This attractive sculpture of a seated man comes from the Mexican state of Nayarit, located on the Pacific coast, and depicts a man seated with crossed legs, an elaborate tunic and various other adornments, with arms that were once presumably splayed in greeting or other sentiment. The modelling is typically Nayarit but differs from the Chinesco style in possessing comparatively true-to-life features that do not have a reductive look, and also while small, the limbs are not vestigial. The arms stem from well-shaped shoulders, but have been damaged since manufacture. The legs are disproportionately small and crossed under the tunic. The head is large and well-styled, with a hooked nose, a small, smiling mouth, a rounded chin and painted eyes under lightly modelled brows. The shape of the head is unusual, until one recollects the Mexican habit of skull binding – deliberately deforming the skulls of subadults using a system of harnesses and bandages to produce a flattened profile. Although little is known of Nayarit social systematics, other cultures tended to reserve this treatment for social elites, and it is a reasonable assumption to consider that the Nayarit did likewise. This is substantiated by the ornate ear decorations and, especially, by the highly complex banded tunic that is far beyond the vast majority of known Nayarit examples.
The Nayarit culture pertains to a group of archaeological cultures – known almost purely from their artworks – referred to as the Western Mexico Shaft Tomb tradition. 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, and of these remains, it is perhaps the art that is the most informative.
The most striking works are the ceramics, which were usually placed in graves, and do not seem to have performed any practical function. 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. 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.
Known trends in sculptural theme include representations of ball-players, ancestor pairs, warriors, women (maternity figures) and zoomorphic pieces, although these are much more common in states such as Colima. Styles vary through time, although precise relationships are uncertain. The most realistic is the Ixtlan del Rio style of highly-adorned and accurately-modelled human figures with stylised faces. Nayarit tableaux are also known, constituting groups of abstract and figurative designs apparently intended to be devotional pieces. The best-known style is the Chinesco or Chinesca style, named for their supposedly Chinese appearance – impassive faces, linear eyes – of which there are five claimed types (the validity of the divisions is open to question due to their considerable overlap). Type A is unusual in its realism, while types B-E are more or less abstract, with major interpretation of proportions, limbs and faces.
The role of this piece is uncertain, but the unusual regalia and adornment, along with the pose and deformed skull, might imply that the person portrayed had some sort of ritual status within Nayarit society. It may have been a domestic idol or personal talisman, although a more central social role cannot be ruled out. The sophistication of Nayarit sculptors and their ability to move away from standard figurative concepts is well represented here, and it also constitutes a striking and attractive piece of ancient art that would take a proud position in any collection of ancient Central American art.
- (DK.129 (LSO))