In addition to its beautiful gardens, the historic Dumbarton Oaks estate in Washington, D.C. houses an impressive collection of Byzantine and pre-Columbian artifacts, as well as ancient Greco-Roman and medieval European artworks. It is also home to a controversial fertility idol that may be familiar to movie aficionados.
Known as the Dumbarton Oaks Birthing Figure, the artifact is sculpted from scapolite and measuring about 20 centimeters (8 inches) in height. It depicts a woman in the middle of childbirth, squatting with an eerie expression of agony on her face and a baby popping out from between her legs. The idol was considered to be of Aztec origin, circa 900-1521 AD, and believed to represent Tlazolteotl, the goddess of vice, purification and lust.
The artifact’s provenance goes as far back as to 1899, when it was first mentioned by anthropologist Ernest-Théodore Hamy, who had seen it in an antique store in Paris. Sometime later, it was purchased by French obstetrician and collector Alban Ribemont-Dessaignes, and then acquired by Robert Woods Bliss, the founder of the Dumbarton Oaks museum, in 1947.
For decades, the Birthing Figure has been a subject of controversy and debate. While some believe it to be a rare piece of pre-Columbian art, many researchers question its authenticity, suggesting that it was actually produced in the 19th century as an idealized representation of Aztec art. Like crystal skulls, the craftsmanship visible on this artifact is often anachronistic, and it is likely that then-modern tools were used to sculpt it. Furthermore, birthing women are usually found in Colonial Mexican manuscripts, but rather uncommon in Aztec art.
If you have seen the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark, however, you might appreciate its value whether it’s a genuine artifact or not. The Dumbarton Oaks Birthing Figure inspired the Chachapoyan Fertility Idol, the fictitious artifact that Indy (almost) obtains in the movie’s iconic opening sequence, set in Peru instead of Mexico. This “golden idol” has also become an icon in modern cinema culture.
Know Before You Go
The museum and garden at Dumbarton Oaks are open Tuesday through Sunday. The museum is open from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and admission is free. The Birthing Figure is on display as part of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art.