Kunz Axe (Olmec)

Votive Adze “Kunz Axe,” c. 1200-500 B.C.E., jadeite, 31 x 16 x 11 cm, Olmec Formative Period (American Museum of Natural History, Washington D.C.)


Key terms and concepts

  • Mesoamerica
  • Olmec culture
  • jade/jadeite or greenstone
  • Gulf Coast of Mexico
  • votive
  • were-jaguar


Additional resources:

Olmec art on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (by Dr. James Doyle)

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”kunz,”]

More Smarthistory images…

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:11] We’re in the American Museum of Natural History, in a hall devoted to the ancient art of Mexico and Mesoamerica. We’re looking at one of the most famous Olmec objects. It is this extremely large piece of jade, or greenstone, which is often referred to as an axe blade but it’s a carved figure that could never be used as an axe.

Dr. Rex Koonz: [0:26] These are found all over the Gulf Coast of Mexico and very, very early on. While they’ve always been referred to as votive axes, the places we find them and when we see them in images, it’s very clear that they’re used for ritual and that they were very powerful objects.

Dr. Zucker: [0:47] By votive, we’re talking about a ritual object that is meant to commemorate or honor a god.

Dr. Koonz: [0:48] Exactly. This is the most valuable material in all of Mesoamerica. Mesoamericans considered jade much like the ancient world considered gold. This was the valuable material par excellence.

Dr. Zucker: [1:00] We’re talking about jadeite, which is an extremely hard stone. One of the things that they really valued was not only its ability to achieve a very high polish, but also its color.

Dr. Koonz: [1:10] There are particular colors that were obviously viewed as more valuable than others. Finally, they found a source very high in the Guatemalan mountains [for] the blue-green jade [that they preferred] most.

[1:27] It’s interesting that, in fact, in all Mesoamerican languages, there is no word for blue and no word for green. It’s blue-green, or in Maya, “yax.” That literally is the color that they designate.

Dr. Zucker: [1:35] Well, it’s gorgeous. More than 50 percent of the object is the head.

Dr. Koonz: [1:39] A lot of the meaning, in fact, rests in this head. It’s a good thing that the carver gave it so much room. What we have is a being. I could not consider this a human, but some human-like being that has almond eyes, a flat nose, and then a mouth that is incredibly complicated.

Dr. Zucker: [1:58] Sometimes referred to as a jaguar snarl.

Dr. Koonz: [2:06] While it’s often called a jaguar mouth, that upraised upper lip, there have been a lot of ideas about what that mouth could mean.

[2:12] Everything from the jaguar, some people have said that it looks more like a toad, other people say that the entire image is of a fetus. Whatever this is, it is the Olmec god, the Olmec supernatural. On that everyone agrees.

Dr. Zucker: [2:27] When we use the term jaguar, that has become a signifier for this shape, but it may have nothing to do with the actual cat.

[2:35] It is so stylized. The eyes are so stylized, the very simplified ears that are quite elongated. The volumes of the chin, the volumes of the nose, of the upper lip, are so articulated, are raised in this high relief. It’s in very sharp contrast to the lower part of the body, where you see a very shallow relief.

[2:55] We’re not quite sure what that figure is clutching, but whatever it is, it’s being clutched close to his chest.

Dr. Koonz: [2:57] One of the interesting things about Olmec carving in general is the ability to focus the viewer on, in this case, the face, and specifically the mouth.

[3:12] Then, this much shallower, much less worked carving towards the bottom. You have these two hands grasping something that we’re not sure what it is exactly. We are sure, though, that it’s not as important as all of that stuff that’s going on in the face. In fact, the entire body is simplified and made secondary to the mouth and the eyes.

Dr. Zucker: [3:27] Two more observations. One is, concave hemispherical depressions at each corner of the mouth, which is typical of Olmec art. Then, we also see a concave area that separates the head from the body, which suggests to me that this body might have originally worn something. That there might have been a necklace, perhaps.

Dr. Koonz: [3:48] That would be not unusual in Mesoamerican art. In fact, even during the colonial period and today, people regularly dress statues in native villages for a particular ceremony.

[3:57] The holes on the lower side of the mouth are almost certainly drilled, and it’s interesting to think about how this was made, because there were no metal tools in Mesoamerica, not only at this time, but basically there was no functional metal tools throughout the history of Mesoamerica.

Dr. Zucker: [4:19] This would have been made by an abrasion method, rubbing the same kind of very hard stone. Think about the labor required to produce this. It’s breathtaking.

Dr. Koonz: [4:23] You would have had to get a drill, sand, and water, and you would have just drilled and drilled with the sand and the water mixture acting as an abrasive, slowly but surely carves out that hard jade surface.

[4:42] It’s amazing to me to think about how much work and how much expertise would have gone into this, so early in the history of Mesoamerica. Almost as soon as they create cities, they create these specialized artists, who have this amazing skill with very hard stone.

Dr. Zucker: [4:55] All characteristics that we associate with the ancient Olmec, this originary people of Mesoamerica.

Dr. Koonz: [5:07] In fact, these originary people of Mesoamerica, or at least the first civilization of Mesoamerica, the first people who created cities in Mesoamerica, and this face are intimately associated, because it is the most popular motif in all of Olmec art.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] This truly ancient object, so expressive, looking out at us across thousands of years.

[0:00] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Rex Koontz and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Kunz Axe (Olmec)," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed May 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/kunz-axe-olmec/.