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Get the Full Story
Date posted:  February 11, 2016

“Man . . . never perceives anything fully or comprehends anything completely. He can see, hear, touch, and taste — but how far he sees, how well he hears, what his touch tells him, what he tastes depends upon the number and quality of his senses.” C. G. Jung 1979, p. 21

“When I show someone a pond in the forest, I ask them, ‘What do you see? Do you see the pond; do you see the rocks at the bottom; do you see the fish?’ When they look, they only see the pond but when they see, they are seeing everything. Only a few see it all. I use this idea a great deal when I take people into the outdoors. I am looking for the observer that sees what is not supposed to be there. That is a true hunter.” Scott Frazier (Crow/Santee) Director, Project Indigenous

Ancient art attracts. Artifacts from early human cultures may inspire, repulse, or make us curious about the objects and images from long ago. Many progressive European artists of the late 19th century were attracted to the angularity, the different perspectives, and roughness of tribal arts from around the world. Picasso, Gauguin, and Van Gogh among many others regarded nonwestern art as primitive or even “savage,” but at the same time, they viewed art from Africa, the Americas, and Asia as sources of inspiration (Rubin 1988, p. 2). While a previous generation frequently dismissed non-western art, the new artists recognized the genius of styles from many times and places. So-called “primitive art” suddenly became popular. Without doubt, the strong angular planes had a direct impact on Cubism, just as the colorful, flat ukiyo-e of Japan inspired Impressionist painters.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were major forces in the art and politics of the early 20th century. Their influence extended well beyond their Mexican homeland. Indigenismo — the recognition and promotion of the first cultures and arts of the Americas — was a common theme for both artists. Together, they amassed a huge collection of Mesoamerican objects from many parts of Mexico. Rivera’s Anahuacalli museum holds an estimated 50,000 objects. Rivera’s and Kahlo’s art frequently drew on Mexican folk images to express the themes of indigenous strength, honor, and beauty. Rufino Tamayo’s Vendedora de Jitomates combines simplicity and nobility in this common folk scene. Alfredo Zalce borrows pre-Hispanic and colonial images to create powerful black and white images.

In the 1960s, Kahlua, a brand of coffee liqueur, promoted its product using images of Mexican antiquities mostly from West Mexico and in the process created a pop culture phenomenon. The ads featured single or grouped Mesoamerican figures (Mesoamerican is a term used by archaeologists to denote pre-Hispanic cultures of Mexico and adjacent areas) coupled with sandy beaches and humorous balloon dialogue to create a kind of exoticism aimed at a young adult demographic. Jules Berman, who launched the very successful Kahlua brand, published a catalogue of his collection of pre-Hispanic art in 1973.

Artists and art historians frequently perceive figures from earlier cultures as objets d’art and ignore or are uninformed about the cultural and spiritual signficance of tribal images. While many prehistoric objects are finely crafted, referring to them only as art falls far short of recognizing their full importance. During the spectacular Te Maori exhibition at the Field Museum of Natural History in the 1980s, anthropologist and Maori elder Sir Sydney Moko Meade stated the dilemma. He wanted Maori art to be seen as a fully developed and refined world art. At the same time, he opined that seeing these important works only as art was to completely misunderstand their meaning.

Looking at Mesoamerican Objects

Today, most Americans know West Mexico by its beach resorts such as Mazatlán, Manzanillo, Puerto Vallarta, and Ixtapa. At the time of the Spanish Conquest, much of West Mexico was part of the Tarascan Empire. Nearly 1500 years before that (circa 200 BCE to 200 CE), native peoples used this ecologically diverse and rich region to create a culture that has long been known as the “shaft tomb” culture, a term that artificially emphasizes the importance of the tombs and the ceramic figures found therein.

Beginning in the 1970s, archaeologist Phil Weigand and his Mexican and American colleagues began examining prehistoric sites in the region. Near the small town of Teuchitlán, the massive site of Guachimonton was found. Archaeological research at the site is adding new knowledge about these ancient people. The architectural pattern is defined as having a central circular stepped pyramid, surrounded by a circular plaza encircled by a raised banquette on which houses or temples were built. At Guachimonton, at least half a dozen of these circular complexes are linked to each other. In addition, at least two Mesoamerican ballcourts have been found.

Until the 1970s, most of the commentary regarding shaft tomb figures was descriptive and focused on creating a classification system of “types.” Perhaps the first formal treatment of Occidente figures was published in 1946 (Toscana, Kirchhoff, and Rubin de la Borbolla). Although the work was important as a “first,” its attribution of Occidente figures to the Tarascan Empire of the Spanish Contact Period is today considered to be incorrect. However, Kirchhoff did interpret some of the figures as depicting naguals or nahualli — spirit guides in the form of animals taken on by shamans. This may be the first recognition that the ceramic figures from the shaft tombs had layered meanings.

Hasso von Winning wrote extensively about Occidente figures. The Shaft Tomb Figures of West Mexico (1974) continues to be the best single reference on the subject. His volume Anecdotal Sculptures (co-authored by Olga Hammer, 1972) interpreted the shaft tomb tradition as images of everyday life. Portrayals of Pathological Symptoms in Pre-Columbian Mexico (von Winning 1987) surveyed the visual evidence for representations of many pathologic conditions. He contrasted the Occidente tradition with the religious and political art that typifies much of the art from Teotihuacan, Monte Albán, and the Mayan and Aztec cultures.

Peter Furst (1972, 1977) challenged Von Winning’s perspective and became the foremost proponent of interpreting Occidente figures through the lens of shamanism and associated psychotropic experiences. He rightly points out that virtually all objects associated with mortuary behavior are completely or partially spiritual. While much of the previous literature on ceramic figures was mainly descriptive, Furst proposed that the meaning of the figures from the tombs transcended the everyday aspect of life and that literal interpretations were insufficient. For example, a figure of a woman carrying a bowl on her shoulder had a meaning beyond the obvious. This image is common and found in different styles of figures. Is the bowl simply a bowl or does the carrying of the bowl in this position signify something more?

Many Mesoamerican scholars have correctly noted that the human figures of the Occidente are different from those from other parts of Mexico. Most figures from the Olmec region, the Huasteca, Monte Albán, Teotihuacán, the Aztec, and Mayan empires are frequently depicted wearing very elaborate clothing and regalia. Many of these figures are deities or deity-impersonators. All of these figures represent formal state and/or religious artistic expressions. West Mexican human figures don’t appear to follow that tradition.

Other Mesoamerican cultures also produced naturalistic, human figures that were used in different contexts. Mayan figures from the Island of Jaina and Gilcrease’s Olmec Infant are excellent examples. The Jaina figures probably represent the Mayan elite who were interred on the island of Jaina. Numerous Olmec infant figures exist in public and private collections. Their origins and meaning are obscure and not well studied; therefore it is difficult to determine their cultural significance.

New Research at Gilcrease

Current research at Gilcrease Museum looks at the Occidente shaft tomb figure tradition in new ways. Earlier aspects of the work were published between 1997 and 2005 (Cuevas and Pickering 2003, 2005; López-Mestas, Ramos, and Pickering 1998; Pickering, Ramos, Haskell, and Hall 1998; Pickering and Cabrero 1998; Pickering 1997a, 1997b and 1998). During this time, Mexican archaeologists found unlooted shaft tombs and studied their entire contents, not just the figures. They were further able to place the tombs in context of the entire sites in which they were found. These expressive and diverse ceramic figures they studied provide snapshot-like detail of the personal dress, body decoration, and adornment of people who lived between Guadalajara and the West Coast about 2,000 years ago. They also provide clues to past behavior, if we can decipher them.

It is probable that the combination of body postures, clothing, and accoutrements represented in these male and female figures have cultural and spiritual significance. Some elements are created in fine detail, which by itself suggests that such traits were important. The challenge for 21st-century researchers is to go beyond typology and basic description to see if the significance and meaning of these figures can be ascertained. For example, numerous hollow figures of females are depicted in a seated or kneeling posture with hands at the sides of an enlarged abdomen. This posture is found in different styles and with clothing and personal adornment characteristic of each style, yet the basic posture is the same. Do such figures merely represent a kneeling woman? Intuitively, these figures appear to represent pregnancy, but do they represent anything else? A first or successful first pregnancy? Coming of age? Marriage? The conception of a cacique/chief? Around the world, pregnancy and birth are important societal, not just personal events. Such figures may commemorate this important transition.

Similarly, there are numerous ceramic figures, mostly in the Nayarit Style (defined as a style commonly found in the Mexican state of Nayarit) that depict a seated male with a tortoise shell instrument in the left hand and a deer antler baton in the right hand. In the 16th-century Codex Magliabecchiano, an analogous painted image of a man playing the same combination of antler baton and tortoise shell is illustrated. The musician is said to have played during the funerary rituals for deceased leaders. One of the first steps in understanding the meaning of these figures is to determine the extent to which body postures correlate with gender, stylistic attributes, elements of clothing, body decoration, and accoutrement. Identifying these patterns is a key goal of this project. To date, nearly 2,000 figures from seven American museums comprise the sample.

Both male and female ceramic figures represent diverse body postures, but not an unlimited number. Seventeen distinct and recurrent postures for males and for females have been identified to date. This small number suggests that the posture itself has cultural meaning that may be enhanced by body decoration, clothing, objects the figure carries, or in which hand the objects are held. Additional meanings may be construed by nuances such as the direction in which the figure’s head is turned. Further, it suggests that the ceramicists followed a set of cultural rules as they constructed the figures. Perhaps the particular combination of clothing, personal adornment, and body decoration depict actual individuals, while the posture sends a message about the figure’s larger cultural significance.

Good analysis demands detailed and accurate observation. Female and male figures have painted and possibly tattooed designs on their bodies. However, over the last two millennia, the details of color and design became obscured or faded. It can be challenging to look beyond the dirty surfaces or exaggerated appearances of West Mexico ceramic figures and see the real people they represent. Research assistants Aubree Hayden Karner and Cheryl Smallwood-Roberts applied their artistic skills to take a deeper look. They illustrated over three hundred figures from the Gilcrease collection in more realistic human form. Close examination and interpretation was needed to craft these detailed drawings that were then digitized and colorized in Adobe® Photoshop®. Many of the ceramic artifacts have been judiciously cleaned, while others have calcium deposits that obscure much of the detail. Manganese dioxide (MnO2), another deposit often found on ceramics from shaft tombs, appears to be attracted to some of the white pigments used to decorate the figures. Intense light and magnifying lenses frequently reveal white painted clothing and jewelry that is entirely covered with black manganese stain. A cursory examination easily misses the true color.

Fabric clothing frequently is painted on male and female ceramic figures. In some cases, figures with similarly patterned clothes sometimes come from the same tombs. Perhaps the pattern is a familial identifier, much like a Scottish clan tartan. In many parts of Mesoamerica and South America, textile colors and patterns identified the town and even the lineage of a person. If the people interred in the shaft tombs were dressed in their normal attire or wrapped in cloth, these elements have not survived the tomb environment, but the clothing depicted on the ceramic figures represents a virtual fashion catalogue of style. A spectacular monumental female figure in the collection wears a skirt patterned with serpents, and her partner sports the same figure on his cape. Could this be related to the mythic deity that evolved into the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, or “Serpent Skirt”? A son of Serpent Skirt, Quetzalcoatl — the feathered serpent — is first depicted at the Olmec site of La Venta, circa 1000–600 B.C., predating the shaft-tomb culture and virtually all other Mesoamerican cultures, yet some deities evidence long time depth. Once the postures and accoutrements of Occidente human figures are clearly identified, it may be possible to connect them with larger Mesoamerican traditions. Women rarely wear upper body clothing, with the exception of a small cape tied over one shoulder. Males wear a similar cape or a short-sleeved, veeneck shirt, body armor, briefs, or an unusual scoop-shaped ornament on a belt.

Looking beyond the stylistics of the ceramic figures reveals many subtle but important variations. Wearing a headband is almost universal for men but the bands vary from plain, single strands to multiple twisted fabric bands. Sometimes a sagittal band is included, extending from the forehead to the back of the head. Headgear on male figures also goes to extremes. An animal skin, complete from head to feet, is worn on male figures that appear to have some high rank. This may represent the coati-mundi or the Xoloitzcuintle dog, as both animals are depicted in effigy vessels of the period.

Many figures wear no clothing other than the headband, but most are adorned with jewelry, including earrings, nose rings, necklaces, and arm bands. These vary from simple rings to extremely ornate styles that may be signifiers of social status. We can only speculate whether elaborate body and face art represents tattooing or ritual painting. Some figures are patterned over large areas, which probably represents paint, while less extensive patterns may be tattoos. The unusual round shoulder bumps found on many figures could represent a temporary application of clay or mud, or be scarification.

Though similar clothing and adornment often appear on the figures, the faces of each figure are artistically modeled with unique characteristics — unusually large noses, cranial deformation, distinct hairstyles, and even dentition — indicators that these ceramic figures are portraits of people from the past.

A truism in virtually all fields of research and certainly in this project is that every detail tells a story, if we can see it and determine its meaning. Modern medical tools enhance our eyes and provide new ways to see. Computed axial tomography (CT scans) shows details of construction. CT scans also reveal the extent of repairs or replacements on ceramic figures. The repairs are sometimes so good that they are virtually invisible to the unaided eye. However, they are obvious on the scans. Being able to see how a complex ceramic figure was constructed is important. For example, a group of the very popular and common Colima burnished red dogs was scanned. Some of the dogs were genuine and others were known to be of modern manufacture. However, the details of the exterior form and surfaces were very similar; that’s the goal of those who make modern copies. The CT scans of the large round bellies show the thickness of the walls and reveal buttressing to support the roundish shape. The analysis is still in progress.

Like most North American prehistoric pottery, vessels and hollow figures were created by coiling ropes of clay that were smoothed on both sides of open vessels, and typically only on the outside of figural works. Some clay slabs may have been incorporated into larger pieces for stability, and smaller pieces and accents were often made by pinching the clay into the desired shapes. Wares were slipped and/or painted, sometimes prior to and sometimes after firing. On broken pieces and sherds, the width of the core — a darkened area inside of the walls—indicate how hot the fire burned. A wide core indicates that the fire was not hot enough to burn off all of the carbonized material. No core indicates a higher firing temperature. It is possible to determine the age of pottery through thermoluminescence (TL) testing. TL is present in the minerals in pottery as energy from radioactive decay, which is released when heated. When pottery is fired, it loses all its previously acquired TL, and on cooling the TL begins again to build up. If the radioactivity of the pottery is measured, the dose rate, or annual increment of dose, may be computed. Cost and the destructive nature of this test limit the appeal of this technique.

The most helpful new tool used to extend the eye is the medical endoscope. In this case, helpful means endoscopes are non-destructive, accessible, easy to use, quick, and definitive. Immediately, looking at the interior of a vessel reveals methods of construction; edges of slabs of clay and how they are attached to each other becomes clear. Endoscopy demonstrates that some of the same indicators of authenticity found on the exterior are also found on interior walls. Like the CT, endoscopy reveals the repair history of an object, and it is much faster and easier to use. The scope sees glue used to mend a fragmentary vessel or patches of plaster or other material used to fill spaces where the original pottery fragments are totally missing. Sadly, endoscopy exposed one of the most intriguing pieces in the Gilcrease collection as a pastiche of ancient and modern parts. A Colima burnished red dog wearing a human face mask probably is a piece purchased by Mr. Gilcrease from a prominent California gallery in 1952. It is virtually identical to a figure published in the 1890s. The presence of a human mask adds additional layers of cultural importance to this frequently found form. If genuine, this dog with mask would be important in understanding why animal figures, especially dogs, were entombed with the dead. Initially, the figure was thought to be complete, unbroken, and absolutely genuine. Examination by endoscopy told a different story. Inserting the endoscope into the vent hole at the ear revealed that everything behind the two prominent ears was genuine; the characteristics of age were there. However, looking inside the face revealed that the entire front of the figure, the whole mask, was made of a plaster-like material — it was a modern addition! This is a surprisingly sophisticated deceptive modification for the early 1950s. Museum records show that the piece was purchased for $1,000, a large sum of money in the 1950s for a clever deception. Three features found on the exterior and interior surfaces of the figures provide trustworthy evidence of age and authenticity. Manganese dioxide deposits result from the action of manganese fixing bacteria. The deposits have a telltale form and are frequently found on archaeological specimens in West Mexico and beyond. Insect puparial remnants adhering to the surface of ceramic figures from the Huitzilapa tomb first were identified by the senior author in the 1990s. Additional research shows that these tiny remnants represent necrophilous (carrion-eating) insects that feed on deceased animals, including humans. The connection between the tombs, deceased humans buried within, and the presence of insects should not be surprising. The presence of root marks on the vessel surfaces also is an indicator of age. Roots can penetrate deeply into the soil and sometimes into the tombs themselves. The organic materials and liquids inside ceramic vessels might have provided nutrients for plants and accelerated root development. The people who modify or create modern versions of ancient ceramic vessels are well acquainted with manganese deposits and root marks. They have developed various ways to simulate them. So far, replicating insect puparia has not been observed, although it is likely to be seen in the future. Endoscopic exams show that manganese deposits, insects, and root marks can be seen on the interiors of ceramic figures. Finding these clues deep in the interiors of a vessel strongly indicates authenticity.

Current research is successfully using technology to provide some new ways of seeing. The results are significant. As the project develops, other techniques for extending our observational powers will be utilized. Each new technique will provide new and more information that helps us understand the past. For example, dried organic residues frequently are encountered inside bowls and vessels. Future collaborations with the chemistry department at the University of Tulsa will attempt to identify these compounds. Knowing what the ancients placed with their deceased kin would be a breakthrough in understanding how these people prepared for the afterlife. Similarly, the analysis of paint on the figures will reveal how the paints were made and perhaps, who made them. Looking at old collections in new ways keeps the museum vital and expands the envelope of our knowledge about the past. We often think of the past as being known and settled. Yet with new technology and by asking new questions, we change the past every time we learn something new, or discover that something we had accepted as fact is untrue. It is important for museums to support active research programs to keep learning and sharing that knowledge with our many audiences.


Ames, Michael M.

     1992 Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes: The Anthropology of Museums. UBC Press, Vancouver.


Cuevas, Ephraim and Robert B. Pickering

     2003 The Ancient Ceramics of West Mexico, American Scientist. 91:3, Pp. 242-249.

     2005 “Caracterización de manchas de manganeso en artefactos prehispánicos del occidente de México”,
     en: Eduardo Williams, Phil Weigand, Lorenza López y David Grove (eds.), El Antiguo Occidente de
     México: Nuevas perspectivas sobre el pasado prehispánico, El Colegio de Michoacán, Zamora, Pp. 125-143.


Furst, Peter T.

     1972 Flesh of the Gods: The Ritual Use of Hallucinogens. Waveland Press, Prospect Heights, IL.

     1974 “Ethnographic analogy in the interpretation of West Mexican art” The Archaeology of West Mexico.
     Betty Bell (ed.), Pp. 132-145, West Mexican Society for Advanced Study, Ajijic., Mexico.


Frizzell, Valerie (curator)

     1973 Jules Berman Collection of Pre-Hispanic Mexican Art. Fine Art Gallery of San Diego.


Jung, Carl G.

     1979 “Approaching the unconscious.” Pp. 18-103, Man and His Symbols. C.G. Jung and M.-L. von Franz (eds.),
     Windfall Book/Doubleday & Co., Garden City, NY.


Jung, Carl G. and M.-L. von Franz (eds.)

     1979 “Approaching the unconscious.” Man and His Symbols. Windfall Book/Doubleday & Co., Garden City, NY.


L. López-Mestas, L., J. Ramos de la V. y R. B. Pickering

     1998 “Culto funerario y organización social en la tradición Teuchitlán. Pp.167-174, El Occidente de México:
     Arqueología, Historia y Medio Ambiente:Perspectivas Regionales. Actas del IV Coloquio de Occidentalistas.
     La Universidad de Guadalajara and Instituto Francés de Investigación Científica para el Desarrollo en

Messenger, Phyllis M. (Ed.)
     1989 The Ethics of Collection Cultural Property: Whose Culture? Whose Property? UNM Press, Albuquerque.


Pearce, Susan M.
     1995 On Collecting: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition. Routledge Press, NY.

Pickering, R.B., J. Ramos, N. Haskell, and R. Hall.

     1998 Significado de las cubiertas de crisálidas de insectos que aparecen en las figurillas del Occidente de México.
     Pp. 335-343, El Occidente de México: Arqueología, Historia y Medio Ambiente:Perspectivas Regionales. Actas
     del IV Coloquio de Occidentalistas.La Universidad de Guadalajara and Instituto Francés de Investigación Científica
     para el Desarrollo en Cooperación.


Pickering, R.B. and M.T. Cabrero

     1998 Mortuary Practices in the Shaft-Tomb Region. Pp. 71-88, Ancient West Mexico: Art and Archaeology
     of the Unknown Past. Richard Townsend (ed.), The Art Institute of Chicago.

Pickering, R.B.

     1998 Archaeology, Insects and Establishing Authenticity of West Mexican Figurines. MQ, Summer, Pp. 16-17,
     Denver Museum of Natural History, Denver.

     1997a Discovering the Occidente. Archaeology, Nov-Dec., Pp. 42-46.

     1997b Maggots, Graves, and Scholars. Archaeology, Nov-Dec., Pp. 46-47.

Rubin, William (Ed.)

     1988 “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art. Vols. I & II. The Museum of Modern Art, NY.

     1988 “Modernist Primitivism: An Introduction”. Pp.1-82. “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art. Vol. II. The Museum
     of Modern Art, NY.

Toscana, Salvador, Paul Kirchhoff and Daniel F. Rubin de la Borbolla

     1946 Arte Precolombino del Occidente de México. Secretaria de Educación Pública, México.

Von Winning, Hasso
     1974 The Shaft Tomb Figures of West Mexico. Southwest Museum, Los Angeles.

     1987 Portrayal of Pathological Symptoms in Pre-Columbian Mexico. The Pearson Museum, SIU School
     of Medicine.

Von Winning, Hasso and Olga Hammer

     1972 Anecdotal Sculptures. Ethnic Arts Council and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.