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 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 naked female is a virtual study in strength,
defiance and confidence. She stands erect and
firm as if prepared to face any obstacle or threat.
Her basic features are of the Ameca-Ezatlán style,
having an elongated face; wide-open eyes
rimmed by thick fillets, large breasts with
appliquéd nipples and clearly defined teeth. The
impressive shoulder pellets are featured both on
male and female figures and probably represents
decoration rather than scarification. The
wonderful headdress is also typical of this style,
which flows elegantly from the high peak down
to the shoulders.
Instead of making her appear vulnerable, her
nudity heightens her dramatic presence, as if she
is impervious to any threat. She may represent a
female shaman who is confronting supernatural
forces. This would explain her being placed in a
burial chamber where she could offer protection
for the fledgling spirit of the deceased. Or, she
may be an icon of fertility. Despite her dominant
pose, she has a strong maternal aspect about
her; seen especially in her eyes and slightly
parted mouth. Her expression is both powerful
and compassionate, offering warmth to all who
are fortunate enough to come into her presence.