pre-Columbian studies to lay the foundation for the eventual publication. The initiative is under the direction of Colin McEwan, Director of Pre-Columbian Studies, and I work along with our colleagues at the museum, Juan Antonio Murro and Miriam Doutriaux, and the temporary Pre-Columbian Studies coordinator, Katie Caruso. Special thanks also go to Gudrun Bühl, Museum Director, and Jan Ziolkowski, Director of Dumbarton Oaks, for supporting the Intermediate Area Catalog project efforts.

An obvious first issue: what do we call this area? Is Intermediate Area still a useful term? Some articles in the 2003 Dumbarton Oaks volume Gold and Power in Ancient Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia (Quilter and Hoopes, eds.) address this issue. For example, (using Wordle), here is a cloud from the chapter by Hoopes and Fonseca Z. proposing an Isthmo-Colombian Area.

Hoopes_CloudConversations with visiting scholars, such as Dr. Richard Cooke of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Eugenia Ibarra Rojas from the Universidad de Costa Rica, have sparked new thoughts about how to characterize this area with respect to its art and archaeological cultures.

Objects Database

Most of the objects from this collection are online through the Dumbarton Oaks museum, and the entries include bibliography, exhibition history, and acquisition information. I created a database building on the museum’s information to include other information such as iconographic notes, comparanda, notes from conservation assessments, and prior reports by scholars who have studied the collection.

Reference Photography

A secondary goal of updating the object database with accurate measurements and weights for the objects is to create a new set of detailed photographs, in collaboration with the museum, to make available eventually to scholars involved with the catalog. For example, here is the file photo of PC.B.319, a Double-Figure pendant:

PC_B_319_S1New photography reveals details about the iconography of the two figures, hidden behind the dangling plaques:

PC.B.319_5Additionally, photos of the rear of the pendant reveal information about the casting process:

PC.B.319_7Finally, the photos could potentially help refine line drawings of some of the objects in the future. For example, here are my rough sketches of PC.B.303, an Avian Pendant:

PrintThese prompted a colleague to question, is it a bird? Is it a plane? My thoughts go to: crazy, nightmarish butterfly?

Thus began the journey into Intermediate Area studies. After a month, I see a lot of exciting opportunities for this catalog, both with the pieces in the DO collection and in the broader archaeological and art historical scholarship of the area. Stay tuned for more updates as we continue documenting the objects and building the project bibliography.