In addition to its beautiful gardens, Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., houses an impressive collection of Byzantine and pre-Columbian artifacts. It is also home to a fertility idol known as the Birthing Figure (sometimes the Dumbarton Oaks Birthing Figure), which may be familiar to fans of Indiana Jones.
Carved out of scapolite and measuring about 20 centimeters (8 inches) in height, the idol depicts a squatting woman in the middle of childbirth. The sculpture was considered to be of Aztec origin, circa 900–1521. It was thought to represent Tlazolteotl, an Aztec deity associated with purification.
The figure was first mentioned by Ernest-Théodore Hamy in 1899, who had seen it in an antique store in Paris. French obstetrician and collector Alban Ribemont-Dessaignes purchased it, and Robert Woods Bliss, the founder of Dumbarton Oaks, acquired it 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 made 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 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 figurine 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.
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.