Untitled by Unknown

12th–9th century BC

Geography: Mexico, Mesoamerica
Culture: Olmec
Medium: Ceramic, pigment

Seated, life-size baby figures are among the most intriguing ceramic works from Precolumbian Mexico. Many hypotheses exist about who they represent: they could be portraits of infants, infantilized portraits of adults, infant forms of deities, or emblems of royal descent. Created by artists between 1200 and 400 BC, these Olmec-style baby figures are white-slipped and hollow. Some portray well-fed children making infantile gestures.

This figure holds a chubby finger to its mouth and is one of the largest and most well known examples. An elaborate headpiece is colored red-pink with powdered cinnabar and red ochre that was probably used to anoint the tomb in which this figure was placed. Most intact Olmec ceramics have been found in burials in the central Mexican highlands. This figure is said to come from the highland site of Las Bocas in Puebla, Mexico.

The "baby-face" figurine is a unique marker of Olmec culture, consistently found in sites that show Olmec influence, although they seem to be confined to the early Olmec period and are largely absent, for example, in La Venta.

These ceramic figurines are easily recognized by the chubby body, the baby-like jowly face, downturned mouth, and the puffy slit-like eyes. The head is slightly pear-shaped, likely due to artificial cranial deformation. They often wear a tight-fitting helmet not dissimilar to those worn by the Olmec colossal heads. Baby-face figurines are usually naked, but without genitalia. Their bodies are rarely rendered with the detail shown on their faces.

Also called "hollow babies", these figurines are generally from 25–35 cm (9.8–13.8 in) high and feature a highly burnished white- or cream-slip. They are only rarely found in archaeological context.

Archaeologist Jeffrey Blomster divides baby-face figurines into two groups based on several features. Among the many distinguishing factors, Group 1 figurines more closely mirror the characteristics of Gulf Coast Olmec artifacts. Group 2 figurines are also slimmer than those of Group 1, lacking the jowly face or fleshy body, and their bodies are larger in proportion to their heads.

Given the sheer numbers of baby-face figurines unearthed, they undoubtedly fulfilled some special role in the Olmec culture. What they represented, however, is not known. Michael Coe, says "One of the great enigmas in Olmec iconography is the nature and meaning of the large, hollow, whiteware babies".
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Imported from: images.metmuseum.org
Tags: figurine
Media: ceramic pigment