El Arenal Brown Style Jalisco Terracotta Sculpture of a Seated Man

SKU PF.6266

300 BC to 300 AD


12.5″ (31.8cm) high




Western Mexico

Gallery Location

S Korea


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.

This man is seated on the ground, resting his right hand on his raised knee and his other on the side of his leg, resting upon the ground. He is posed in a comfortable, relaxed posture, especially when one considers the other anxious poses that are typical of Jalisco art. This individual wears large, round earrings as well as a nose ring that hangs between his two nostrils. His mouth is slightly ajar, although his teeth are not visible, giving off the illusion that he is in the midst of taking a breath. A fancy headband has been wrapped around his elongated head. The sculptor has carefully elaborated the headband, with incised geometric marks that decorate the front. In addition, this figure wears a painted necklace of black beads. His shoulders feature several small bumps that are characteristic of Jalisco art and are believed to represent ritual keloid scarification. This astounding work of art was discovered buried alongside the deceased in a tomb. Such sculptures may have served as companions for the afterlife. Whatever its funerary significance, a work such as this sculpture continues to look after us today, excavated from below and brought into a new world and age. What does he have to teach us about the past?

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