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 powerful nude woman sits staring straight
ahead with her mouth open as if she is speaking.
This sculpture is full of energy and movement
seen through the curvilinear forms of the body
(such as the arms and ears). The hues of orange
and creme effectively show how powerful this
woman is within her community. Her large legs
support her with perfect balance as she radiates
with the feeling of fecundity like the great
fertility goddesses from the Ancient Old World.
Representing the cherished concept of fertility
and birth, it is possible that the sculpture was a
part of a fertility ritual. Her nakedness suggests
her royalty, because peasants were the only
people who wore clothes while they worked.
The headdress she wears sits royally on the
crown of her head. Clearly she must be someone
used to the authority and privilege of power. The
language and energy of this figure comes across
with such force that it summons our undevoted
attention. This delicate sculpture delights our
eyes and also leads us to understand that the
magic of birth was cherished across all cultures