Is That Awl? Olmec Jade Artifacts as Elite Tools, Ornaments, and Inalienable Goods

Author(s): Billie Follensbee

Year: 2018


Recent research has re-identified certain enigmatic Gulf Coast Olmec greenstone artifacts as elite versions of textile-making tools. These artifacts, which include Middle Formative picks, figural celts, clamshell and plaque pendants, and objects designated as "spoons," were likely used by elites as both functional objects and high-status adornment, as illustrated in the contemporary sculpture. Most examples of these artifacts are found in caches and graves of distant and/or later civilizations, apparently after they had experienced long use-lives; while still identifiable, most are extensively reworked and could no longer function as tools, becoming primarily symbolic—or their symbolism had been co-opted and transformed through recarving and recycling. Analysis of the few examples found in Formative period graves reveals considerable use-wear and breakage, re-sharpening, and reshaping; some were reworked to the point where they are barely recognizable, apparently retired only after they were largely unidentifiable. Such find contexts suggest that these artifacts functioned as inalienable goods—revered, elite possessions that were reserved, inherited, and treasured as symbols of association and status. Perhaps even more significant, the fact that these tools also served as status symbols suggests that in these Formative societies, social status could be gained through personal agency as well as heritage.

Cite this Record

Is That Awl? Olmec Jade Artifacts as Elite Tools, Ornaments, and Inalienable Goods. Billie Follensbee. Presented at The 82nd Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Washington, DC. 2018 ( tDAR id: 443004)

This Resource is Part of the Following Collections

Spatial Coverage

min long: -98.987; min lat: 17.77 ; max long: -86.858; max lat: 25.839 ;

Record Identifiers

Abstract Id(s): 20385