Ancient Art

Were the world’s earliest medical illustrations made in ancient Mesoamerica?

A few days ago, while perusing the online catalogue of Norwich’s Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, I stumbled upon a curious figurine fragment–a terracotta head with two faces and three eyes, the central eye being shared between the two faces (left). According to the catalogue, this figurine probably originated in Tlatilco, a large farming village that flourished in the Basin of Mexico between about 1200 and 200 BC. A little online snooping further revealed that double-faced figurines are a relatively common find at Tlatilco, and are thought to date to between 1200 and 700 BC–although it’s unclear how many of these figurines were excavated by looters and how many were unearthed by professional archaeologists, so I couldn’t get a sense of where in Tlatilco these figurines would have been found. It seems that ancient Tlatilcans (?) used to bury one-faced figurines under fields, perhaps believing they would make their crops grow faster–but there’s no word on where Tlatilcans placed two-faced figurines. So we don’t really know what these double-faced figurines mean, or how they were used.

Double faced head. Central America, Mexico, Tlatilco. Middle Pre-Classic period (1200-900 BC). Earthenware, traces of red pigment. h. 4.5 cm. Acquired 1973. Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. UEA 136.

Fig. 1: Double faced head. Central America, Mexico, Tlatilco. Middle Pre-Classic period (1200-900 BC). Earthenware, traces of red pigment. h. 4.5 cm. Acquired 1973. Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. UEA 136. Photo from the SCVA website.

BUT. I did come across this interesting theory, by one Gordon Bendersky (2000), that the Tlatilco double-faced figurines were the world’s earliest medical illustrations–and, more specifically, the world’s earliest medical illustrations of a rare congenital disorder known as diprosopus.

Science-wise, diprosopus is caused by the mutation of the “Sonic Hedgehog Homolog” protein (SHH), which controls facial expansion during foetal development. The way it works is that, if the SHH protein is longer than it should be, this leads to face duplication. However, there are many different possible lengths to which SHH can stretch, which means that, for example, particularly long SHH can lead to two fairly distinct faces, while slightly shorter SHH can lead to two faces that share a large central eye. There’s a whole spectrum of possibilities (Fig. 2).


Schematic representations of documented diprosopus cases (Bendersky 2000: 482).

Now, the interesting thing is that Tlatilco double-faced figurines seem to reflect this same spectrum of possible different types of facial duplication. In other words, double-faced figurines are not all the same (some have two very distinct faces, some have two faces that share a central eye, etc.), in exactly the same way that cases of diprosopus are not all the same (Fig. 3). It’s because of this that Bendersky believes they were medical illustrations of an actual anatomical phenomenon, rather than fanciful depictions of imaginary supernatural creatures.


Selection of Tlatilco double-faced figurines, ordered according to how distinct the two faces are (Bendersky 2000: 480).

You could say that the term “medical illustrations” is imprecise and anachronistic. The very idea that you can understand how the physical world works by poking and prodding it with science (and, as regards the human body, medicine) is a relatively recent one, and probably did not quite exist in ancient Tlatilco.

However, if these figurines are indeed depictions of diprosopus, they do suggest genuine curiosity and towards a natural anatomical phenomenon, and a compulsion to make sense of it through classification. This is the basis of a lot of scientific research–and it does make them a sort of flickering, short-lived example of “proto-science”, for lack of a better word.

NB A question some of you might have is, if diprosopus is a rare condition, how come it appears so frequently in Tlatilco art, and with sufficiently great variation that it’s probably many different cases being represented rather than the same two or three over and over again? It’s a good question, and Bendersky isn’t sure himself, although apparently “clusters” or “epidemics” of conjoined twins in modern times have been documented in a number of locations worldwide, from Wales to California, from China to Israel, so maybe a similar thing happened with diprosopus in Tlatilco. Also, it’s possible that, for cultural reasons, inbreeding was common in Tlatilco, making an otherwise rare condition like diprosopus more common than it normally is. However, it’s worth saying that no two-faced skeletons have been found at Tlatilco, in case you were wondering, although that may well be because the archaeological record was disturbed by looters–and/or because the remains of diprosopus individuals may have been treated in a special way that prevented them from being preserved properly, or made them very difficult to find (I should probably say now that diprosopus is normally incompatible with life, although I did hear of a pig born with two faces who survived to a relatively old age).


Suggestions for further reading/watching:

1. The Brain Scoop’s Emily Graslie and Anna Goldman have tackled diprosopus recently: check out their two-parter on the dissection of a two-faced calf here and here.

2. Gordon Bendersky was an interesting guy–he was a paediatric cardiologist and amateur historian/archaeologist of medicine, whose academic papers cover a motley array of subjects, from depictions of foetuses in Olmec art to depictions of epilepsy in Raphael’s paintings, from the use of saffron as medicine in the ancient Aegean to sports injuries in ancient Greece. You can read his New York Times obituary here.



Berensky, G. 2000. Tlatilco sculptures, diprosopus, and the emergence of medical illustrations. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 43 (4): 477-501.

It’s easy to see museum artefacts as static objects, nothing but the fossil remains of long-dead cultures. And it’s easy to forget that objects can have biographies almost in the same way as humans do–in the case of museum artefacts especially, what’s written on their labels often describes only one of the many phases of their long and varied lives. In this post, I will tell you the likely story of an enigmatic stone sculpture from sixteenth-century Sierra Leone, from its carving to its current residence in the storage rooms of Norwich’s Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts. The sculpture’s accession number at the museum is UEA 204, so I’ll just refer to it as “204”. There are many sculptures like it in museums across the world, and they are mostly known by the term nomoli (plural nomolisia), which means “found spirit” in Mende.

UEA 204

UEA 204. Height: 21 cm. Weight: more than you’d expect.

204 is a sculpture in the shape a seated male figure (Fig. 1). It has a bald, elongated head, bulging eyes, fleshy nose, and full lips. The head is marked by a V-shaped design that may represent a scarification mark, while the elbows are weighed down by ball-shaped bling which may or may not be of a similar kind as that worn by a horse-raider painted on the wall of a Kissi house in Guinea (below). The figure’s hands are holding something to its chin–perhaps 204 is tugging at his beard. Though most nomolisia are simply the (grey) colour of the stone they’re made of, 204 is covered in a black patina that probably derives from a combination of lamp-black and oil–more on this below.


Picture of a horse-rider found in a Kissi house.

204’s mother (or, indeed, its father) was an indistinct mass of steatite, which is a kind of soapstone. Its father (or mother) was most likely a 16th-century Sapi carver from Sierra Leone. This is based on two things: number one, the journals and accounts left behind by the Portuguese traders and explorers that visited West Africa at the time are rich in praise for the Sapi’s technical skill; number two, there are a number of stylistic similarities between nomolisia and the human figures ornamenting the “tourist art”commissioned by the Portuguese traders and explorers for their patrons back home (mostly slightly tacky ivory salt cellars known as “Afro-Portuguese ivories“).

204 depicts a seated male figure: could it have been a portrait? It is entirely possible, although it may also simply represent a generic elite figure, perhaps the likeness of an important ancestor. Either way, 204 likely depicts a powerful person. Most steatite sculptures from Sierra Leone (including the mahei yafei heads), correspond to Portuguese descriptions of West African chiefs, with their beards, elaborate hairstyles, filed teeth and large jewellery. 204’s appearance is not quite so striking in this sense as other pieces, but it does have a (possible, two-pronged) beard, and chunky elbow-bling, and the act of sitting on stools is a traditional indicator of power in much of Africa.

As I said, 204’s first life may have been as a Sapi ancestor figure. Travellers walking eastwards from Temne towns in modern-day Sierra Leone may come across a small structure with, inside, an altar known as am-boro ma-sar, upon which several stones are placed. Each of these stones will have been gathered from the gravesite of an important personage–each, then, is linked to a particular person, even if, after some time, only the altar’s caretaker may remember which stone is linked to whom. And every year, after harvest, a sacrifice is made to the stones, the altar is cleaned, and people recite propitiatory prayers to each of the past chiefs represented by the stones. It’s entirely possible that 204 was used in a similar way, although evidence for this is restricted to two very vague accounts. There’s a certain Fernandes, who writes, in 1506, that the Sapi made sacrifices to images of their ancestors, and that slaves and commoners fashioned these images out of wood–implying, perhaps, that the ancestors of the powerful were made of a different material, such as stone. And then there’s French General Beaulieu, writing in 1619 of the sacrifices the Sapi made to “little figures grotesquely shaped, made to look like devils” (Lamp 1983: 230).

And then–drama! In the early seventeenth century, Sapi territory was invaded by the Mani, a culture group that the Portuguese often described as the “barbarous” counterpart to the more “civilised” Sapi (though reality may well have been more complex), and the production of soapstone sculptures, nomolisia included, ceased. In 1575, a Frenchman named Thevet described an iconoclastic scene in which “the barbarians of the country” “split and brok[e]” a sculpture in “the likeness of a great toad or frog” (Lamp 1983: 230), which might well have been a nomoli. Most nomolisia have been found in caves, river beds, and beneath forest underbrush–sometimes in clusters of up to 50, sometimes singly–and it is entirely possible that the Sapi buried them in these places in order to protect them from Mani iconoclasm. It is likely that 204, also, spent several centuries hidden in the dark earth.

204 was probably unearthed again in the nineteenth or early twentieth century in a field, by a farmer. A Mr. Bruce of the Railway Survey of Sierra Leone reported that, in the Tiama district in 1902, farmers thought the nomolisia had been made by God, and that they in turn made farms fertile, but only if they were “placed on a pedestal of earth, usually an old ant-hill, in the field, and the farmer and his household walk[ed] round it chanting an appeal for a good crop, each in turn striking it with a whip” (Joyce 1905: 99). Conversely, a Mr. Hart wrote that, in the Bandajuma and Panguma districts, people thought nomolisia were made by the Devil, and, if whipped a sufficient number of times, they would go out at night, steal rice from neighbouring farms, and then plant it in that of their owners. We don’t know in which district 204 was dug up, so we don’t know if the farmers who likely came across it thought it came from God or from the Devil.

At some point, in the first few decades of the twentieth century, 204 became an art object–or, at least, something which some Europeans appreciated aesthetically, and which they were therefore willing to purchase. Up till then, Westerners had been largely dismissive of African art–we can see this in Thevet’s comparison of a possible nomoli to a “great toad or frog”, in nineteenth-century American missionary George Thompson’s pronouncement that nomolisia were “[e]vidence for the depravity of man”, and in T.A. Joyce’s 1905 article, in which he says that soapstone is so easy to carve (even with a figernail, he says) that no skill whatsoever was required to produced nomolisia. What changed? Most sources agree that a hugely important factor in this was the fact that prominent artists like Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani often took inspiration from African art for their own work.

For some reason, wooden sculpture was particularly popular with collectors, and perhaps it is for this reason that someone had the idea of covering 204 in lamp-black and oil: maybe they wanted to trick prospective buyers into thinking it was made of wood instead of stone. Whether or not the black patina played an important part in this, 204 attracted the attention of British painter Basil Jonzen, who acquired it in Bo, Sierra Leone, in the Forties, and brought it to the UK in 1944. Jonzen, then an extremely successful artist, and now completely forgotten, set up an art gallery in Kensington immediately after World War II, using his own collection as his original stock, and it was most likely in this gallery that Robert and Lisa Sainsbury first set their eyes on 204.

Bought in 1945, 204 was one of the first African artefacts to become part of the Sainsbury collection. Robert and Lisa Sainsbury apparently did not define themselves as “collectors”, but they certainly accumulated a large number of objects between the Thirties and the Eighties, from Henry Moore sculptures to Maori figurines, largely before any of these things were appreciated artistically (and, for that matter, before they were anywhere near as expensive as they would be today). They simply collected things that they liked. Robert himself admitted that, when he first started collecting it, he “didn’t appreciate [African art], […] didn’t understand it or know anything about it”, but he “straightforward liked it in sensual terms”. It was so that young people could share a similar aesthetic delight towards the objects they collected that the Sainsburys donated their collection to UEA in 1973. Since 1978, the collection has been housed at UEA’s Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, and objects like 204 have inspired countless essays and projects like this one.

However, 204 is not currently on display. Alana Jelinek wrote a wonderful novelette from the perspective of a Fijian “cannibal fork” at Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, The Fork’s Tale As Narrated By Itself, in which a chapter is devoted to the fork’s feelings of loss when it is put in storage, and kept away from humans. The fork says that it is only by entering the stories of humans, or embodying the stories humans learn about in museums, that it is fulfilled. All the objects share these feelings: the fork writes of the tension that is felt in the boxes whenever a curator enters the storerooms (everyone is wondering if anyone will be picked to be displayed), and, when the humans are not around, all the objects do is bicker about who is more worthy of being displayed, accusing other objects of being glorified tourist curios. Hopefully handling 204 in order to write this post made its stay in storage more tolerable, and the other objects won’t be too jealous of the attention I gave it, and call it names while no one is around.

So: this is how a plausible biography of 204 could be summarised. 204 was commissioned by Sapi elite and carved by a Sapi artist between the fifteenth and sixteenth century. It was originally intended as an ancestral figure to its lineage or community, and used for divinatory and/or propitiatory rituals, of a similar type as those of the modern-day Temne. In the sixteenth century, 204 was hidden underground, so that it could escape the iconoclastic tendencies of the invading Mani. In the nineteenth or early twentieth century, 204 was unearthed, in a field, by a farmer, and the farmer thought it would bring prosperity to his or her farm if treated correctly. At some point, however, someone had the idea of selling 204 as an art object to a European collector, and painted it black to make it look like a wooden sculpture. Basil Jonzen collected 204 in 1944, the Sainsburys bought it from him in 1945, and now 204 is in storage at the SCVA, which has housed the Sainsbury collection since 1978. Being in storage is occasionally peaceful, but 204 hopes to be back on display soon, as it enjoys being thought about by visitors, and lack of human contact makes the other objects extremely cranky.


Carey, M. 1997. Africa. In Hooper, S. (ed) Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, vol. 2: Pacific, African and Native North American Art pp. 96-217. New Haven; London: Yale University Press in association with University of East Anglia.

Hooper, S. 1997. Introduction. In Hooper, S. (ed) Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, vol. 1: European 19th and 20th Century Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture pp. xxv-lxxvii. New Haven; London: Yale University Press in association with University of East Anglia.

Jelinek, A. 2013. The Fork’s Tale as Narrated by Itself. London: LemonMelon.

Joyce, T.A. 1905. Steatite figures from West Africa in the British Museum. Man (5): 97-100.

Lamp, F.J. 1983. House of stones: memorial art of fifteenth-century Sierra Leone. The Art Bulletin (65, 2): 216-237.

In my previous post about Moche sex pots, I summarised who the Moche were, what their sex pots depicted, and some of the early theories about their use and meaning. I concluded with Gero’s (2004) idea that Moche sex pots were metaphors for changing power dynamics within ancient Peruvian society, with dominant men as stand-ins for the rulers, and subordinate women as stand-ins for the “people”.

But Gero’s was not the only the only theory on Moche sex pots that was published in 2004: that year, Mary Weismantel’s “Moche Sex Pots: Reproduction and Temporality in Ancient South America” also came out.

It’s worth repeating that, in Moche sex pottery, vaginal penetration is very rarely represented. Instead, depictions anal sex, fellatio, and the masturbation of skeletons/skeletonised individuals are much more frequent. Often, this is interpreted as suggesting that Moche sex pottery was not concerned with reproduction–for example, Larco Hoyle (1965) suggested that these pots were meant to illustrate birth control methods, while Gero suggested that they were meant to emphasise male pleasure.

Anal sex among the Moche (Gero 2004: 13): a birth control strategy? A metaphor for power dynamics? Or something else altogether?

Anal sex among the Moche (Gero 2004: 13): a birth control strategy? A metaphor for power dynamics? Or something else altogether?

However, Weismantel points out that, for a lot of cultures, in different parts of the world and at different moments in history, vaginal penetration was not thought of as having anything to do with reproduction. For example, when interviewed by Polish anthropologist Malinowski in the 1920s, the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands, off the coast of New Guinea, claimed that sex between men and women did not lead to babies: rather, when women bathed, they were somehow impregnated by their ancestors. For the Trobrianders, then, depictions of anal or oral sex would have nothing to do with reproduction, but neither would depictions of vaginal sex.

But there are also cultures in which anal or oral sex are absolutely crucial for reproduction. Among the Sambia of Melanesia, at least until the 1980s, it was thought that “[t]he human capacity to reproduce [was] contained in a scarce, precious, and immortal fluid–visible as semen in men and breast milk in women–that must be physically transmitted from one generation to another” (Weismantel 2004: 497). Therefore, for the human race to continue, Sambia boys had to fellate older men, so that they could then pass the reproductive fluids they so acquired to their future wives. And the neighbouring Kaluli had similar notions about anal sex. For the Sambia and the Kaluli, then, scenes of anal or oral sex, either between men or between men and women, would depict important reproductive activity, despite the fact that they would not lead, biologically speaking, to the meeting of sperm and egg.

Pots depicting anal sex, on display at Lima's Museo Larco. Photo mine.

Pots depicting anal sex, on display at Lima’s Museo Larco. Photo mine.

But, of course, 1980s Melanesia is a long way away from ancient Peru. Contemporary Amazonian peoples like the Tukanoa, the Barsana and the Wari’ are a bit closer, and though they don’t seem to consider anal or oral sex to be as important as the Sambia and the Kaluli do, they do have similar ideas about the importance of the transferral of vital fluids. Specifically, these cultures believe in “seminal nurture”–that is, it is not the single moment when sperm meets egg that is important for reproduction, but repeated intercourse, as it is through regular infusions of semen from men, and the mother’s own substances, that the foetus is gradually formed.

In sum: if we consider that many cultures don’t consider vaginal intercourse to be important for reproduction, and if some cultures consider that reproduction is all about the transferral of bodily fluids, regardless of the orifice through which they pass, then it makes sense to think that maybe Moche sex pots actually depict acts of reproduction.

Indeed, Weismantel writes that there are pots in which women are shown breast-feeding infants as they are penetrated–suggesting that a link is being made between the vital fluids that the man passes on to the woman, and those that the woman passes on to the infant. Perhaps they were considered to be the same fluids, just as for the Sambia.

And pots depicting women masturbating skeletons may well be showing that the vital fluids that women need to further human existence ultimately came from their long-dead ancestors.

A woman masturbating a skeleton, on display at Lima's Museo Larco.

A woman masturbating a skeleton, on display at Lima’s Museo Larco. Though I used this photo for the previous post as well, it’s not because it’s the only pot that depicts a similar scene: quite simply, I don’t own the copyright of any other photo of this kind of pottery.

If we consider that only the ruling classes could probably afford to commission such high-quality ceramics, it is possible, then, that Moche sex pots reflected their concern with furthering lineages, producing heirs, ensuring that their family remained powerful, and remained connected to the ancestors’ power, through the generations. Personally, I think that, in light of this idea, it’s particularly interesting that these pots probably accompanied the elite dead to their graves (we don’t know for sure because many were looted rather than properly excavated)–maybe they were meant to indicate that, despite the death of single individuals within a lineage, their descendants lived on, and would produce other descendants, and so on.

I think this is a very cool theory. It’s not without its flaws: for example, pots in which breast-feeding and anal sex co-occur are exceedingly rare, although I think the idea that anal/oral sex could be reproductive for the Moche is still pretty solid without them. Also, as Weismantel herself points out, the words “Moche sex pots” cover such a huge variety of objects that many do not fit very easily with her theory–for example, pots depicting possible venereal diseases, or copulation scenes between animals, or other stuff that looks pretty weird to a modern-day Western viewer like me (below). But this actually draws attention to the fact that just one theory probably would not explain the whole corpus of Moche sex pots: most likely, the Moche themselves thought of sex pots as divided into different categories, each with its own attached meanings and values.

Double penis pot, on display at Lima's Museo Larco. Photo mine.

Double penis pot, on display at Lima’s Museo Larco. Photo mine.

Will I write a Part Three? Perhaps–Steve Bourget has also written some interesting stuff on this topic, and their connection with funerary and sacrificial rituals. But, for now, I will stop here. Next week, I will probably write something about pots that have nothing at all to do with sex, but which archaeologists have to deal with more frequently.

You can download Weismantel’s article here. And, as always, questions, comments and corrections, persnickety or otherwise, are always welcome!

Additional references

Gero, J. 2004. Sex Pots of Ancient Peru: Post-Gender Reflections. In T. Oestigaard, N. Anfinset and T. Saetersdal (eds) Combining the Past and the Present: Archaeological Perspectives on Society pp. 3-22. Oxford: BAR International Series 1210.

Larco Hoyle, R. 1965. Checcan. Geneva: Nagel.

When people come across Moche sex pots, they tend to find them amusing, or gross, or weird, or titillating. Or something that should be squirreled away in an adults-only section of a museum, lest our children’s innocent eyes be tainted by their frank depictions of anal sex, oral sex, masturbation, huge erect penises, and occasional huge vulvas.

A rare pot that emphasise female genitalia rather than the male equivalent. On display at Lima's Museo Larco.

A rare pot that emphasises female genitalia rather than the male equivalent. On display at Lima’s Museo Larco. Photo mine.

But what if we take them seriously, as objects that can actually tell us something about people’s lives in the past, how they thought about things, and what they valued?

Before continuing, I should say a few brief words on the Moche–they inhabited the North Coast of Peru between about 200 and 850 AD (way before the Inca), they were characterised by high social stratification, and they produced an insane amount of beautiful pottery. Some of this pottery is finely painted with hunting scenes, duel scenes and scenes of ritual sacrifice, as well as stories from mythology. Some of it is shaped to look like agricultural products, animals, warriors, musicians, gods, the faces of prominent individuals, amputees, animal-human hybrids, old men, seashells, mountains, sacrifice victims, labourers, blind people, headdresses, skeletons… and, of course, people having sex.

Not much has actually been written on Moche sex pots–despite the fact that the Moche are very well studied (they’re probably the ancient Peruvian culture we know most about, after the Inca), and the fact that they produced something like 500 of these pots, suggesting sex was very important for them. These pots clearly reflect very different notions of sex and reproduction from ones that prevail in the West, and, because of this, a lot of researchers have had trouble making sense of them.

For example, depictions of vaginal sex are extremely rare. Why? For a very long time, of the main theories out there was that Moche sex pots were meant to encourage birth control, by showing how one might enjoy sex without risking babies (Larco Hoyle 1965: 107-112). However, there’s something unconvincing about the notion that people had to make hundreds upon hundreds of expensive ceramics, just for the Pre-Coumbian equivalent of a Sex Ed lesson.

Oral sex.

Oral sex: a birth control strategy? (Gero 2004: 12)

Another example of the strange stuff you see in Moche sex pots: women masturbating skeletons. Here, for a while many people thought that these pots were supposed to warn men of the dangers of excessive sex (Larco Hoyle 1965: 87-90)–“if you can’t control yourself, this is what happens to you–you stop eating, all your flesh falls off, you’ll just be a bunch of bones with a penis attached”. Perhaps they were meant to warn women too–“say no to your man more often, if you value his health”. Again, the dubious notion that these pots were a sort of ceramic Sex Ed lesson, coupled with ideas about the “dangers” of sex that are suspiciously close to Western ideas of sin and punishment.

A woman masturbating a skeleton, on display at Lima's Museo Larco.

A woman masturbating a skeleton, on display at Lima’s Museo Larco. Photo mine. Update: as one commenter pointed out, the skeleton isn’t passively receiving his companion’ attentions.

These are not the only theories that were proposed about the meaning of Moche sex pots in the twentieth century–but other ones I’ve come across are unconvincingly convoluted (i’m happy to summarise/discuss them in the comments section if anyone is interested). The way people started to look at Moche sex pots changed in the Noughties, with two articles that came out in 2004. I’ll talk about one in my next post on sex pots, and spend the rest of this post discussing the other one.

Joan M. Gero’s “Sex Pots of Ancient Peru: Post-Gender Reflections” suggests that Moche sex pots were all about power and politics. Gero points out that Moche society was more hierarchical than previous societies in the region, and she suggests that the sex pots may have been used as metaphors to justify or make sense of the new power relations. In her view, Moche sex pots are all about dominance and subordination: because depictions of anal sex and fellatio are so common, while depictions of vaginal sex and clitoral stimulation are very rare and depictions of cunnilingus non-existent, and because women never seem to be having much fun in these scenes (Gero even suggests that their participation in them may be “forced or commanded”), Gero suggests that the Moche are using these pots to say something like “even in the most intimate of relationships, there is one who gives pleasure, and one who receives it”. This message that may well have been used to justify or make sense of the rule of the few over the many. In other words, women in Moche pots may be stand-ins for “the people”, while men may represent the rulers–the former are meant to do all the hard work and get little in return, while the latter are meant to get all the pleasure and give little back.

I’m not entirely convinced by this theory. It’s true that depictions of vaginal sex and clitoral stimulation are very rare, and depictions of cunnilingus non-existent. BUT.

The one example I could find of what looks like clitoral stimulation in a Moche pot. On display at the Museo Larco, Lima.

The one example I could find of what looks like clitoral stimulation in a Moche pot. On display at the Museo Larco, Lima. Photo mine.

For one thing, it’s often very difficult, in Moche pottery, to tell what exactly the people depicted are feeling–sometimes there are obvious frowns, or smiles, but most of the time facial expressions appear to be neutral. This goes for sex pots as well: the women don’t seem to be having much fun, true–but, usually, neither do the men (below). There are a few rare cases in which men are shown to be enjoying being fellated, but then there are also a few rare examples of women smiling while they masturbate their partner.

She doesn't seem to be enjoying it, but neither does he. This is just one of many examples I could have chosen.

She doesn’t seem to be enjoying it, but neither does he. This is just one of many examples I could have chosen. (Gero 2004: 14).

Secondly, who says that anal sex or fellatio can’t give pleasure to women? As far as I am aware, they both can, and, in any case, though it may well have a biological basis, “pleasure” is also often influenced by culture. In other words, if in some societies things that are thought of as delicious to eat can be thought of as disgusting by others, then the same should apply to sexual practices.

However, when you compare Moche sex pots with Recuay sex pots, which is what Gero does, the Moche do seem to be much more hierarchical about intercourse. The Recuay were the Moche’s neighbours in the highlands, and their sex pots seem to emphasise complementarity and equal interaction between sex partners. For example, by showing the man and the woman sitting in front of one another, rather than showing one on top of the other. Or by using two-chambered pots to depict sex scenes (below): one chamber (usually the one in the shape of the woman) was used to filled the pot with liquid, the other (usually the man’s) to pour it out. This suggests that both chambers (both man and woman) are needed for the pot (and therefore society?) to function.

Two-chambered Recuay sex pot, in which the male bit has a spout and the female bit has the side in which you fill up the vessel.

Two-chambered Recuay sex pot, in which the male bit has a spout and the female bit has the side in which you fill up the vessel (Gero 2004: 7)

Still, I think the other article that was written in 2004 offers a more persuasive answer to the question “why all the anal sex?”–but for that, you will head over to Moche Sex Pots, Part Two.

Meanwhile, you can download and read Gero’s full article here.

Additional References:

Larco Hoyle, R. 1965. Checcan. Geneva: Nagel.

NB Some of these images may appear to depict men having sex with men. However, it appears that, if one actually looks closely at these pots, the who is penetrated/the one who fellates is actually equipped with a vulva.

Since seeing it some time in October, I’ve been raving to almost everyone about the British Museum’s current exhibition, Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia.

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament. 200 BC - 1300 AD, Colima/Malagana culture. Gold alloy, platinum. H 6.6 cm, W 13.5 cm.

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament. 200 BC – 1300 AD, Colima/Malagana culture. Gold alloy, platinum. H 6.6 cm, W 13.5 cm.

For one thing, it’s a selection of artefacts that cannot fail to cause wonder in visitors. A necklace made out of gold-covered jaguar claws! A jaguar with a parasol (left)! A minuscule, grinning bat-man creature with a pair of wings that looks like an impossibly elaborate hairdo! Wonder is so incredibly important for this sort of thing–people talk about the way sex is often used to grab people’s attention, but sheer wonder is just as effective at ensnaring the public–and ensuring that they stick around long enough that they actually end up learning something about whatever it is they’re feeling wonder for. I remember one of my teachers in school giving us this piece of advice: whenever you’re studying something, and it’s starting to get a bit boring, the best thing to do is to think “wow, that’s amazing!” at the end of each sentence. Pretty soon, your mind starts thinking that the stuff you’re reading actually is amazing, and the information sticks to your brain much more easily. It does work!

Seated male figure. 600-1600 AD. Late Nariño culture. Ceramic. H 17.5 cm, W 12.5 cm. I absolutely love that little bump where he's chewing the coca leaves!

Seated male figure. 600-1600 AD. Late Nariño culture. Ceramic. H 17.5 cm, W 12.5 cm. I absolutely love that little bump where he’s chewing the coca leaves!

It’s not just because the objects are made of gold that they are spectacular. In fact, I was a bit worried, before going, that the exhibition would be too “bling”: that is, that it would focus too much on shiny stuff and how shiny it is, and de-emphasise both the people that made and used the shiny stuff, and all the other non-gold things they made and used and valued as well. Instead, there are loads of beautiful ceramics, and a whole room whose main message is “it wasn’t all about gold for ancient Colombians, here’s some stuff that was equally if not more important”–such as feathers, textiles, and animal matter. And as for the ancient Colombians themselves, it seemed to me that the curators chose exactly the right objects to give a strong sense that there were living, breathing, squishy humans behind all the bling and jewellery: a disarmingly lifelike ceramic sculpture of a man chewing coca leaves (right), a big fleshy nose adorned with a huge bull-ring emerging from a funerary urn as if the urn itself were still haunted by the spirit of its occupant, a small gold effigy of a man removing a mask from his face… Of course, it’s also possible that this is just my overactive imagination, combined with the fact that the message “we study things in order to get to people” was so strongly inculcated in me at University, that I’m always pushing myself to imagine the human context within which the stuff I see in museums was originally used. In other words, I’m not sure if anyone else, who doesn’t study the same sorts of things as me, would also get such a strong sense of the people behind the artefacts.

Mannequins at Lima's Museo Larco, displaying Pre-Columbian (Moche?) jewellery.

Mannequins at Lima’s Museo Larco, displaying Pre-Columbian (Moche?) jewellery.

The only real criticism I had to make about the exhibition was that the curators could have used mannequins like the ones they have at Lima’s Museo Larco (left), or at least small illustrations next to captions, to show people how exactly the jewellery on display was worn: without explanations like these, it was a bit difficult to figure out, at least for some of the pieces.

However, the other day I came across a critique of the exhibition that made me reconsider my extra-positive opinion. It is titled “Not far ‘Beyond El Dorado’: Grumblings about the British Museum, Colombian gold, and looting in public display”, and it appeared on Donna Yates’s wonderfully named blog about looting, antiquities trafficking and art crime, Property of an Anonymous Swiss Collector. I don’t agree with everything Yates says: I don’t agree that people will learn little from it, or that it’s all about gawking at gold, and I certainly don’t agree that the exhibition will do more to encourage the El Dorado myth than to dispel it. If anything, my feeling was that the curators designed the exhibition to give visitors a smug sense of superiority towards the sixteenth-century adventurers hunting for the mythical golden city: the exhibition starts by explaining how all the early explorers really cared about was gold, and how they couldn’t care less about what the objects that were made out of it meant to the people who made them; then, by shrouding the following rooms in darkness and filling them with a not-too-cheesy “jungle noises” soundtrack, they make you feel like you’re the one discovering these things for the first time, but doing it right, by also reading the captions and learning about the objects’ original cultural contexts. You could easily argue that there is no substance to this, that no way is an exhibition like this going to make up for all the wrongs suffered by indigenous South Americans by the hands of Europeans, that it’s just hollow easing of Colonial Guilt, and I would agree with you, but I do think that it does at least encourage people to reject the myth of El Dorado from the very start.

A shaman switching from one identity to the next? Maybe, maybe not. This is an undated Muisca votive figure, made of gold alloy. H 7.5 cm, W 2.7 cm.

A shaman switching from one identity to the next? Maybe, maybe not. This is an undated Muisca votive figure, made of gold alloy. H 7.5 cm, W 2.7 cm.

As for the stuff about shamans (right) being “crap”, I don’t know that much about ancient Colombians, so I can’t comment, although I’m aware of so many other instances of the illegitimate use of the word “shaman” by archaeologists (might write a post about this soon), that it wouldn’t surprise me too much if Yates was right in rolling her eyes at that part of the exhibition. And I didn’t notice all the inconsistencies she noticed regarding the different culture groups the objects belonged to–though there is a map at the beginning of the exhibition with the main culture groups, apparently it doesn’t mention many that are subsequently mentioned in the captions.

But I think Yates’s most important point is that the British Museum completely neglected to talk about the matter of looting. Almost all the objects on display do not come from legitimate archaeological excavations, but from looting. Their legal status is not in question, as they were bought or seized by the Colombian government, and they are now usually on display in Bogotá’s Museo del Oro, rather than in some anonymous Swiss collector’s mansion. But looting is a huge problem people should know more about. For one thing, because it means we don’t know where exactly the objects comes from (not just in terms of geography, but also in terms of stratigraphic layers, as well as in terms of structure–for example, an ancient trash pit as opposed to a pottery workshop), we will never know for sure what they were used for, why/whether they were important for people in the past, and often even what time period they’re from (I don’t know if you noticed, but most of the objects I’ve drawn have extremely vague dates–600-1600 AD for the ceramic figure, for example). This assuming the object, like the ones at the El Dorado exhibition, end up in a museum, rather than someone’s private collection, where they will often be unavailable for study. Moreover, because looted objects have a tendency to be sold to tourists or smuggled out of their original country, they deprive the latter not only of its cultural heritage, but also of the possibility of, for example, creating a museum of local history and prehistory, with which to attract more visitors to the country.

How would I tackle the problem of looting, if I were a curator? A good idea might be to replace captions that tell you what we know about the objects, with captions that tell you what we don’t know about them, and may never know about them, because of looting. Of course, this emphasises the problem that looting represents to archaeologists, rather than the one it represents to source countries.

But one or two panels on looting would also work fine. If the El Dorado exhibition had some, they would fit quite well with the theme of “we moderns have enlightened attitudes towards these objects, early explorers were just greedy”, by turning it on its head, and showing that greed towards these things is alive and well in the modern age. If placed at the end, this might have had a particularly powerful effect, as visitors would have just spent an hour or so patting themselves on the back for all the un-greedy learning they were doing, and how much better Europeans like themselves are towards Colombians now.

But there were no such panels, and so an excellent opportunity to get people thinking about looting and antiquities trafficking was lost. Hopefully, similar exhibitions in the future will not make the same mistake, although it’s likely that many will.

I don’t want to discourage people from seeing the exhibition (which will run until 24th March 2014)–as I said, there are a lot of amazing things on display, and I do think it’s possible to learn something from it. But be aware of the issues I’ve highlighted, and think–how would you have talked about looting, if you’d been one of the curators? and why don’t they talk about it?

For more about looting from this blog, check out my post on ransacked Pre-Columbian cemeteries in Peru.

If, dear readers, you’ve seen this exhibition and would like to share any thoughts about it, even if they don’t have anything to do with anything I’ve written, I’d be very glad to hear someone else’s opinion!

Suggestions for further reading

Donna Yates’ aforementioned blog, and her page on the Trafficking Culture project website, are highly, highly recommended.

The last few posts have been a bit dense and rambly–maybe even a bit navel-gaze-y at times–so I thought it would be nice if, this time round, I limited myself to writing a short post whose main message is simply “LOOK AT ALL THIS STUFF! IT’S AMAZING!” Specifically, I want to tell you about the “little El Dorado” (in the words of former director Philippe de Montebello) that is tucked away in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Precolumbian section, and, in particular, the few glass cases containing artefacts from Panama and Costa Rica. I stumbled upon them completely by accident this summer, and could not tear myself away from them, taking pictures and notes and just marvelling at how splendid they were. They mostly date from between the 11th and 16th centuries, mostly depict animals or fantastic beings, and we know overall very little about the people who made them, as they left no written records. The region’s present-day “traditional” inhabitants are often used to cast some light on the beliefs and culture of these extraordinarily skilled goldsmiths, but several centuries have passed, and stuff like Catholicism, US cod-imperialism and extremely rapid technological advancement have happened, so I’m not sure how useful the comparison actually is.

But, without further ado–let’s start with the eagle pendants. Crazy cool. As you will be able to see though, these creatures bear only a vague resemblance to the birds they’re supposed to represent. It’s not just a question of stylisation–there are whole new body parts, and weird appendages, and jewellery. Could they not be mythical beasts whose names and stories have been forgotten? Then again, another possibility is that what is being depicted is not just eagles, but what is known about eagles. So for, example, you’ll notice that the first eagle has protruding eyes–eagles don’t have protruding eyes, but it might be a way of reminding viewers that these birds have very acute vision.  However, explanations such as this are more difficult to come up with for other stuff–for example, the weird floppy ears that the first eagle has, or the crocodiles coming out of the sides of the second eagle’s head.

This eagle, as you can probably see better in the close-up below, is clutching a squealing tapir or peccary, or perhaps a whining dog, in its sharp beak.

This eagle, as you can probably see better in the close-up below, is clutching a squealing tapir or peccary, or perhaps a whining dog, in its sharp beak. It’s also equipped with weird swirly jewellery on the sides of its face, and huge flapping ears. Panama, Veraguas culture, 11th-16th century. 14 cm tall. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 45.

Check out the protruding eyes.

Check out the protruding eyes.

Steampunk eagle!

Steampunk eagle! But seriously, this could easily have been a steampunk-inspired DIY project–the feet could be paintbrushes, the eyes megaphones, etc. Also check out the crocodiles sticking out of the eagle’s ears: if we’re calling this an eagle, why not call chimeras (lions with an extra goat’s head and a snake instead of a tail, from Greek mythology) lions? Costa Rica, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. 14 cm tall. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 45.

This is what I picture the Watcher to look like.

Double-headed eagle, although it seems that the two heads have to share one pair of (hugely protruding) eyes. That’s probably why they both look like they’ve bit into the bitterest of lemons. Incidentally, this is what I kind of imagined the evil vulture-creatures that stand guard at one of the entrances to Mordor to look like (although it turns out they had three heads, not two). And though you might think that this comparison isn’t very useful, I don’t know, I think making outlandish analogies can help, sometimes, when we’re trying to puzzle our way through things that we don’t know much about. Panama, Veraguas culture, 11th-16th centuries. 10 cm tall. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 44.

Antonio Saldaña

Antonio Saldaña, chief of the Bribri people of Costa Rica (see below) and “last king of Talamanca”, between 1880 and 1910. If you squint, you can see that he’s wearing stuff round his neck and down his chest that looks a lot like eagle pendants. It’s not clear, however, if he did this because the tradition of wearing these objects was genuinely passed down from the 11th century all the way to the 19th, or whether it was a retrospective re-claiming of his people’s heritage. Image credit: Wikipedia.

Next, the frogs! These look much more like frogs than the eagles look like eagles, but there’s still some funky stuff going on.


A possible tree frog. Julie Jones interprets the stuff coming out of its mouth as a bifurcated snake’s tongue, but I am not at all convinced. Jones also points out that poisonous frogs are believed by many jungle-dwelling societies to store fire inside their bodies–perhaps what’s coming out of this frog’s mouth is smoke, or the actual fire. Costa Rica, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. 10 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 46.


This is a VERY weird frog–again, pretty steampunk-y. The huge eyes are bells. Panama, Parita culture, 12th-16th centuries. 6 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 46.

cat eyes

More smoke/fire scrolls? Fun fact: according to the Bribri of Costa Rica, who may or may not have inherited this belief from the same people who made all this cool stuff, frogs help maintain the boundary between the living and the dead, by sitting on graves at night and preventing the dearly departed to rise again. Panama, Chiriqui (?) culture, 11th-16th centuries. 7 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 46.

And now, the turtles! You will notice that they all have two tails. Jones, who classifies them as turtles, says this is an “unexplained” characteristic, but it makes more sense, again, if you think of these creatures not as realistic turtles, but as mythical animals. Also these are attributed to Panama’s Veraguas culture.

two tailed

This thing is definitely turtle-like. But what turtles has a dragon-like ridge running down its head? And what about that curly double-tail? It could be a stylised representation of water currents being split in two as the turtle swims… but they seem to be attached to the turtle’s body via a series of rings, and the turtle doesn’t look like it’s swimming–more like dragging itself over dry sand (maybe to lay eggs, since that’s the only time turtles ever leave the sea, or so says wikipedia). 6 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 47.

Ram's horns

This turtle even has curly horns! Which may not, however be horns, since there are no curly-horned animals in that part of the world, as far as I am aware. So maybe those are feathers. 10 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 47.


There’s clearly a story here–a “turtle” biting into, or eating, perhaps defeating in some way, or building an alliance with, a monstrous snake with heads at both ends. Who knows! But it’s deliciously tantalising. 6 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 47.

And sharks! These guys actually do look a lot like sharks, although the first one does that have that weird curly moustache-thing.

Panama, Veraguas culture, 11th-16th centuries. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 48.

Panama, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. 9.5 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 48.

Panama, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. 8 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 46.

Panama, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. 8 cm. Image credit: Jones & King 2002: 46.

Then there’s a whole series of items that depict creatures with a human-ish body and the head of an animal. It’s not clear whether these items represent mythical beasts, deities, flattering metaphorical portraits of leaders (e.g. as if Queen Elizabeth I had been represented with the head of a lion, for her bravery), or shamans who have transformed, for whatever purpose, into magical animal-human hybrids. Of course it’s possible that one of these possibilities was true for some of the items, another one for some other items, and so on. Personally, it seems to me that, a lot of the time, these animal-headed are shown as if guarding something–standing in pairs, and holding standards or staffs. This suggests that they were mythical beings or (minor?) deities whose task was to protect something or someone–most likely the person wearing them as pendants. Then again, many pendants also show only one animal-human hybrid, so I don’t know. In any case, check them out and see what you think–there are too many for me to include them all, so this is just a selection of favourites.

Bat dudes

Two bat-headed dudes–an example of the category of items which feature a pair of standing creatures, equipped with both standards and staffs. Panama, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. 8 cm. Photo mine.

The Greater Spear-nosed Bat (Philostomus hastatus), which the bat-headed guys in the above photo were probably based on. Image credit: Wikipedia.

The Greater Spear-nosed Bat (Phyllostomus hastatus), which the bat-headed guys in the above photo were probably based on. Image credit: Wikipedia.

Deer dude

Deer dude. Apparently it’s quite rare for deer to inspire goldwork in the region. Check out the extra face on the dude’s belly–whose eyes may double as nipples, and goatee as penis. Jones (2002) points out a number of very interesting things about this item: that the feet look neither human nor cervine, but, with their four long toes, might have been inspired by the hindfeet of a crocodile; and that the deer’s tongue is sticking out, which, in other depictions of the animal from the time, tends to mean that the animal is dead. Costa Rica, Chiriqui culture, 11th-16th centuries. Photo mine.

Skip Rope Dude

I like this guy because it kind of looks like he’s using snakes as a skipping rope. Also because his pose is reminiscent of classic superhero hovering poses. Also crocodilian-snake creatures are bursting out of his head. Basically, this guy’s awesome. I’d be surprised if he weren’t some kind of god or hero, strangling snakes and torpedoing his foes with the monsters he can shoot out of his head. Photo mine.

Well, I hope you enjoyed that, dear readers. I certainly did, and will try to write more posts like this in the future. If there are any zoologists out there who know of Costa Rican/Panamanian fauna which actually does look like the above creatures (e.g. moustachio’d sharks, double-tailed turtles, fire-breathing tree frogs, it’d be great to hear from them. And as always, I’d be happy to read, and reply, to any comments or questions anyone might have.

Suggestions for further reading/Bibliography

The best thing to do would be to simply visit the Metropolitan Museum. However, if you can’t do that, the Met will graciously allow you to download a free PDF on this stuff, and more stuff besides, here. Incidentally, that’s where I got all the images that weren’t mine or from Wikipedia.

Jones, J. and A. King. 2002. The Art of Precolumbian Gold: The Jan Mitchell Collection. New York: MetPublications.

If you’re a super-museum-nerd and want to find out more about the guy who donated all these objects to the museum, Jan Mitchell, you can read his obituary here.

Grimes, W. 2009. Jan Mitchell, Who Put the ü Back in Lüchow’s, Dies at 96. The New York Times [online] Nov. 30. Available at <; [Accessed on 18th of September 2013].

“As I sat atop the ruins of the main pyramid at Tilantongo years ago, I kept replaying the frightening scenario over and over in my mind, trying to determine where the brutal murders have taken place.”

Blood-bath in a sweat bath (Native American sauna): Lord 8 Deer's brother is brutally murdered at his most defenseless. From Codex Zouche-Nuttall.

Blood bath in a sweat bath (Native American sauna): Lord 8 Deer’s brother is brutally murdered at his most defenseless. From Codex Zouche-Nuttall.

So starts the main section of John Pohl’s (2004: 218) chapter on the Mixtecs, in Hendon & Joyce’s anthology Mesoamerican Archaeology. And indeed, the brightly coloured deerskin “books” left behind by the Mixtecs are rich in the kinds of violence and intrigue that would be at home in any Game of Thrones episode, or good gangster film, today–for example, the scene in which Lord 8 Deer’s half-brother is murdered in a sweat bath (where he was, presumably, naked and weapon-less) is the Mesoamerican equivalent of that scene in Eastern Promises in which Viggo Mortensen’s character is ambushed by Chechen thugs in a sauna.

Clearly, Horrible Histories missed a juicy opportunity when they neglected to make a Mirthless Mixtec book (or even mention them in Angry Aztecs)–but this is exactly what Obscure Pre-Columbians Sundays are for!

Nobles and commoners

The Mixtecs (pronounced meesh-tecs) called themselves tay ñundzavui, the “People of the Rain Place”, and their language dzaha dzavui, “Rain Speech”. “Mixtec” itself is the name the Aztecs gave them, which means “Cloud People”. They lived (and most of their descendants still live) in La Mixteca, in what is today Southern Mexico. This is an ecologically diverse region, with tall, cool mountains looming over hot, tropical shores: and because different altitudes provided different types of resources, many families survived by spreading themselves out to cover as many areas as possible, or made an effort to maintain as many contacts in different areas from their own as possible–which guaranteed a broad resource base, and several back-ups in case a particular area went through a bad patch. This sort of thing is also common in Peru, where it is referred to as the “vertical archipelago” strategy.

Before the aristocracy came along to civilise them, Mixtec peasants were thought to have been ugly little mole-people (Marcus 1993).

Before the aristocracy came along to civilise them, Mixtec peasants were thought to have been ugly little mole-people (Marcus 1993: 276). Keep in mind that this illustration, and the next two, are as colourful as the last image in their original form.

Commoners’ back-breaking work, both in the fields and at home (the traditional method for making tortillas takes up to eight hours, and involves a lot of skeleton-wrecking postures) supported the extravagant lifestyles of their lords and ladies: one of the few depictions of peasants in Mixtec painted documents shows a man and a woman offering tribute to their betters, in the form of cooking skills in the woman’s case (she carries a grinding stone on her back) and a bag of maize in the man’s.

This was only fair: according to Mixtec origin myths, before the aristocracy came along, peasants spoke no Mixtec, and had no laws, no respect for their ancestors, and, effectively, no religion, as they did not practice ritual bloodletting. Indeed, they were little more than animals: Mixtec sources depict them as tiny mole-like creatures with bumpy bald heads made of stone, who had crawled into the Mesoamerican daylight out of the very centre of the earth. Nobles, on the other hand–they were born from the trees on the bank of the sacred Apoala river, and some of them were able to shapeshift: 9 Wind “Serpent” could turn himself into an eagle that was so swift it basically had the power of invisibility, while his brother 9 Wind “Caves” could transform into a very small winged snake, and use this body to slither inside the narrowest cracks in cliffs and stone walls.

The Mixtec nobles are shown being born from a tree, at the beginning of time (Marcus 1993).

The Mixtec nobles are shown being born from a tree, at the beginning of time (Marcus 1993: 275).

Though nobles were eventually able to civilise the Mixteca mole-people, the two remained separate species, as suggested by the completely different anatomical terms used to describe the noble’s bodies, compared to commoners’ (which we know of partly from the codices–see below–partly from Spanish-Mixtec vocabularies compiled by Friars in the 16th century). For example, lords and ladies had no ordinary legs, but swift “arrows”. They had no fingernails: instead, turquoise ornamented the tips of their fingers. Their teeth were made of flint, lactating noblewomen stored honey in their breasts, and lords and ladies alike are often represented with smoke or flames coming out of their eyes or brows. It is even possible they had a secret language that they only used amongst themselves, like the Zuyua used by Maya elites, but, if they did, it died out with them.

The Mixtec aristocracy was a relatively populous one–it seems that only once, and briefly, the Mixtecs were united under one ruler, while the rest of the time they were divided into dozens of separate kingdoms (or coupledoms, as suggested by the fact that kings are seldom shown without their queens), vying with one another for power and resources, making and breaking alliances through marriages and backstabbings, respectively, and starting wars over petty insults–as in Lady 6 Monkey’s story, in which she goes to war against the towns “Hill of Moon” and “Hill of Insect” because “cutting words” (represented by little speech scrolls with tiny sharp flints sticking out of them) were thrown at her and her ambassadors.

The tiny flint knives sticking out of these guys' "speech scrolls" indicate that their words are harsh (Marcus 1993).

The tiny flint knives sticking out of these guys’ “speech scrolls” indicate that their words are harsh (Marcus 1993: 383).

And so, just like with the Maya, the non-heir children of Mixtec lords and ladies were schooled in historical and calendrical lore, and taught how to produce the Mixtec codices–eight of which survived Spanish bonfires, and are without the least shadow of a doubt among the most astounding things to ever come out of Central America.

But before I move on to talking about Mixtec books, I’ll just say a few quick words on Mixtec names. Some of you may have been wondering at the above-mentioned “Lord 8 Deer” and “Lady 6 Monkey”. The way it worked among the Mixtec was that your birthday was your name. It’s kind of as if people got their name from the day of the week they were born in, and the number of the month–so, for example, because I was born on August 2nd, 1990, on a Thursday, my name would be 2 Thursday. Only, Mixtec names sounded much cooler than that, because the name of their days were the same as those of animals, plants, and sacred items. Hence 6 Monkey, 8 Deer, 9 Wind, and so on. Interestingly, we know from Spanish sources on the Aztecs that, in Mesoamerican calendars, some days were thought of as auspicious, and others as inauspicious, based on their number-name combination–and studies of Mixtec noble names show that many more nobles had names that indicated auspicious birthdays than you would expect statistically. In other words, it was not uncommon to lie about your birthday.

Just to give you a sense of what these screenfolds are like... this is about half of the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, which I got from Cambridge's Haddon Library. The other side is covered in tiny drawings too. Photo by Elsie Powell-Smith.

Just to give you a sense of what these screenfolds are like… this is about half of the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, which I got from Cambridge’s Haddon Library. The other side is covered in tiny drawings too.
Photo by Elsie Powell-Smith.

Also, to solve the problem of multiple people having the same birthday, all Mixtec nobles had a nickname. It’s not clear how they acquired it, but examples include “Jaguar Claw”, “Bloody Coyote”, “Sun Jewel”, and, my favourite, “Ballcourt Astronomical-Apparatus” (which I’m sure sounds beautiful in Rain Speech).

The Mixtec screenfolds

It would probably be more correct to refer to the Mixtec codices as screenfolds: unlike European books, they were not spine-bound sets of multiple pages, but very long, continuous strips, usually made of deerskin, and folded back and forth like an accordion (left). Moreover, Mixtec screenfolds do not convey their information through words, but through colourful and oddly cartoonish imagery. And, before I forget, I should say that they were made in the Post-Classic Period, so between about 1000 and 1530 AD.

The Mixtec screenfolds were, on a very basic level, records of the history and genealogy of the aristocracy. A good proportion of them seems to be dedicated to long lists of who married whom and how many children they had and what the children did when they grew up and who they married and so on–though there are also battles, visits to oracles, ritual sacrifices, long foot-journeys and brutal murders. A particularly gripping narrative is that centred around the already-mentioned Lord 8 Deer “Jaguar Claw”, a man who managed to unite the different Mixtec kingdoms under a single throne through a mixture of strategic marriages and ruthless warfare, but was eventually undone by his own greed when he took one of his wives’ family’s land by force, and the survivors led an alliance to avenge Lord 8 Deer’s victims.

British Museum: Codex Zouche-Nuttal, Mixtec

…and this is what the codices look like up close. Again, this is the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, which is currently kept at the British Museum. Photo credit: victoriabernal.

But there’s also a lot of mythology in the screenfolds as well, as elite lineages extended all the way back to a time even before time–I’ve already mentioned how nobles claimed to have descended from people who had been born from trees. And, along with history, genealogy and myth, Mixtec screenfolds were also an important vehicle for aristocratic propaganda, used to legitimate different lineages’ claims to their respective thrones. Indeed, there is evidence for some of these screenfolds (for example, the Codex Vibonensis) having been re-painted with different stories from the original ones they contained, presumably because a new ruler, perhaps even a new lineage, had risen, and they wanted to re-write history so that it cast the best possible light on them.

It’s also worth noting that the screenfolds contain a lot of invaluable information on how the Mixtec nobility dressed for each occasion, how they painted their faces, and the sort of jewellery they wore.

Lord 8 Deer "Jaguar Claw", celebrating his latest military victory by having his septum pierced. This act was important enough to have depicted in three different screenfolds.

Lord 8 Deer “Jaguar Claw”, celebrating his latest military victory by having his septum pierced. This act was important enough to have depicted in three different screenfolds. As you can see, the man’s name is on the top right (eight dots, attached to a deer’s head), while his nickname is on the bottom right (a single jaguar claw). Again, this image is taken from the Codex Zouche-Nuttall.

Most interestingly, however, the Mixtec screenfolds were not just meant to be read–rather, they were meant to be performed. In a way, then, they could also be seen as dramatic scripts–or even music sheets (this latter analogy is a bit too complex to be properly summarised here, but you should head over to Mesolore if you’re curious). That the sheets were used for performances we can guess from the fact that the Mixtec name for them, tacu, means “book”, “to write”, “to paint” and “to listen”. Apparently, Spanish sources also say that they were used for performances, but, so far, the only source I’ve found is Friar Burgoa, who simply says that the screenfolds were hung up on the walls of nobles’ palaces, as a proud display of their ancestors’ exploits. Still, it was common enough for elites to put up dramatic performances in Mesoamerica (especially among the Maya) that it would not be a gigantic leap to say that the screenfolds were used for that kind of thing too. Also, depictions of elites and priests dancing and singing are fairly common in the screenfolds.

The main question, then, is this: who was the audience? The ancestors, certainly: they were always watching, and, based on their descendants’ actions, and how well they honoured their memory, they would be more or less generous in aiding living kings and queens in their terrestrial affairs. Commoners, perhaps: Spanish sources tell us that Mixtec elites sometimes gave spectacular dances and performances to peasants in exchange for tribute. But, given the fact that the screenfolds were hung up in nobles’ halls, and that, in Mesoamerica generally, there is a good correlation between where a certain performance is depicted and where it had actually been held, the most likely audience for Mixtec performances were restricted audiences made of other elites. A particularly intriguing hypothesis is that the screenfolds were whipped out whenever there were succession problems: on these occasions, different claimants to the throne would have performed their own particular screenfold, or the same one, and the best performance (i.e. the most convincing, or perhaps the most spectacular) would decide who got the throne. Kind of as if the different aspirants to the Iron Throne in Game of Thrones decided to settle the matter not through war, but through a singing contest.

Mixtec codices are full of weird little artistic conventions. Here, a woman is leaving some offerings at the foot of a mountain--so the mountain is depicted with feet. From the Codex Zouche-Nuttall.

Mixtec codices are full of weird little artistic conventions. Here, a woman is leaving some offerings at the foot of a mountain–so the mountain is depicted with feet. From the Codex Zouche-Nuttall.

Another question I’ve been asking myself about Mixtec screenfolds is whether performances consisted in a single performer singing, or a performer singing while elite/dancers played the parts of the different characters, or a small cast of elite/actors sang and danced their parts, like some grave musical.

Summing up

There’s a lot more stuff I could write about the Mixtecs, but this post is slightly too long as it is–though I’d be happy to continue in the comments section if anyone has any questions. I think the main thing about the Mixtecs is this: they are absolutely fascinating, and it’s a crime that they are not as well known as the Aztecs or the Maya. Spread the word then, readers! The best way to do this may be to travel around the country with in an ice-cream van, and when kids and grown-ups run excitedly towards you, surprise them by showing them Mixtec screenfolds instead of giving them ice-cream–they’ll be so astounded by the craftsmanship that went into them, and so dazzled by the intricate, colourful images, that they will soon forget that you deceived them, and will be forever grateful that you unlocked this whole amazing lost world to them.

References and tips for further reading

If you want to know more, you should definitely head over to Mesolore–it’s a wonderful site, with a digital version of the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, the most famous screenfolds, to explore (under the Ñudzavui heading). There’s also some cool stuff on the Aztecs and the Tlaxcaltecans.

Also, John Pohl’s website has detailed descriptions of the Selden and Bodley screenfolds if you’re interested.

In terms of books, I would recommend Joyce Marcus’ (1993) wonderfully accessible classic, Mesoamerican Writing Systems, which also includes lengthy sections on the Aztecs, the Maya and the Zapotecs. And, if you can, you should definitely get your hands on a replica of one of the codices.

Finally, if you’re curious to find out what your Mixtec name would have been–I can’t tell you that, but there’s a website that offers to find your Aztec name (i.e. your Aztec birthday), which is close enough. I think mine would have been 4 Flower.

Further references:

Hamann, B. 2004. Seeing and the Mixtec screenfolds. Visible Language 38 (1): 66-124.

Pohl, J. 2004. The archaeology of history in Post-Classic Oaxaca. In Joyce, R. and J. Hendon (eds) Mesoamerican Archaeology pp. 217-238. Oxford: Blackwell.

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