The Colima are part of a group of archaeological cultures – known almost purely from their
artworks – referred to as the Western Mexico Shaft Tomb (WMST) tradition. There are many distinct
groups within this agglomeration, and their relationships are almost totally obscure due to the lack
of contextual information.
All of the cultures encompassed under the WMST 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 urbanization, they
developed very much in isolation, and it behooves us to learn what we can from what they have left
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 reclinatorios – 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. Characterized by a warm, red glaze, the figures are very measured and
conservative, while at the same time displaying a great competence of line. They are famous for
their sculptures of obese dogs, which seem to have been fattened for the table. Colima
reclinatorios are also remarkable, curvilinear yet geometric assemblages of intersecting planes and
enigmatic constructions in the semi-abstract.
This piece is a reclinatorio, a type of head and
back rest used by high-ranking officials.
Characterized by red slip and a highly burnished
surface. It may represent a companion spirit that
guided the dead into the underworld. It has a
buff, reddish surface decorated with black
circular markings. The front takes the form of a
stylized fish or amphibian. Two small fins
protrude from the sides of the body further
accentuating the aquatic attributes of this unique
sculpture and a mouth and partial head to the
top left of the vessel.
There is a large inverted spout at the center top
and to the back of the vessel. The vessel may
have contained a special beverage to placate the
gods or for the deceased on his journey through
the afterlife. Alternatively, it may have contained
something related to the ancient sacrificial rites.
The vessel leans back on two human legs which
are bent at the knees from the weight it is
intended to carry. The legs are exquisitely and
realistically formed and ironically appear full of
life. The flat, slightly concaved back surface of
the zoomorphic piece and overall rectangular
design with rounded corners appears to take a
tail like shape towards the bottom upon which
the piece rests. In a funerary context, the Colima
used reclinatorios to prop up the head of the