Mesoamerican Ceramic Figurines
Researched by Allison Robbins and Sammie Hernandez
Mesoamerican cultures began producing ceramics in the form of small, handmade figurines by 2500 B.C.E. Small, handmade anthropomorphic figures were very common in ancient cultures, but their use was concentrated during the Pre-Classic/Formative period (1500 B.C.E.-250 C.E.), as after that time, most figurines were made using molds. Although some male figures are represented among the Pre-Classic/Formative period figurines, the vast majority of the figurines appear to represent young female figures. Because they primarily represent women, and because the making of ceramic vessels was often defined as a female artform in Mesoamerica, scholars believe that the figurines likely were made by female artists.
Archaeological and ethnohistoric evidence indicates that figurines served different purposes depending upon the region and the setting. Figurines may have been used to represent individuals in rituals for healing or for agricultural fertility; they may have been “stand ins” in rituals for the patron who had them made; they may have served as amulets; they may have been used to create a scene that represented an important historical or mythological event; or, when they were used as grave offerings, they may have represented relatives or companions.
Some figurines are solid, while others are hollow, and still others are articulated or jointed. The depictions vary from relative naturalism to the very abstracted. Vessels were also sometimes provided with anthropomorphic or zoomorphic figurine effigy heads as decorations or to serve as handles. When they are found in graves, figurines are usually complete, but as illustrated by this exhibit, the majority of figurines survive only in fragmentary form. Figurines are most commonly found in trash middens, which may indicate that they were broken as part of their use in a ritual and then discarded.
The Pre-Classic/Formative period site of Tlatilco has produced a great number of female figurines with elaborate hairstyles, tiny waists, and broad hips and thighs, and these figures have come to be known as “Pretty Ladies.” While small, solid figurines are not usually found in graves in Mesoamerica, the use of these figurines in graves was relatively common at Tlatilco, along with the other, more common grave offerings of large hollow figurines, ceramic vessels, and food. Researched by Allison Robbins and Sammie Hernandez
The wide, flat headdresses of these figurines identifies them as being made by early cultures of the Teotihuacano cultural region, before the Classic period city of Teotihuacan was fully established. The Head of a Figurine with Three-Part Headdress may also have been part of a Teotihuacano articulated figurine, which had holes in the shoulders and hips that allowed arms and legs to be tied on; these were sometimes found in graves, although their exact purpose is unknown. Researched by Allison Robbins
This simplified head of a bird closely resembles animal effigies of the same size and design that were attached to ceramic vessels in the Soconusco region, on the southern Pacific coast of the modern-day state of Chiapas. Typically these vessels were small serving dishes, and common animals such as birds and dogs served as the decorations or handles. While these vessels were decorative, the wear on them indicates that they were well-used and may have been everyday objects. Researched by Allison Robbins
This figurine is unusual because it depicts a dwarf. Dwarfs were celebrated in ancient Mesoamerica, often serving in royal retinues. They acted as servants to the royalty and to the royal court, serving as bearers of mirrors and other important objects. Dwarfs also appear on sculpture as supernaturals or performing important ritual tasks such as holding up a throne. Researched by Sammie Hernandez
This figure illustrates how the majority of ceramic figurines were likely broken as part of a ritual. Like many figurines, this figure is broken in the middle of the torso, which is one of the thickest parts of the figure; if figurines only suffered accidental breakage, they would predominantly be broken in the weakest areas. Researched by Sammie Hernandez
These two Olmec figurines are unusual because they were coated with a thin slip of white kaolin clay to make them appear as if they were made completely of this fine, expensive type of clay. Generally, such treatment was reserved for large, hollow ceramic figures. The White-Slipped Figurine with Earspools and Headdress also has an unusual, cylindrical body and appears to be wearing a zoomorphic mask; this could represent a person wearing a mask for a ritual, or it could represent a supernatural being. Researched by Sammie Hernandez