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.

For the last few months, I’ve been contributing intermittently to a “blog carnival” on the subject of archaeoblogging–a sort of months-long conference for bloggers, with each month dedicated to a different question. It’s been a lot of fun, and a great way both to find other blogs and reflect on the blogger’s craft. I’ve posted about why I blog in December, and about my best and worst posts in January, and I skipped both “the good, the bad and the ugly” post and the “write whatever you like” post. The whole thing is worth checking out over at Doug’s Archaeology Blog. Thanks, by the way, to Doug–this has all been great!


This is the last month of the carnival, and, fittingly, the question is: “where are you/we going with blogging or would you it like to go? I leave it up to you to choose between reflecting on you and your blog personally or all of archaeology blogging/bloggers or both. Tells us your goals for blogging. Or if you have none why that is? Tell us the direction that you hope blogging takes in archaeology.”

I’ll start with my thoughts about the future of archaeoblogging generally.

I agree with both Doug and Kelly M when they say that archaeoblogging should, for the most part, stay as it is: it’s great that anyone can write an archaeoblog, and that anyone can read one for free. The diversity of archaeoblogs out there is a wonderful thing. One thing I do hope will happen one day, however, is for an Emily Graslie to rise from our midst.

For those who don’t know, Emily Graslie used to be a volunteer at the University of Montana’s Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum, with a cool little tumblr about natural history and museums. Now, through both her own sheer amazingness and a couple of lucky breaks (but mostly her sheer amazingness), she is one of the best-known science vloggers out there, with a series called The Brain Scoop. Now, where is our Anthropology/Archaeology Emily? Someone who is as comfortable among Inka khipus and Maori carvings as Emily is among stuffed raccoons and flesh-eating beetles? I think it would have to be someone who knows both about archaeology and anthropology, since the two benefit so much from being paired together. And they would need a good cameraman/producer/editor like Michael Aranda used to be for the Brain Scoop (and like the new guy, Tom McNamara, presumably will be now). It’s a shame that there isn’t an anthropological/archaeological equivalent to the dissections that are one of the best things about the Brain Scoop, but even without something like that, I think some great videos could still be made.

Who could it be? I don’t know. There are so many excellent archaeobloggers out there who I have a feeling would be great at vlogging as well, and I’ve noticed that Katie Kirby, Emily’s intern, has started regularly posting archaeology/anthropology-related stuff on the Brain Scoop’s facebook group, which is an interesting move. But, for now, as far as I’m aware, this niche has not yet been filled.


As for the future of this particular blog… I have so many thoughts about how my blog could be improved or could change that listing them here might actually help me think through them. And, of course, if you have any advice/opinions, do comment/tweet/email/facebook-message me, or even tell me in person.

The most urgent “problem” I feel like I should solve is my audience problem. I’ve always thought of this blog mostly as something that anyone could stumble upon and read and get excited about, without any previous knowledge of things archaeological. And, to some extent, that has been the case. But, since attempting to broaden my readership by joining twitter, I’ve actually acquired a fair few readers who do know a bit about archaeology, anthropology and museums. So, what should I do? Write some posts for one type  of audience and some for the other? Attempt to create monstrous hybrid posts, or posts that are like those children’s movies with topic references or innuendo included to amuse the parents? Or simply write what I feel like writing about, however I feel like writing it on that particular day?

Also–should I change the blog’s name? “Unearthing” is perhaps too vague/obvious, and I never say “Unearthing” when I talk about it, I just call it “the blog”, perhaps means that I secretly don’t like it. Perhaps I should go for something like “Jade Adze” or “Eccentric Flint“. Or is it too late in the game for me to do that? Would it just be way too confusing? Can I even change a url easily here on WordPress? I don’t know! I’m kind of afraid that, in my attempt to change the name, I’ll end up accidentally deleting the whole blog.

I’d also like to write more about anthropology. Because it’s cool.

One things is certain: I’ll definitely continue blogging, because I enjoy it, and I enjoy experimenting with it. Or, well–I do sometimes feel like I’m a bit of an impostor, not actually having that much excavation experience compared to many other bloggers, or indeed many, many other archaeologists or archaeology students–I do sometimes feel like one of those Victorian gentlemen who never left England but were arrogant enough to think they could write detailed ethnographic treaties about cultures they’d only read about in books. When I feel like this, I end up wondering whether, re: the future of this blog, I should just stop blogging altogether. But, in the end, it’s fun enough, and important enough, that I’ll probably keep going for a while yet.


For the last month or so, I’ve spent one or two days a week leafing through old typewritten letters between collectors and dealers, in an attempt to figure out how the Pre-Columbian objects at Norwich’s Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts became part of the museum’s collection. This is for my MA thesis. There’s loads of fun or interesting stuff in these letters, but, since it’s all private correspondence, I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing it–no matter how outrageous some of the dealers’ pronouncements on the legality of their activities may be.

However, I did find something cool today that’s probably ok for me to share–old-timey Australian anthropologist Henry Ling Roth’s account of how the weird little collection of Pre-Columbian artefacts at Halifax’s Bankfield Museum formed. The Bankfield Museum became a museum in 1887, after having been the home of Edward Akroyd–who, in the nineteenth century, had been Halifax’s foremost woollen and worsted manufacturer. (Halifax is in Yorkshire, by the way, and both woollen and worsted are types of yarn). Roth curated the museum’s collection between 1900 and 1925, and wrote some notes on the museum’s Pre-Columbian material. Without further ado:

At a great Exhibition held in Halifax in the year 1841 there were shown amongst other interesting exhibits, two interesting collections of domestic articles made by the natives of Ancient Peru. They were stated to be belong to a Mr J. Egan, but the name should have been spelt Hegan a member of the Liverpool firm of Hall, Hegan & Co. […] After the Exhibition was over Mr Hegan gave the two collections to the Museum of the Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society where they remained until the year 1896 when they were transferred with other forgotten relics to Bankfield Museum.

In the Exhibition Catalogue one collection is spoken of as ‘Peruvian Antiquities: Contents of the Tomb of a Cacica, or ancient Peruvian Princess, of the Nation of the Atacames, Found on the Southern Point of the Coast of Peru in the Valley of Sama near the mouth of the River” & consisted of about 30 enumerated articles. The other collection is spoken of as “A Unique series of Sepulchral Urns, Vases, Drinking Cups, Bottles, Paterae, & other domestic Utensils & personal Ornaments, Musical Instruments, etc., discovered in Ancient Tombs in the Valley of Sama, Lacumba, etc., in Peru & also in the Cordillera”, but none of these articles are detailed so that we cannot say whether all the things have come down to us. Strangely enough a large portion of the pottery has been labelled ‘MEXICO’, although it is distinctly Peruvian.

Further on, Roth lists the items from the tomb of the “Andean Princess”:

“A part of the Undergarment of the Cacica.

“The Upper Garment or Shirt without Sleeves.

“The Belt or Faja, worn by the Cacia, & denoting her rank among the aristocracy of the Inca’s dynasty.

“The Thorn of the Cactus, used as a Pin, anterior to the introduction of the Metals, & proving that the interment was prior to the arrival of Europeans.

“The large Kerchief called Andro, in which the Cacica carried her various implements.

“The Spindle & the Sticks forming a Loom for weaving, with the latter of which all woven articles of dress were made. Around the Sticks is a Faja or Belt in a process of manufacture.

“The Hinda or Sling now in use among the Indians of the Cordillera.

“Three instruments for making Fringes.

“Two Vichuntas used for opening the wool of stuffs.

“A smaller Kerchief to hang in front, used as a pocket.

“A Comb called Chucha.

“Spoons of different forms.

“A Wooden Spoon in the process of formation.

“A Wooden Knife used in dancing.

“Workbag of the Cacica, with her spindles etc.

“Balls of Thread found in above workbag.

“A Masorca of Maize entire, found hanging over the head of the Cacica.

“Remains of a fishing net.

“Spices with which the Mummy was found embalmed.

“Remains of net-work.

“Locks of Hair & Leaves found in Paringuita, hung over the Head of the Cacica.

“An Earthen Vase called Ura, found full of Maize.

“Vase or Bottle found full of Chicha.

“The Skull, Hair & Head-dress, & part of the Skeleton of the Cacica.

“A Skull found in the Tomb of the Cacica.’

“A large number of the articles enumerated is missing, as was to be expected, & it is not possible to determine which are some of the things. Then several have been misnamed, or imaginary qualifications given to them. There is no skull with part of the skeleton, but there is a dried head with some skin & hair attached & decorated with the locks of hair – but wooly – as above mentioned. As for the other skull, Whiteley Ward told me more than once that as a boy he & other youngsters used to make a football of it & had no doubt that it had long since been kicked to pieces. The “wooden knife used in dancing” is nothing more than a weavers beater-in.

“There is also a Mummy of which I have been able to find any record except the label which reads as follows: – ‘A Natural Mummy of a Female. Discovered in January 1834, along with seven others, within a cavern, on the mountain of Gamiza, one of the highest passable points of the Andes, in the neighbourhood of Tunja, a city three or four days from Bogota, the capital of New Granada. Presented by Miss Staveley, Springfield’. There was a John Staveley, a South American merchant in the thirties of the last century in Halifax, who was one of the earliest members of the Halifax Literary & Philosophical Society, so it is not improbable that this mummy found its way to Halifax through his business connections with the South American continent.

Oh and let’s not forget

“a Halifax mechanic, Mr C.H. Hitchen, [who] brought home and deposited in the Museum some very crude pottery from the ruins of Huanacho, which he excavated in Mar-June, 1887, & one large urn from the sacred (?) city of Pachachonac on the north coast of Peru, which he purchased in April, 1897.”

There are many reasons why I like this passage–the unrestrained use of ampersands, the copious capitalisation of words, the weirdly compelling list of looted grave goods–but, perhaps most of all, it’s a fascinating glimpse of the haphazard, bizarre and gleefully unethical way that many of the older museums formed. Also I can’t believe they just let kids play football with a crumbling Pre-Columbian skull–was it lack of concern/respect for primitive cultures or people, some forgotten Great Football Shortage that pushed people to desperate measures to enjoy their favourite pastime–or just sheer madness?

As a note: from the website, it does not seem that the Bankfield Museum displays any of these objects any more. Perhaps they still hold them in storage, although it wouldn’t surprise me if the Pre-Columbian stuff was sold on to art dealers or other museums–it seems likely that a silver llama on display at the Sainsbury Centre used to be on display at Bankfield (Roth describes a similar llama in his notes, and feels compel to explain that a llama is a “native sheep”).

Because we have loads of written accounts of Inca life and history*, we know more about them than we do about any other ancient South American culture. But they were only around for about a 100 years (specifically, from 1438 to 1533)–loads of other equally amazing cultures had developed on the continent, long before the Inca even sheared their first llama.

If they were around today, the Wari would be particularly offended by how little we know about them compared to the Inca, especially as the Wari** did a lot of the things that the Inca usually get the credit for. In other words, they were the ultimate hipster civilisation.

So, what are these things that they did before it was cool?

1. Ruling Peru

The Inca were not the first South Americans to have their own empire–the Wari were there first. It was not as big as the Inca Empire, but it lasted longer–so, though it only covered most of Peru (the Inca ruled over most of Western South America), it lasted about 500 years, between 600 and 1100 AD. And yeah, of course the Spanish invasion is partly to blame for the fall of the Inca, but I think the Empire was on its last legs anyway, so it wouldn’t have lasted much longer than it did anyway.

Like the Inca, the Wari spread their control over vast territories by founding administrative centres wherever they conquered. The Inca used their administrative centres to resettle labor forces, and to host lavish feasts in which said the efforts of said labour forces were rewarded with pints and pints of maize beer. There are some who believe that the Wari used their centres in a similar way, but there’s not much evidence than that, and it sounds a lot like people simply projecting what we know about the Inca onto what we don’t know about the Wari. No doubt, the Wari would have found this quite aggravating.

Wari administrative centres were probably run by people like this guy here.

Wari mummy on display at Lima’s Museo Larco. Wari administrative centres were probably run by people like this guy here.

2. Building Efficient Road Networks

Everybody knows that the Inca built long roads all across their Empire, for the efficient movement and transportation of armies, labour forces, messages, and trade goods (including, famously, fish that was still fresh when it got to the highlands, after a journey that started on the coast). Few, however, know that many of those roads had already been built by the Wari. I don’t think a study has actually been carried out specifically on this topic, but many so-called Inca roads are said to clearly link up Wari centres one to the other, and they often pass through smaller Wari sites, which were probably waystations–like Jincamocco, on the road between the capital, Huari, and the Peruvian coast.

Wari llamas--no doubt among the main species to be led by the Wari along their long, long roads. (These llama-shaped pots are on display at Lima's

Wari llama-shaped ceramic vessels, on display at Lima’s National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and Archaeology.

3. Speaking Quechua

Before the Spanish came along, Quechua was the main language family spoken in Western South America. For a long time, people thought that this was because of the Inca–the Inca were thought to have been Quechua-speakers, who simply made their Quechua dialect their Empire’s official language out of convenience.

However, there are some interesting signs that, in fact, it was the Wari who spread Quechua across Peru–and that the Inca (who may have spoken some other language, such as Aymara) adopted it as an administrative language because it was already so widespread. Simply put, based on the number of Quechua dialects that exist today, and how different they are from one another, archaeologist David Beresford-Jones and linguist Paul Heggarty argue that Quechua dialects are more likely to have spread during the course of the Wari Empire’s 500 years, and then further evolved from that moment onward, than having spread during the 100 years of the Inca Empire, and evolved since then. Also, a map of the traditional distribution of Quechua speakers is remarkably similar to a map of the Wari Empire: they both cover most of the highlands, from Ancash to Cuzco, as well as the South-Central coast, excluding the area north of Lima, and a few isolated pockets around Cajamarca and Viracochapampa.

A map of Quechua's assumed expansion prior to and after the rise of the Incas, compared with Wari direct control or influence (Beresford-Jones & Heggarty 2012: 65). Apologies for the terrible scan.

A map of Quechua’s assumed expansion prior to and after the rise of the Incas, compared with Wari direct control or influence (Beresford-Jones & Heggarty 2012: 65). Apologies for the terrible scan.

This might not seem like a big deal, but it’s a little bit like saying that the Romans didn’t speak Latin to begin with, but had to adopt it because it was already widespread throughout Europe and North Africa when they start expanding their empire. I should say that not all agree with this scenario, but it’s definitely a plausible one.

4. Dystopian Architecture

Long before the twentieth-century graced the world with Soviet architecture, the Wari had already figured out that erecting very big, very ugly, and very standardised buildings was a good way of striking fear and instilling misery in the hearts of the populace.

All Wari administrative centres are made up of one huge rectangular enclosure, with an orderly set of smaller rectangular enclosures inside. The walls of these enclosures are overwhelmingly huge–13 ft (4 m) thick and 30 ft (10 m) tall. They usually surround open courtyards, with mazes of rooms around and between them. Sometimes even the streets that lead from Point A to Point B are walled off. Doors and windows are kept to a bare minimum–indeed, people used to think that the city of Pikillacta had no doors at all, which to led to theories about it having been an ancient prison, or some horrific mental asylum. However, a few decades ago a team of archaeologists led by Gordon McEwan found the city’s elusive doors–simply by digging a bit deeper along the buildings’ walls.

"Welcome to The Grid": the Wari city of Pikillacta, in all its ruthlessly geometrical glory (Stone

“Welcome to The Grid”: the Wari city of Pikillacta, in all its ruthlessly geometrical glory (Stone 2012: 148).

(It’s worth saying that the actual Wari capital, Huari, is an absolute mess–the exact chaotic opposite of the administrative centres the Wari dotted all around Peru–which has actually made it very difficult for archaeologists to work on it.)

… and that’s about it for now. I was going to add some more stuff about Wari art, but it doesn’t fit  very well with this theme, so I think I’ll just turn this into a series–so stay tuned for the next post, which will probably include stuff on looting, forgeries, and the illicit trade of antiquities!

In the meantime, if you want to read a bit more about the Wari, check out what’s been written about last summer’s spectacular find of an unlooted Wari tomb at El Castillo de Huarmey, just north of Lima–here and here!

* Courtesy, mostly, of an Inca nobleman named Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, a half-Inca named Garcilaso de la Vega, a Jesuit priest named Bernabe Cobo, and a mixed assortment of Spanish mercenaries and missionaries–check out my post on Inca childhood for some of the stuff they wrote!

** They’re also known as Huari–not what they called themselves, but, rather, the modern name of the site where the ruins of their presumed capital lie.


Beresford-Jones, D.P. and Heggarty, P. 2012. Broadening Our Horizons: Towards an Interdisciplinary Prehistory of the Andes. In Heggarty, P. and Beresford-Jones, D. (eds.) Archaeology and Language in the Andes pp. 57-84. New York: Oxford University Press.

Isbell, W.H. 1987. State origins in the Ayacucho valley, central highlands, Peru. In Haas, J., Pozorski, T. and Pozorski, S. (eds.) The origins and development of the Andean state pp. 83-90. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Isbell, W.H. 1988. City and State in Middle Horizon Huari. In Keatinge, R.W. (ed.) Peruvian Prehistory pp. 164-189. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

McEwan, G.F. 1991. Investigations at the Pikillacta site: a provincial Huari centre in the valley of Cuzco. In Isbell, W.H. and McEwan, G.F. (eds.) Huari Administrative Structure: Prehistoric Monumental Architecture and State Government pp. 93-120. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks.

Stone, R.S. 2012. Art of the Andes. New York: Thames & Hudson.

My last two posts were about ancient Peruvian pottery made in the shape of people having sex. But ceramics like these are only a very small percentage of the sorts of ceramics most archaeologists deal with on a daily basis. The vast majority of pots archaeologists work with are made to look like, well, pots. And, what’s worse, they’re usually broken up in dozens of pieces. And yet, archaeologists often do crazy things for pottery, no matter how unimpressive it might be.

For example, I have recently spent between twenty and thirty hours sorting out through broken pieces of ancient West African ceramics, along with three other volunteers and our supervisor, for the Crossroads of Empires project. The pottery came from recently excavated sites, and the idea was to see whether we could put together, not necessarily whole pots, but at least pots fragments that were big enough for us to make a reasonable guess as to what they looked like when they were whole (which means that a lot of our effort was focussed on rims and decorated bits). Sort of like a really difficult jigsaw puzzle in which most pieces are missing, and those that you still have are very small and worn. Once you do find bits that fit, you just stick them together with superglue. This whole process is called “refitting”, and you can see some images of how it works on this post from the Crossroads of Empires blog.

Why do this? Quite simply, pottery lasts a very long time, more so than any other thing made and used by humans in ancient times (excluding stone tools), so, wherever archaeologists dig, they will almost certainly find some. This has led archaeologists to figure out loads of different ways they can extract information about past lives from crummy ceramic fragments. For example, an important part of the Crossroads of Empires project is figuring out which culture groups interacted with which other culture groups–so, if you can connect a particular pottery style with a particular culture group, and then you find the same style, or perhaps a similar one, at a site that is firmly associated with another culture group, then it’s likely the two groups were in contact with one another.

But the shapes, sizes and decorations of ceramics can also give us a sense of how people lived in the past, and what was important for them. An excellent example of this is Ashley’s (2010) study of ancient Ugandan pottery.

Ashley identifies three major sequences in the region’s pottery: Urewe, Transitional Urewe, and Entebbe.

Urewe ceramics are found throughout the region between 500 and 800 AD, and they are characterised by having dimpled bases. What they tell us is that, as long as they were around, people’s lives revolved mainly around their family unit, and notions of family were of central cultural value. How can we be so sure? The amount of time and effort invested in making these pots, evident in their quality, suggests that whichever context they were used for was probably a very important one. And that context was probably family meals: this we can tell from how common the pots are, but also their size. Specifically, average sizes of Urewe pottery fall well within standard measurements of domestic pottery around the world, based on an extensive cross-cultural survey carried out by Henrickson and McDonald (1983).


Urewe pot (Ashley 2010: 143).


Refitted Urewe pot (Ashley 2010: 144)

Things start changing between 800 and 1200 AD. At this time, Urewe pots are generally replaced with Transitional Urewe pots. This new type of ceramics may seem, at first, to be quite similar to their predecessors, but a closer inspection reveals that the variety in vessel forms is significantly reduced, and decorations and embellishments are much simpler. This suggests that the family is losing importance within local cultural frameworks… but in favour of what?

Transitional Urewe

Fragments of Transitional Urewe ceramics (Ashley 2010: 151). Which, I realise, compared to the previous two illustrations of Urewe pots, makes them look like they are more varied in terms of decoration, not less. Oh well. This is what I could find.

The answer may lie with Entebbe ceramics, which appear only slightly later than the first Transitional Urewe pots–that is, around 1000 AD–and stick around until about 1500 AD. Entebbe ceramics, like the original Urewe pots, are high-quality objects, which again suggests the importance of whatever context they were used for. And, in their case, this context was probably large-scale public events. This is suggested, mainly, by their huge size, and, when full, their considerable weight, which would have made them cumbersome in a humble family kitchen. Large vessels like these could have been used for long-term storage of resources (for example, to ensure one’s family against ecological instability), but it seems that the mouth of most Transitional Urewe pots is too wide for this function, as it would have made them difficult to seal (which you want to do to prevent spillage, evaporation, or invasion by rodents and other household pests).

Based on the modern-day Eastern African customs, it seems most likely that, if Entebbe pots were indeed used in large public events, their main function would have been brewing of beer. Unfortunately, the archaeological sciences are not yet able to test this possibility (give it time, I say), but Ashley (p. 155) does point out that the internal grooves characteristic of so many Entebbe pots may well have been designed to “retain residues from previous brews to act as fermentation agents, or alternatively, as an abrasive to help mash the ingredients together”.


Entebbe pot (Ashley 2010: 155).

In short, from unspectacular (if, often, finely made) everyday items, Ashley is able to produce a simple but persuasive narrative of social change through time, from small-scale societies where one’s life revolves around one’s family unit, to medium/large-scale societies in which significant effort is invested in public events intended to create bonds between different family units within a community.

I think this is pretty cool. Maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s pretty cool.


Ashley, C. 2010. Towards a socialised archaeology of ceramics in East Africa. African Archaeology Review 27: 135-163.

Henrickson, E. and M. McDonald. 1983. Ceramic forms and function: an ethnographic search and an archaeological application. American Anthropologist 85(3): 630-643.

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.

Doug’s Archaeology is running a blog carnival on archaeology blogging–each month, for the next few months, Doug will ask archaeobloggers a question, which they are invited to answer, about the whys and wherefores of archaeoblogging. This is my belated answer to the November question–Why blogging? – Why did you, or if it was a group- the group, start a blog? 

There are many reasons why I blog about archaeology, but these are the three main ones.

One–I want to be the Emily Graslie of archaeology, or at least an Emily Graslie of archaeology: that is, I want to tell people about awesome stuff they didn’t know about, so that they’re a little bit more amazed about human existence and the world we happen to be in, and a little bit less cynical and jaded about things.

Two–I also want to be an academic, but I figure it’s slightly pointless to come up with cool ideas or write about awesome stuff like Inka politics and the origins of West African urbanism if the only people who will read my articles and books are archaeology students and other academics. So I’m training myself to communicate in an effective and engaging manner with lay audiences. Or, perhaps, if I find out that academia’s not for me, hopefully I’ll have gained enough experience with this blog that I’ll be able to make a living out of whatever the archaeological equivalent of science communication is called. Connected to this, there’s the fact that I think it’s a shame that many of my favourite ideas and things are locked up in articles and books that are unavailable to non-academic audiences. Or, if they are available, people tend not to be aware of them. So I see it as my duty to divulge these ideas and things to those who normally wouldn’t have access to them or wouldn’t even think of searching for them.

Three–I love it. I’m a research-junky, I love to explore things in my own time that were only mentioned briefly in lectures, even when this is unlikely to benefit me in my essays or exams. I don’t particularly enjoy reading non-fiction books: it’s just when I have a burning question, and I feel the need to hunt for answers in a library or online, that my blood gets pumping.

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