Intriguing story behind a stone figure at Dumbarton Oaks


This is a stone carving of Tlazolteotl, an Aztec figure shown giving birth, that is in the collection of Dumbarton Oaks. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist January 13

There are some movie scenes I will watch over and over again, no matter how many times I’ve seen them. They stimulate my amygdalae, the regions of the brain that control memory and emotion.

The opening of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is one such scene. I find myself sieving imaginary sand through my fingers, cinching a leather sandbag tight, then snatching a rictus-faced golden idol from atop a booby-trapped platform in one deft move, à la Dr. Indiana Jones.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

I asked Miriam Doutriaux if she ever copies that move. After all, as a curator at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Georgetown, she handles the real thing, the actual sculpture on which the idol in the Steven Spielberg movie is based.

She laughed. “We’re definitely using two hands,” she said. “We do the usual kind of museum approach to the object.”

That means she wears gloves when she touches it and doesn’t flip it from hand to hand as if it were a juggling club.

“Gimme the whip!”

“Throw me the idol!”

The sculpture — officially, if controversially (more on that later), known as Tlazolteotl , an Aztec goddess — is the subject of a very cool exhibit at Dumbarton Oaks. In fact, it may be the coolest thing currently in a Washington museum.

Even though the real one — or “real” one (more on that later) — is carved from pale, greenish stone, not made of gold, you will recognize it immediately when you see it leering from its protective transparent case. It’s a female figure sitting back on her haunches, seemingly in pain, certainly consumed by effort. Her expression is understandable, for popping out from between her legs are the head and forearms of the baby she’s giving birth to.

In Aztec culture, Tlazolteotl was the patron of midwives and adulterers. She’s known as “the filth eater.” She’s depicted in Aztec drawings with a mouth stained black from the sins she’s consumed. One hopes she kept Tic Tacs in her purse.

E.-T. Hamy, the French anthropologist who in 1899 wrote the first scholarly article about the piece, called it “absolutely unique in the history of Mexican art.” He’d first seen it in a Paris antique store. It was later bought by French obstetrician and collector Alban Ribemont-Dessaignes. Many collectors of pre-Columbian art desired the sculpture. For some, it became something of a Holy Grail, to use another Indiana Jones metaphor. Robert Woods Bliss, the diplomat who founded Dumbarton Oaks, was able to acquire the birthing figure in 1947.

You can get your own copy in the Dumbarton Oaks gift shop: 40 bucks for an unpainted ceramic facsimile. Or buy a shiny, gold-colored one online for $150, a souvenir replica of the one “Raiders” art director Norman Reynolds created for the 1981 film. Reynolds said the prop was “very much based on a real Inca fertility figure.”

If it bothers Miriam that he called it “Inca” when it’s considered “Aztec” — and that some sources online call it “Mayan” — she’s too polite to say. But then her scrupulous devotion to truth means that this is what it says on Tlazolteotl descriptive label: “Birthing Figure. Aztec-Style, probably 19th century.”

Probably 19th century?!

And that’s why the Dumbarton exhibit is so fascinating. As early as the 1960s, questions were raised about the Tlazolteotl figure. “Aztec deities were always represented with some kind of marker of who they were,” Miriam explained. “In particular, Tlazolteotl herself, when depicted naked, always has a headdress. Or she always has ear flares and a nose ornament.”

The Dumbarton Oaks figure has none of those. And when the museum scrutinized the surface with a scanning electron microscope, it learned that incisions in the stone were likely made with modern rotary tools. They’re far too uniform and precise to have been made with Aztec hand tools.

The question now is whether it was completely fabricated in the 19th century or whether it is a pre-Columbian piece that some French dealer reworked “to make it more appealing to potential buyers,” Miriam said.

When I bought my ceramic Tlazolteotl in the gift shop, I had to resist telling the cashier, “Dr. Jones, again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away. Can you box that for me, please?”

john.kelly@washpost.com

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

Dumbarton Oaks, 1703 32nd St. NW, is open 2 to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free. “Inspiring Art: The Dumbarton Oaks Birthing Figure” runs through March 2. On Feb. 6, John Pohl will deliver a lecture called “Bringing the Pre-Columbian World to Life: The Scholar’s Role in Entertainment Media.” Reservations are required for the lecture: museum@doaks.org.

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