Magnificent Mexico – Dogs, Graves and Scholars

Magnificent Mexico

By Mildred Boyd

Dogs, Graves and Scholars

tapa y penacho de brasero


The pre-Columbian sites in Western Mexico are never likely to replace Teotihuacan or Monte Alban as tourist attractions. Simple tools, humble dwellings and clay figurines are not much competition for lofty pyramids, princely palaces and golden ornaments. Yet, to serious scholars, such sites are even more informative than the grandiose ceremonial centers, in that they can tell us much about how ordinary people lived.

Shaft tombs, some 45 or more feet deep and with several burial chambers, were typical graves in Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima. They have yielded an astonishing array of funeral offerings, especially ceramics, from crude flat figures to sophisticated sculpture in the round. The potters of Colima were particularly adept in depicting tiny vignettes of everyday life. Animals were favored subjects, but birds and insects, hunchbacks, water carriers, family groups, warriors and priests were all wrought in faithful detail to accompany and protect the dead on their journey to the underworld.

Though some are now badly discolored from centuries of contact with the earth, every example shown here was originally finished with the polished red slip distinctive of Colima’s pottery. All date from the sixth century.



These roly-poly Chihuahuas are so charming modem potters re-produce them by the thousands for the tourist trade. This one, wagging his spout tail and obviously eager to play “fetch the corncob,” is about 12 inches long. Despite their appeal, these small animals were not pets. They were originally bred and fattened for the table, but it was not simply as food that dogs were often included in grave offerings. As servants of the Dog God, Xolotl, their purpose was to guide souls on the perilous journey through the underworld.



Scurrying along, eyes wide open and big ears alert for the slightest warning of danger, this well-fed mouse may be, in the words of Robert Burns ode, a “sleekit, cowerin,” tim “rous creetur” but he can hardly be called “wee.” Life-like he is but, at nearly 13 inches in length, considerably more than life size. Typically, he is hollow and has a spout on his back to facilitate filling or pouring the food or drink provided to sustain the dead.



Though he lived and hunted only in the tropical rain forests, this great cat, an object of fear and worship all over MesoAmerica, was called “ocelotl” in Nahua. (English “ocelot” refers to a similarly marked but smaller cat.) His images are everywhere so it is hardly surprising to find one in a western shaft tomb. This one, crouching menacingly with bared fangs and lashing tail is nearly 20 inches long and very lifelike.



Apart from the somewhat incongruous spout rising from his right side, this ten-and-a-half inch figure is a faithful replica of a real turtle, down to the diamond markings incised on the carapace. Possibly because the females are such prolific egg layers, turtles symbolized fertility and regeneration. They were also associated with life-sustaining water and turtle-shell drums were often used during ceremonies to produce the rolling sound of thunder.



Parrots and macaws were valued for their brilliant plumage. Feathered jewelry, cloaks and head-dresses served for personal adornment and magnificent feather mosaic hangings decorated the walls of temples and palaces. From earliest times, these birds, especially the scarlet macaw, were also ritually associated with fire. This one stands about eight inches high and, while more crudely executed than most of our examples, still conveys the power and menace typical of the species. He, too, is hollow and has a pouring spout in lieu of a tail.



These perky waterfowl are joined at the side like Siamese twins and share a single spout as a tail. The piece is life-sized; about six inches high and almost fourteen inches long and the birds are realistically molded, with eyes, head markings and breast feathers accentuated with incised lines. Since ducks are not known to have any mythological or religious associations, it is assumed that their inclusion among the funerary gifts was as food for the soul—or maybe just because of their charm?



Colima’s potters were fascinated by all nature and not even the lowliest insects failed to inspire them. Scorpions, grasshoppers, spiders and beetles are common in pre-Columbian art but, possibly because of the difficulties of molding and firing, were seldom reproduced in clay. This example has six legs and is obviously a beetle, possibly a cockroach. It is slightly over six inches long by seven inches wide, is hollow and has the usual pouring spout for a tail.

Seated Man

seated man

Human figurines were often placed in tombs and, since they were not often designed as containers, it is assumed that their function was religious. This seated man, with pierced ears and wearing a kilt, arm bands and a close-fitting helmet, is about eight inches tall. His serene smile and closed eyes have prompted the speculation that he may represent a priest or shaman who has entered a trance in order to negotiate safe underworld passage for the deceased.

Mother and Child

mother child

This tiny sculpture—slightly over four-and-a-half inches high—includes an amazing amount of detail. The lady wears a short, wraparound skirt, a halo-like head-dress, large earrings, several heavy bracelets and a rather supercilious expression. The female figure, with her somewhat oversized infant, possibly represents one of the many fertility goddesses of the MesoAmerican pantheon. However, since effigies were sometimes placed in tombs, this might as easily be a portrait of the deceased.

Resting Man

resting man

Any possible religious significance this figure might have had is so obscure as to be invisible. The man, whoever or whatever he is, is obviously weary. Anyone but a contortionist would have to be exhausted to fall asleep in such an awkward position. The pudgy gentleman with the prominent nose is not actually naked. The incised lines used to indicate clothing are mostly hidden by mineral discolorations caused by centuries of burial in the earth. The piece is slightly over eight inches high.


bearer hi

Though this figure was produced at least 2000 years ago, men who might have posed for it can still be met carrying their wares to market on the back roads of Mexico. Even hunched over with arms raised to hold the tump line across his forehead which helps support the weight on his back, he stands nearly ten inches high. The image is so realistic one can almost hear him grumbling as he struggles along with his load of large, unwieldy pots.


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