Colima Terracotta Vessel in the Form of a Seated Dog

SKU CK.0597
Circa

300 BC to 300 AD

Dimensions

11.75″ (29.8cm) high x 7″ (17.8cm) wide x 13″ (33.0cm)

Medium

Terracotta

Origin

Western Mexico

Gallery Location

USA


 

This charming and well-sculpted zoomorphic vessel was made at the end of the first millennium BC to the early days of the first millennium AD. The subgroup that manufactured the piece are called the Colima, who are part of a group of archaeological cultures – known almost purely from their artworks – referred to as the Western Mexico Shaft Tomb (WMST) tradition. There are many distinct groups within this agglomeration, and their relationships are almost totally obscure due to the lack of contextual information. However, it is the artworks that are the most informative, as we can see from the current piece.
The vessel would seem to be somewhat impractical, for although it was doubtless able to hold liquids (probably maize beer) it is likely to have had another function, probably votive, funerary or ritual. It depicts a highly stylised dog with round eyes seated on his hind legs. The head of the dog is surmounted by the funnel-top neck and mouth of the vessel. The limbs are very short, matching a small and pointed tail that protrudes at the back of the piece. The whole vessel has a glossy patina from considerable handling and perhaps libations.

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.

The arts of this region are enormously variable and hard to understand in chronological terms, mainly due to the lack of context. The most striking works are the ceramics, which 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. More abstract pieces – such as reclinatorios – probably had a more esoteric meaning that is hard to recapture from the piece.

The current piece falls within the Colima style, which is perhaps the most unusual stylistic subgroup of this region. Characterised by a warm, red glaze, the figures are very measured and conservative, while at the same time displaying a great competence of line. They are famous for their sculptures of obese dogs, which seem to have been fattened for the table. Colima reclinatorios are also remarkable, curvilinear yet geometric assemblages of intersecting planes and enigmatic constructions in the semi- abstract. The current piece, however, is in many respects more socially valuable than the aforementioned, as it portrays not only naturalistic aspects of Colima lifestyle, but also something of the nature of their society.

Ancient artworks are valuable for many reasons, but perhaps the most appealing is the manner in which they allow the modern onlooker to have a glimpse into a totally alien lifeway, and also as to how these distant periods have influenced cultures in the present day. For instance, the zooarchaeological record indicates that dogs were not fat merely through being over cared- for; it has become increasingly apparent that dogs were on the menu in most Native American populations. Further, the abstractionist tendency displayed in the construction and depiction of this dog has enormous resonance for modern art movements, where the eye moved away from the merely depictive and exaggerated the aspects of the subject that were important to the sculptor. In this piece, the naturalism of which the Colima were perfectly capable has been replaced by a sense of aesthetics that summons up the essence of what was being portrayed with both evocation and affection.

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