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Vessel in the Form of an Old Woman

With its gaping mouth and a body that is simultaneously swollen and skeletal, this vessel presents a tremendously powerful image. It is believed to come from Santa Cruz, an Olmec-related site which is renowned for producing especially fine ceramics. Images of old women are rare throughout Mesoamerica, and those in the form of vessels are even less common. Olmec scholar David Peter Joralemon, who has studied the old-woman theme extensively, suggests that the figure might portray an aged woman with an illness resulting in a bloated stomach or a priestess with a similar affliction. Another interpretation proposes that this powerful sculpture, with enlarged stomach but otherwise skeletal body, depicts a person on the verge of death from starvation, her open mouth begging for food.

Olmec style, Santa Cruz, Mexico
Vessel in the Form of an Old Woman
Early Formative period, 1200–900 BC
Clay, pigment
H. 8 ½ in. (21.6 cm)
Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection, 2010.49