This imposing Colima figure is a reclinatorio – referring to its laid-back position. Made at the end of the first millennium BC to the early days of the first millennium AD, it pertains to a group of archaeological cultures – known almost purely from their artworks – referred to as the Western Mexico Shaft Tomb 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 piece is remarkable for its geometric yet zoomorphic representationalism. It resembles a bird when viewed in profile, though it has a relentless interplay of complex forms that oscillate depending on the angle from which it is viewed. It is essentially a T-shaped sculpture that always rests on the central legs, and either one of the other ends – one of which is a pouring spout, the other a fan-shaped tail. As well as its avian appearance, it also has aspects that make it resemble a fish, and also a howling dog. 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.
All of the cultures encompassed under this nomenclature 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 urbanisation, it behoves us to learn what we can from what they have let 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 the current example, 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 an often exuberant use of line. They are famous for their sculptures of dogs, which are often depicted as obese: it is possible that this is an expressionist tendency, but the fact that dogs were a regular addition to the Colima menu makes it likely that they were indeed this fat. The reclinatorios, however, have no real parallel. They are always curvilinear yet geometric assemblages of intersecting planes and enigmatic constructions, always with the tripartite design seen here. As stated above, their function is open to debate, although it is of course possible that they never had a practical use. They are however exceptionally mature and intelligent pieces of the ceramicist’s art, and a worthy addition to any serious collection of Mesoamerican antiquities.