Mesoamerican Jadeite – The Tlazolteotl

Mesoamerican Jadeite – The Tlazolteotl

Fig. 1
Fig.1. Jadeite Tlazoteotl


Ten years ago, as a tourist in a remote Central America tourist destination (not Mexico), I saw a street peddler, selling stone made tourist items. Behind all his poorly made uninteresting items was a single green stone statue that stood out as unique. With no knowledge of the South American culture, the first thing that came to my mind was Chinese fake jades coming to Central America. Curiosity drove me to picked up the statue and looked at it carefully. The statue was a handmade jadeite. Part of it was done by chipping and flicking, a technique not used by Chinese jade carvers ancient or recent. This could not be Chinese made. As it fitted into my category of souvenir with a local flavor I decided to buy it. After a short hackle, the man agreed to sell the statue for 75 US dollars. Later research showed that a similar statue was in the Dumbarton Oaks collection, the Aztec goddess Tlazolteotl carved between the late 15th and early 16th century. Tlazolteotl was a goddess of filth and vice, especially sins of sexual misdeeds. Paradoxically she also was the patroness for forgiving sins of such misdeeds, and a purifier for sins and diseases caused by these sexual transgressions. These seemingly contradicting believes made her the goddess of purification, steam bath, midwives, filth and adulterers and appropriately as a statue of a woman giving birth. At the time these were interesting but not for long. It was promptly forgotten and ignored for ten years, sitting among my other memorabilia from my travels.  Recently when I was researching for Chemical weathering on buried nephrite jades, I came across the article, “The Dumbarton Oaks Tlazolteotl: looking beneath the surface “, by Jane MACLAREN WALSH, JOURNAL DE LA SOCIÉTÉ DES AMERICANISTATE, 2008, 94-1. “  (To read the article and to see a picture of the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazolteotl , click on the following link).   The Dumbarton Oaks Tlazolteotl was found to be made in the 19th century. The jadeite Tlazoteotl in my collection was taken out and looked at carefully under a 40X stereomicroscope. It is my belief that the existence of a jadeite Tlazolteotl and the finding on the statue deserve to be known. All of the descriptions and history of the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazolteotl are based on the detail study by Jane Maclaren Walsh in her article.


Comparison  of the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazolteotl and the jadeite Tlazolteotl.

The jadeite Tlazoteotl seen above, measures 14 cm in height, 8cm in width from side of knee to side of knee, and 8 cm front to back also taken from the level of her knees.  This makes the jadeite a smaller statue than the 20 cm tall Dumbarton Oaks.  It is made of a pale solid green jadeite. Unlike the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl which is in a sitting position, the jadeite Tlazoteotl is in a squatting position with her buttock above ground  squatting squarely on her feet. Also unlike the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl who has her neck extended, head tiled backward with a grimace expression, the jadeite Tlazoteotl faces forward with an expression of regret and sorrow, as if she is going to cry, a face of a woman in depression. (See below fig. 3). Both her eyes and nostrils are irregular comparing to the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl. She has higher cheek bones, thicker lips

Fig 3
Fig 3 jadeite Tlazoteotl face.

and prominent eyebrows. There is no drill hole on her. Her mouth gaps open with well defined teeth on her upper jaw and no teeth on the lower jaw, a difference from the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl that has well defined teeth on both the upper and lower jaw.  It is interesting that many of the Pre-Columbian jade masks in museums only have teeth on the upper jaw. The lower jaw either has no teeth, or represents by a smooth ridge, similar to the jadeite Tlazoteolt. Fig 4 below shows the mouth of the jadeite Tlazoteotl on the left as compare to an Olmec mask from the Latin American studies, on the right. Similar finding can be seen on the Olmec mask in the Metropolitan Museum of Art , and in the Boston Museum of Fine Art

On the body of the jadeite Tlazoteotl, like the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl, she has well defined clavicles. Unlike the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl that has well carved breasts with well inscribed nipples, the breasts on the jadeite Tlazoteotl are represented by two triangular masses with no nipples. Her knees are separated at 3 and 9 o’clock. Both hands are carved, holding her buttock. More differences are found between the infants of both statues.  The Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl infant has a full headed of hair and well defined facial features resembling very much of an adult. The jadeite Tlazoteotl infant has no hair and less elaborate facial features. (Fig. 5)  Unlike his mother, his eyes are

Fig 5
Fig. 5 Jadeite infant

round, Both statues lower legs are angled backward, a very significant finding as to the positions they are in. The similarities between the statues give the impression that there is a relationship between the two statues. But the discrepancies are significant making it unlikely that they are copies of each others.


The birthing positions of Tlazoteotl 

The birthing positions of both statues in are unfamiliar to modern eyes. To understand the feasibility of the positions, I tried both positions myself. The jadeite squatting position (Fig. 6 ) was attempted first. Squatting down, the more I spread my legs the  

more I could keep my upper body upright. My lower legs angled automatically backward. If I squatted down too low, I tended to fall. By placing both of my hands underneath my buttock, I could actually lift my body slightly upward, and kept my balance. The jadeite squatting position is not only feasible, and placing both hands uner the buttock is a good way to stabilize oneself in that position.

Next I attempted the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl sitting position. ( See Fig. 3 in the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl article ). With myself sitting on the floor legs bent in front of me, I was unable to keep my upper body upright. The position forced me to lean backward. To support myself, I had to place both of my hands out on my sides and back. Placing my hands underneath my buttock was impossible. With my legs spread apart my lower legs bent angled forward. An attempt to bend my knees to angle my lower legs backward resulted in severe strain on both knees causing great pain. The biggest problem is the infant. In this position, as the infant emerges, his head will hit the ground, and the length of the baby will prevent him from coming out safely, unless the woman leans way back to almost flat on her back.  My conclusion is that the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl sitting position is not only impossible to obtain, but is also unsafe to give birth.

There are many versions of position to give birth today. The most common one is the woman lying on her back with her legs up spread wide apart, knees bent angling backward in stirrup.  This is a lying version of the squatting position. If you rotate the picture to put the woman’s body upright and feet down, you can see her actually is in a squatting position. The squatting position the jadeite Tlazoteotl in is a natural position to give safe birth. A woman can be in a sitting position when she is in labour. As soon as the infant is crowning, she has to go into the squatting position for delivery, especially if she is by herself.  Going into the wood by herself to give birth is a known American Indian women practice. The jadeite Tlazoteotl lacks the authoritarian, self confidence and commending  expression of nobility and goddess. Her expression shows psychological pain more so than physical, of a woman in depression, a phenomenon common during pregnancy before or after the delivery.  Such psychological trauma cannot be experienced by a man. The jadeite Tlazoteotl is more likely carved by a woman.  


Tool marks on the jadeite Tlazoteotl

The tool marks on the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl were thoroughly studied using Scanning Electron Microscopy on positive silicon impression technique. It iwas the tool mark study that confirmed the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl was carved in the 19th centaury. No sophisticated examination can be done on the jadeite Tlazoteolt . However examination under a 40X stereomicroscope can still yield insights into the statute. In her article, Jane MacLaren Walsh gives a detail account of Pre-Columbian lapidary technology. The tools used were essentially hard stones and various types of sand abrasives. The stone to be carved was first cut to size splitting with wood wedges,or cutting with lines or stone saws.  Techniques used for more detail carving were chipping, scrapping, grinding, filing, and piercing with solid pointed stones, all with stone tools and abrasives. Drilling were done with bamboo or bone. The surface was then polished with materials like wood and animal skins together with fine abrasives. With that in mind, lets look at the tool marks to see how the jadeite Tlazoteotl was carved. 

The first time when I picked up and looked at the jadeite Tlazoteotl, the feature that caught my eyes was these undulations that look like nodes on short intervals, on the surface of the arms. (Fig. 7 on the left picture below)  These result from chipping, or  sometimes called flinting.  An example of Neolithic knives on the right picture below shows such effect. The Neolithic carver used a sharp and hard stone tool like flint to

carve the knives. He stroked down at an angle towards the stone to be carved. As his tool hit the stone, he flicked his wrist to direct his tool upward, to avoid cutting too deep into the stone. This resulted in a shallow pit with raised edges, as seen on the stone knives. The jadeite Tlazoteotl carver then further scraped and grinded to rid of the roughness, and finally polished it into the arm. Ridges are left, giving the arm an unique look of the chipping.

The eyes of the jadeite Tlazoteotl also tell the story of how she was carved (Fig. 8).  Both eyes are almond shape, an indication that they are not drilled. The wall of the sockets

are carved straight down. The bottom of both eyes are uneven slopping up from the side to the center resulting in a small mound.  The carver used a chisel like stone tool pecking straight down on the side of the eye socket making a groove. He then went inside the eye , and with his tool slanting towards the groove on the side, he chiseled away the stone material to make the eye.  By repeating the chiseling, the stone material inside the eye eventually was all chiseled away leaving the eye formed as a void.  The result is an eye with a straight down socket wall, and a bottom sloping up from the side towards the center, as with the jadeite Tlazoteotl eyes. The eye then became a small pit, too deep for stone tools to scrape and grind and polish like he did with the arms, leaving the roughness and a small mound at the bottom.

The lines on the jadeite Tlazoteotl are crude and thick, most notably on lines that represents her hair (Fig. 9). The space between the lines are wide and uneven. The width

Fig 9)
Fig. 9. Hair

of the lines are inconsistent, with bulges at various part of the lines. The lines are filled with soil that I have not removed.  Through the exposed part and through the effect of the chemical weathering, thin scratch lines can be seen along the bottom, indicating that these lines are formed by scraping and or filing. All lines have a depth of about 2 mm.  There are frequent breakthrough and intrusion outside of the lines, more notably on her ears  (Fig. 10).  On her left ear, as the carver tried to make the line curve, and as he was

Fig. 10
Fig. 10 Left ear.

limited by his straight stone tools, to make the turn, he repeatedly file the same part of the line back and forth at a different angle, resulting in bulging of the line at the turn, and notches made by the tool going through outside the opposite side of the line. All the tool marks indicate that the jadeite Tlazoteotl was made with stone tools. The statue is not in good proportion. Her head, thighs and legs are too large for her body, and her arms too short.  She has a beauty of naiveté, often seen in Mesoamerican arts.


Chemical Weathering effects on the jadeite Tlazoteotl.

Appication of chemical weathering effects in Archaeology to my wishful thinking is in its infancy. In reality it probaly has not been born yet. Waiting to be recognized is that observing chemical weathering effects on buried lapidary is a great tool for Archaeology, espicially to idetify recently made forgeries. My experience with chemical weathering effect is with Chinese buried nephrite. The statute here is jadeite. Both nephrite, an amphibole, and jadeite, a pyroxene, are mafic minerals, meaning they both are silicates rich in magnesium and feric (iron).  According to scientific literatures, chemical weathering process for mafic minerals are similar, only with different secondary products produced, which can vary just by changing the location of the burial site. Changing the locality influences  greatly chemical weathering because the climate conditions are changed. Looking at the jadeite statue, the chemical weathering effect may not be exactly like that on nephrite, but they are certainly there on the statute surface.  

The first impression the jadeite statue gives is that it has two tones of color, a dark brownish color in the front, and a lighter to close to its original jadeite color on her sides and back. Black patches are on her, mostly on her front and on the infant. These are changes due to the chemical weathering effect. The main ingredient and driving force for chemical weathering is water. The amount of water available to certain part of the statue determines the amount of chemical weathering secondary products produced and that determines the color change. By looking at the color change on  the jadeite statue one can tell how she was buried. To see it, the statue is rotated to the position she was buried in with her face down.  A darker color on her face, knee and foot (Fig. 11), show roughly a water level.   The statue was buried facedown, as if she was in a puddle of

Fig. 11
Fig. 11. Rotated Jadeite statue to show the burial position.

water. More water was availble at the lower part of the soil resulting in more chemical weathering effect on the face and front of the statue.  Also noticable are lines as depressed groovs, retained water that produced secondary dark color products, making the lines appear black in color. This secondary product not only delineates the lines, but also form black patches, mostly on the front of the statue. The black color indicates that it probably is related to iron, likely an iron oxide hematite.  Looking through Olmac masks on line, the one in the Boston Museum of fine art, has similar black patches on his face.

Chemical weathering secondary products can be formed on the surface. When they form on the surface, a protonation layer where the chemical reaction took place, form. Figure 12 below shows a protonation layer covering the center mound and the wall of the socket on her right eye, as a solid blackish color layer, also seen in the recession above her eye.   Secondary products also form inside the surface micropores. As water can


Fig 12
Fig 12. Close up on the right eye showing the protonation layer covering the mound and the socket of the eye.

only penetrate to a very limited depth, secondary products form inside the micropores eventually behaves like a plug, causing further formed secondary products spilling onto the surface.  Figure 13 shows the secondary products inside the micropores appear as fine dots with a short length extending down. Because they form underneath the surface,

Fig 13
Fig. 13, Secondary products inside the micropores as fine dots.

they appear as if they were under water with a depth. Several kinds of minerals can be form as secondary products. In here most are black, probably an iron oxide, some have a metallic shine, and some have a greenish blue color, most likely a mineral containing copper. A larger patch of the bluish green mineral is found on the  inner wall of the right eye socket (Fig.14).

Fig. 14. Patch of blue green mineral inside the right eye socket.

Clay minerals as secondary product can form within the matrix of the jadeite between the jadeite crystals. It gives the jadeite a cloudy look as seen on Fig.13. As more secondary products form, the color change becomes more intense and with time, the color becomes solid giving a patina of the antique jade we all familiar with. Chemical weathering changes occur only within the surface 0.1 mm or so. The optical illusion is what gives the impression that the whole jade piece has changed into that particular color.

The Chinese fake jade makers actively simulate the chemical weathering effect on the jade surface. Such practice does not seem to occur in Latin America. Looking through the on line pictures of the Olmec masks, many of them do not seem to have a chemical weathering effect. They were made with various types of stone with no regard to the stone color of the original. The Chinese also use different types of stone. But always with a color similar to changes from chemical weathering.  To create the effect of Chemical weathering, they also use dye, usually with a color dark brown to black, and using heat and manipulating the PH of the solution to drive the dye into the nephrite to simulate the patina color. Such practice also does not seem to occur in Latin America.  To identify these forgeries the first thing to realize is that the dye comes down to inside the jade from above. In a natural chemical weathering process the secondary products are produced inside the micropores underneath and spill up to the surface. The dye goes into the jade surface through micro cracks. Under the microscope it shows up as thin lines next to a large patch of dye. In a natural chemical weathering process, the secondary products in the micropores show up as tiny dots frequently away from any large patch of dark chemical, as seen in figure 13.  The dye can also infiltrate into the matrix to give a cloudy look color change. Forgeries take a very short time, may be several days, to perform, comparing to the natural weathering process which takes several hundreds and may be thousands of years. Dye altered color change is uneven with areas with no dye showing color of the polished stone. Since the source of the changes come from the dye, large patch of dye on the surface has to be next to these changes. For the buried jade to show a matrix color change requires at least 500 years. The color change is more evenly distributed, and you may not see any dark patches or chemical on the surface.  Other techniques to make fake buried jade are using strong acid or alkaline to create a destructive burnt, easily identified under a microscope. Using sand blasting to make holes on the surface is also a frequent forgery trick. Contrary to  popular belief, holes on buried jade are not common. It can also be easily identified from natural etch pits under the microscope.

Chemical weathering can produce unusual mineral formation frequently found in drill holes. Reasons for this is drill holes can accumulate a large amount of water, and drilling also creates a large amount of fine granules that remains in a cave like space. Such fine granule when mix with water dissolves rapidly to provide substrate for subsequent chemical reactions. The space also provides a cave like environment for the minerals to develop.  The jadeite Tlazoteotl does not have drill holes. But both eyes are carved as voids providing a similar environment. We have already seen a patch of blue green mineral developed in her right eye (Fig.14). In her left eye, on the lower orbit wall, there is a tiny speck of mineral in bright orange color (Fig. 15). The nature of such mineral requires better expert assessment and explanation. Other unusual mineral found are

Fig. 15
Fig. 15 Orange mineral inside left eye.

hair like crystals inside her right eye (Fig. 16).  Similar hair like crystals are also found on buried nephrite. The exact nature of these are also unknown.  For an amateur there are

Fig. 16. Hair like crystals in right eye.


far too many unanswered questions in chemical weathering. Yet for certain it is a great tool. Its application awaits the scientific community’s exploration.



For many reasons the jadeite Tlazoteotl cannot be authenticated. It has no provenance. Buying it from a street peddler as a tourist is not one. We do know it is not an item made for the tourist trade, since for the last ten years no other jadeite Tlazoteotl was seen, sold to, or bought by a tourist. It is also not an item commissioned by a dealer to sell as an antique artifact for profit. There is no dealer involved, and 75 US dollars cannot even pay for a piece of raw jadeite mineral of similar size. But there has not been a scientific research done on the statute.  Looking at pictures on line cannot be counted as one. Top it all, the account is given by an amateur whose experience with Mesoamerican artifacts is limited to one, a number not a statistic.  That the statute is Aztec, and may even be its very existence, are at best questionable. However for a meaningful discussion these two assumptions are required.

If the jadeite statue is Aztec, then is the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl a copy of the jadeite Tlazoteotl?  To answer this we must first find out where the  Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl was carved. We know that the  Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl was carved in the 19th century with power tools. Mexico started electricity in 1879 in Leon. It was privately owned for the textile industry, and electricity was not available to the general public until early 20th century. The Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl therefore could not have been carved in Mexico. Electricity was available to the general public in Paris in 1881, and promptly spread to all segments of the society. Since all power tolls at that time needed to be invented, they had to be the most sophisticated tools available. The  Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl could only be carved after 1881 in Paris, by an European artisan with an ability to carve an exact copy of the original. But the discrepancies between the two statues are too great to be an exact copy. So how did the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl come into being? To answer that we need to go back to the very beginning of the  Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl story, described in detail in the Walsh article.

The story is confusing because of so many characters involved. To see clearly, all questionable characters need to be eliminated, leaving those for certain involved. The most important character was Eugène Boban Duverge (1834-1908), a French antiquarian with credentials as the official archeologist in the Mexican royal court, a member of the French Scientific Commission in Mexico, and a dealer of Mesoamerican relics in Paris.  The first description of the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl was in a note hand written by him on May 28, 1883. He also mentioned that the statue was brought in by M. Damour, a mineralogist from the Academy of Science for consultation, and Damour bought the statue from a Mr. Wan who bought it in an auction. The Mr. Wan part of the story was discredited by Walsh in her article. That puts the M. Damour part of the story in question. Hamy, the president of the Paris Amercanist Society, in his 1907 article did mention that the statue was acquired by M. Damour with no mention of where Damour obtained the statue from. In his earlier writing in 1899, Hamy wrote he saw the Statue earlier in Eugène Boban ‘s antique shop, confirming that Eugène Boban was the one selling it. It further put in question that the statue was brought in by Damour to Eugène Boban for consultation. Since Damour was a mineralogist, the reverse may be the truth. Also if Damour did not buy it from Mr. Wan, the only one he could have gotten it from would be Eugène Boban. Eugène Boban was likely the owner of the  Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl from the very first beginning.

The most likely scenery of the story is that Eugène Boban commissioned the carving of the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl, and sold it to Damour in Paris as a genuine Mesoamerican artefact. Eugène Boban had a history of selling known forgeries as genuine artifacts in the Paris antique market, notably the three 19th century made crystal skulls. To carve and made the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl he must have the knowledge of the existence of such a statue. But all indication he did not see the original. As a well respected and powerful French antiquarian with credential in the Mexican royal court, in 19th century at the height of colonialism in central America, if Eugène Boban saw the original statue, he would have processed it, and if he processed it, he would have sold it in the Paris market like he did with so many genuine Mesoamerican artifacts. The fact that he did not sell an original means he could not have seen it. But if he did not see an original, how could the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl come into being. Eugène Boban came to Mexico as a teenager. He not only could speak fluent Spanish, he self taught and knew Nahuatl, an Aztec and their descendant language.  That means he not only was able to communicate with the Aztec descendants, he also had a very good relationship with them.  Also for certain, he was actively inquiring about Mesoamerican artifacts for acquisition. The existence of such a statue was related to him by the Aztec descendants. A picture based on an oral legend was drawn. The picture was the blue print for the Dumbarton Oaks Tlazoteotl, resulting in the similarities and discrepancies of the two statues.

Mysteries are wonderful. The only draw back is there may not be an answer to satisfy everyone. 







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