300 BC to 300 AD
|There are many distinct groups within the agglomeration referred to as the Western Mexico Shaft Tomb (WMST) tradition, foremost among them the Jalisco, Nayarit, and Colima. Their relationships are almost totally obscure due to the lack of contextual information. However, it is the artworks that are the most informative. All of the cultures encompassed under the WMST umbrella were in the habit of burying their dead in socially-stratified burial chambers at the base of deep shafts, which were in turn often topped by buildings. Originally believed to be influenced by the Tarascan people, who were contemporaries of the Aztecs, thermoluminescence has pushed back the dates of these groups over 1000 years.Although the apogee of this tradition was reached in the last centuries of the 1st millennium BC, it has its origins over 1000 years earlier at sites such as Huitzilapa and Teuchitlan, in the Jalisco region. Little is known of the cultures themselves, although preliminary data seems to suggest that they were sedentary agriculturists with social systems not dissimilar to chiefdoms. These cultures are especially interesting to students of Mesoamerican history as they seem to have been to a large extent outside the ebb and flow of more aggressive cultures – such as the Toltecs, Olmecs and Maya – in the same vicinity. Thus insulated from the perils of urbanization, they developed very much in isolation, and it behooves us to learn what we can from what they have left behind.
There are few cultures in the Americas or indeed elsewhere that can match the Jalisco for exuberant skill in the production of figurative ceramics. These wares were usually placed in graves, and do not seem to have performed any practical function, although highly decorated utilitarian vessels are also known. It is possible that they were designed to depict the deceased – they are often very naturalistic – although it is more probable that they constituted, when in groups, a retinue of companions, protectors and servants for the hereafter. Many of the figures represent warriors, judging from their apparel and martial stance. These were probably protectors of the deceased, symbolic of actual people who were buried with the deceased as retainers in more sanguineous Central and Southern American societies. Supernatural and more enigmatic figures are also known, presumably representing aspects of Jalisco cultural heritage (gods, spirits, ancestors, mythological figures etc) that cannot be understood at the present time. However, perhaps the best-known style is that of the maternity figure.
The current piece falls within the style known as the Ameca-Ezatlán group, which is characterised by elongated faces, turban-like headwear, wide mouths, large hands, defined nails and staring eyes with elevated rims. The current piece is therefore a classic example of the tradition. Insofar as theme is concerned, the subject matter is likewise traditional. Just as in other sophisticated social systems around the world – such as the Egyptians or Dynastic China – figures were made to represent the sorts of people and resources that might be needed in the hereafter. They were in this sense symbolic of actual people, who were buried with the deceased as retainers in more sanguineous Central and Southern American societies. Seemingly supernatural figures are also known, presumably representing aspects of Jalisco cultural heritage (gods, spirits, ancestors, mythological figures etc) that are currently beyond our understanding, while maternity figures are also fairly well- known. Of all the groups, however, it is perhaps the warriors that are the most dramatic.
This lovely figure shows a woman in a dramatic and enigmatic pose. Her left hand is placed on the side of her head, while her right arm is extended with the fingers splayed. Though both sexes are represented in this position, only the females are shown with an outstretched arm. This positioning of the arms accentuates the striking expression of the face, with her wide, expressive eyes and open mouth revealing a fine row of teeth. This figure, as with others of its type, appears to be expressing a state of being, as if the person is in a trance. The posture may be of a ritual nature used by shamans, particularly during public ceremonies. Therefore, anyone seeing this sculpture would immediately understand its significance, which communicates a unique power through artistic representation. As a work of art this figure talks to us on many levels, aesthetically and culturally, and touches something within us that is very real and yet defies definition. – (PF.0983)