Heads and Bodies: Fragments and Restoration
The body as a site for anthropological theorizing has a long history, although the actual focus of inquiry has shifted through the decades, ranging from
Always there has been cross-cultural comparison, implied or explicit – and the recognition that ideational systems, whether political, religious, or economic, among others, define or at least shape, along with gender, age, class, and ethnicity, the culturally specific and historically particular body. Then there are
The ethnographic record is littered with a myriad references to the ritual use of parts of the body or partial bodies to attack and protect. ‘Body fragments can harbour the ability to harm or heal, charged with powers that exceed those of the bodies from whence they came.’ 3
The collection of pottery fragments, some hand-modelled, some produced in moulds, I want to explore here – nine bodiless heads and one headless body – are all from ancient Mexico, and range in date from about 1000 BC to AD 1000. They were a gift to me, when I was eighteen or nineteen, from my mother who bought them in a junk shop for about 50 cents each.
The exchange of gifts was first examined in ethnographic detail by the French sociologist Marcel Mauss in The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, which appeared in the 1920s but was not published in English until 1954. Based upon his understanding of the Maori concept of hau (the spirit of the gift which demands the gift be returned to its owner), he generated a much broader theory about the spirit of the donor which clings to the gift, in an endless cycle of the obligation. Although this idea is not applicable universally, and indeed Mauss’s understanding of the original Maori practice has been challenged,4 it has an enduring appeal to me, for, as Mauss wrote,
The second idea to consider before turning to the collection is what many scholars have called the affinity between anthropology and art ‘as discursive arenas for comprehending or evaluating cultural activity’.6 Indeed a growing number of artists have become ‘ethnographers’ or at least they have used the ethnographer’s defining methodology of participant observation in their critical practice. Ethnography is both a process and a product – as a process it involves an anthropologist who ‘observes, records, and engages in the daily life of another culture . . . and then writes accounts of this culture, emphasizing descriptive detail’.7 That descriptive account is ethnography as product. Artists such as Sophie Calle, whose work Birthday Ceremony deals with gifts in a rather Maussian way, Mark Dion, Jimmie Durham, Renee Green and her ‘Import/Export Funk Office’, Nikki S. Lee and her variously located ‘projects’, James Luna, Lan Tuazon and The Anthropologist’s Table of 1999, and Fred Wilson have all been described as working in this ethnographic mode or representing it artistically. Susan Hiller actually has a PhD in anthropology. While she rejected what is now considered an outdated view of participant observation as ‘objective’ by a more recently reflexive discipline, her work continues to have an ethnographic sensibility. Many of her works undertake the most basic task of the anthropological project – to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. Exploration of categories and the frontiers of classificatory systems are still germane to both Hiller’s work and the discipline.
All this work has stimulated a few theorists, both art historical and anthropological, to write about the ‘artist as ethnographer’.8 But there are very few ‘ethnographer as artist’ productions, possibly since Hal Foster 9 accused us of ‘artist envy’ in which ‘the artist becomes a paragon of formal reflexivity, sensitive to difference and open to chance, a self-aware reader of culture understood as text’. But, he continues,
He does acknowledge that the use of participant observation by artists suggests a sort of ethnographer-envy. I like the notion of us emerging from our respective spheres, in the manner described by Mauss in reference to persons and things, to try to gain a fuller understanding of my mother’s gift.
Looking at the pieces themselves, it is clear that they are unlikely to have all been made for the same purpose. Nor is it likely that these purposes would have remained constant over time and within different sites and cultural contexts. Contemporary scholars, like earlier ones, have suggested a number of different functions. A few have wondered whether these figurines might have been toys or amusements and served purely secular purposes. Most scholars have speculated on ritual or ceremonial uses – for example, as votive offerings, rather in the manner known from cultural practice in churches in the Greek islands and archaeological finds from Classical sites. Other ritual uses might have been in rites of passage, or those rituals marking transitions – for example from child to adult, from unmarried to married, etc. At some sites figurines acted as burial offerings, or were buried during human interments. Most of the fragments have been recorded, however, not in burials but in household middens (garbage piles) or in association with family living compounds rather than cemeteries and major ceremonial architecture. This leads many contemporary scholars to posit that these figurines featured in private, intimate, domestic rituals. Archaeologist Joyce Marcus, basing her ideas on Zapotec cultural practices as described by Spanish sources in the sixteenth century and more generally on ethnographic accounts from around the world, speculates that one of the roles of women in the pre-Columbian villages of the Valley of Oaxaca was to keep in touch with female ancestors:
So my mother’s gift to me becomes even more appropriate.
Olmec style head (fig. 1) This head is in the Olmec style.
The assignation of a specific ethnicity, with its linguistic implications, to the people who created and then used, inhabited, or worshipped at particular sites and then buried their dead there, is difficult. Certainly there is no question that the current ‘Indian’ or indigenous peoples of Mexico are the descendants of the originators of all the glorious ruins and the wonderful array of artefacts that have survived. However, current populations living in the vicinity of sites may not be the same as those in the distant past. Thus, the word ‘Olmec’ is sometimes used to describe ‘the inhabitants of Mexico’s south Gulf Coast lowlands during the period 1500-400 BC’, 13 and the same word has been used to describe the style originated by the so-called ‘mother culture’ of Mesoamerica. This head, from about 500 BC, exhibits some of the features which, in earlier literature, is sometimes called ‘baby-face’ : a round face, closed or nearly closed eyes, broad nose, droopy mouth, and ‘forelock’.14
Canine head (fig. 2) The circle around each eye is distinctive and appears on a few other pieces – for example a whistle, from Aztec houses in rural Morelos, which also has an open long snout and circled eyes. 15 If it is an Aztec piece, and figurines are not as common in Aztec sites as in those of earlier peoples, it would be among the latest in my collection in date, for the Aztecs do not reach the Valley of Mexico until about AD 1200. It probably was originally an adornment for a pot 16 and never had an independent existence.
The peoples of ancient Mesoamerica did not have large domesticated animals like cattle or horses, but they did certainly have dogs; canine bones some three thousand years old have been found in the Tehuacan Valley in Mexico. The eating of dog flesh and the ritual sacrifice of dogs is confirmed both through archaeological sites and in historical documents. Numerous canine effigies are found in human burials in many sites in Mesoamerica and may be an expression of a longstanding belief in the region that dogs accompany or ease the human passage to the underworld. Today there are two breeds – the Chihuahua and the Mexican hairless – which both have pointy snouts. The Mexican hairless has pointed ears which stand up straight and is also an ancient pre-Hispanic breed. However, hairless dogs sweat through their skin and thus rarely open their mouths and expose their tongues. This beast clearly does, and thus is more likely to be a coyote, a wild dog which features in murals at Teotihuacan – it is also associated with the underworld and the dead.17
This may not be a canine at all, of course, but, perhaps, a bat – a creature mythologically associated in this area with not only the underworld, fertility, and the night but also blood and decapitation. A find in 1990 in the basin of Mexico of a huge sculpture some two metres high is described as having a head with ‘batlike features with an animal snout, upper and lower incisors exposed, a slightly slit tongue, a nasal appendage between the eyes, two large circular ears’.18 Most bat depictions have rounded ears, but some of the other features do seem to fit this head. The person who made it placed his or her thumb at the lower part of the neck or shoulder, and my own fits this ancient faint impression perfectly. This kind of connection with human creativity and endeavour always creates a frisson of excitement for me – a gift from the past.
Gulf Coast head (fig. 3) The style of this head is very similar to one drawn by Covarrubias, 19 where he identifies it as ‘Huaxtec’. Huastec culture, found on the Gulf Coast, was produced by peoples who lived in well-organized independent polities and were associated, at least linguistically, with the Maya. Although arising earlier, the Huastec flourished from the twelfth or thirteenth century up to the first European contacts in the sixteenth century.20 The hairstyle or headdress is quite characteristic of the Gulf Coast and if it is not Huastec it may be somewhat older, that is, AD 250-800.
The archaeological record makes clear that pottery and settled village appear at about the same time in human history and this is so in Mesoamerica. Before the European conquest, the potter’s wheel was unknown. Stoneware, porcelain, and vitreous glazes were also unknown.21 So my collection is made up of earthenware, fired at low temperatures. Both hand-modelled and mould-made figurines are found in Mesoamerica over long periods of time. The Aztec mould-made ones were probably mass produced by specialists for distribution over wide areas, but many earlier examples are assumed to have been hand made for local consumption whether produced by specialists or not.22
‘Cinder’ face (fig. 4) Whatever the origins and functions of such heads and fragments, the intensity of their manufacture suggests great demand and high consumption. Marcus, working on village sites in the Valley of Oaxaca, has estimated that if
Why are there so many heads and so few bodies found in these archaeological sites? And why, beyond what might be expected from their circumstances of preservation and discovery, are so many of the figurines in fragments, not whole but broken? Perhaps for some there never were bodies. This is unlikely in the case of most of my figurines because the ‘neck’ ends rather abruptly and, in some cases, rather roughly. Then again, it is possible that bodies existed but were in some perishable material – wood, cloth, or even bread dough. 24 Many sites in Mesoamerica are located in places unfavourable to the survival of organic materials, but at El Manati, an Olmec site, a cache of some forty life-size carved busts of tropical cedar was found, confirming suspicions that wood was an important medium for cultural expression in this area. Ethnographically, the use of dough (as well as stone, wood, and clay) to make figurines has been recorded for the Aztec, and the use of these effigies was noted by Spanish observers who suggested that such figurines were kept on household altars where they ‘became the focus of ritual offerings during certain calendrical ceremonies and when household members were away at war’. 25 The use of cloth figures hung from tree branches in cornfields may have ensured agricultural fertility. Infants were also given figurines at birth, which seem to have served as amulets.26 So the earthenware heads might have entered the archaeological record while their bodies in organic materials have not.
And what about fragmentation? Anthropologists are interested in bodily fragmentation, whether material or ideational, as it leads us directly into the centrality of ethnographic classification as we ask, ‘what do such deconstructions say about body boundaries, the integrity of the self, and the shifting social worth of human beings?’ 27
Is there just accidental breakage through use, or is it deliberate? Certainly structural weakness in the clay bodies, particularly where the appendages join the body, might be responsible. There is another possibility, one for which there is no direct archaeological evidence in the sites in question here, although there are plenty of ethnographic examples cross-culturally. As mentioned earlier, archaeologists working in Oaxaca have suggested that figurines were ancestral representations, created and used by women in rituals that resulted in the defacement or destruction of the pottery images.28
A late manifestation of a generalized cultural aesthetic or perhaps ritual preference for dismemberment might also be considered. The patron deity of the Aztec capital of Tenochititlan was the god of war. In a key myth he defeats his sister’s army in battle. Her body was then cut into pieces and rolled down a mountain. In real life, when the Aztecs captured enemy warriors, they were sacrificed in a re-enactment of this myth – decapitated, dismembered, and thrown down the steps of the temple dedicated to the war god. They landed at the foot of the steps, where rested a large disc carved with the dismembered body of the female deity defeated by her brother the god of war. 29
Head with plumed headdress (fig. 5) This figure is wearing a huge plumed headdress which overwhelms the tiny face. The use of the feathers of exotic birds, and the trade in these materials, is well documented in the archaeological record, in ethno-historic records, and through objects brought to Europe after contact, although, of course, actual feathers do not survive. It probably dates from the Classic period, from AD 250-800 or so on the Gulf Coast. As one of the greatest scholars of Mesoamerican archaeology has written:
Bird head (fig. 6) This ‘bird’ effigy is almost identical to one dated 850-700 BC from a site known as Fabrica San Jose in the Valley of Oaxaca.31 The archaeologist Joyce Marcus, writing of sites of this age in the area, notes that, based upon Zapotec cultural practice as observed by the Spanish in the sixteenth century, living birds were believed to predict the future, may have played a role in divination, may have been funerary sacrifices, and were believed to carry messages between the worlds of the dead and the living. Thus, she argues, bird figurines might have been made to accompany ancestral figurines made for ritual acts.32
The bird head could also have originated from the Valley of Mexico, dating from AD 650-750, perhaps even from Teotihuacan.33 Such are the uncertainties of identification with neither archaeological context nor informants’ comment. But we might consider the general development of such figurines which have emerged in their millions from the great city-state of Teotihuacan. They first appear about 150 BC, when they were all hand made and initially all female; unusually, a significant number of males appear suddenly. Whether male or female, however, the figurines have been found in residential contexts, not associated with burials or the great pyramids. The introduction of moulds about AD 250 increased production for a growing population in the city.34 A multiplicity of styles exists, both within the city-state over time and in comparison with the figurines found from other sites. The terms pre-Columbian, pre-Hispanic, and pre-conquest have all been used to describe the general time-frame for these objects but all these terms are also considered problematic for various reasons. Some scholars use ‘Mesoamerican’, a more geographical term covering Mexico and Central America, to indicate period as well as a certain similarity in cultural practices.
Head with braid (fig. 7) This head may exhibit the signs of cranial deformation, which was considered a sign of nobility at the time of the Spanish conquest.35 However, this form of bodily modification was probably of some antiquity in Mesoamerica and not, at least in earlier periods, always restricted to the upper classes. What is probably a hair braid is clearly modelled down the back of the head. It is probably from the ‘Preclassic’ period, about 300 BC. Some scholars when giving dates use BC and AD while others prefer BCE – before the Christian (or Common) Era. There is no single chronology accepted by all scholars, although a general schemata would be: the Paleo-Indian (c. 25,000 BC – 7000 BC); the Archaic (7000-2000 BC); then the periods which most concern us here today, the Preclassic period (2000 BC – AD 250), the Classic period (AD 250 – 900 or 1000), the Postclassic period (AD 900 or 1000 – 1521), followed by the Spanish conquest and colonization.36
Body fragment (fig. 8) These ‘flaring’ thighs are usually associated with the site of Tlatilco, now within the confines of Mexico City, but in the 1930s a separate entity and the site of a brickyard, whose workers dug up graves and figurines by the bucketful every day; these were sold on to collectors, including the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, and tourists. In the early 1940s the artist, travel writer, and anthropologist Miguel Covarrubias began excavations at Tlatilco which he, as a life-long socialist, interpreted as a village composed of aristocratic Olmecs who immigrated from the Gulf Coast and came to rule the local peasantry. 37 Scholars continue to argue over whether this site represents an Olmec colony or an Olmec centre.38 In his book The Indian Art of Mexico and Central America Covarubbias writes:
Representations of males are ‘considerably rarer’. This body is probably female, wearing what might be a pubic apron, but just what came above the legs is slightly unclear. Certainly some Tlatilco figures are noted for ‘grotesque’ elements – double heads, or two heads with three eyes, multiple heads, mouths, and noses, and two heads with three eyes have all been found. ‘A distinctly macabre streak appears in the art of the inhabitants of Tlatilco, possessed by a psychological bent that delighted in monstrosities.’ 40 Tlatilco, meaning in Nahuatl ‘the place where things are hidden’, was settled about 1300 BC, functioning as the capital of a small chiefdom.41
An alternative placement for this body fragment might be in the Valley of Oaxaca during the San Jose phase, 1150-850 BC, where ‘figurines of women with slender waists, legs shaped like inverted bowling pins’ were found at sites such as Tierra Largas.42
Monkey/skull (fig. 9) This may be a human skull, but it could also be an animal effigy, perhaps a monkey. Monkeys are not uncommonly represented in Mesoamerican art forms, where they are frequently associated with musical instruments and whistles. If an animal effigy, it probably dates from the Classic period of about AD 250-800. If it is interpreted as a human skull, then we might look at later periods or to the Aztec, who are noted for the presence of so-called ‘skull racks’ holding battle trophies in the ritual precincts of their capital. 43 Depictions of the human skull are common in their art forms.44 The Aztecs are reported to have called their small clay figurines ‘tepictoton’ – the little modelled ones.45
Ball player (fig. 10) This figure is strongly modelled and it is quite clear that the clothing is both elaborate and bulky. There is fugitive paint – white clearly visible on the ear flares, and bitumen or asphalt, which was used as paint,46 has been applied on the shoulders. I think this figure is a ball player. Of great antiquity and very widespread, the Mesoamerica ballgame had several forms. The oldest, possibly invented by the Olmec, was a form of handball, played on an open field with a small rubber ball. In a later version a much larger rubber ball was propelled around a specially constructed court by hip action. Many depictions of ball players show them costumed with head, chest, and groin protective padded clothing. Some of these games were clearly associated with the wider mythological and religious concerns of those who played them, and losers were sometimes sacrificed. Recently it has been suggested that men did not actually play in such bulky, restrictive clothing; the costumed representations might be of rulers/warriors dressed as if for the ballgame.47 There were also less ritually charged games. In 1528 two simply dressed Mesoamerican ball players, brought to Spain by Cortes that year, were depicted by Christoph Weiditz demonstrating moves.48 Weiditz saw them performing for Charles V in Toledo. Diehl illustrates fragments of a San Lorenzo ball player 49 and the head of a ball player wearing a headdress and large ear ornaments from Tlapacoya, a site in the Valley of Mexico associated with Tlatilco culture, which closely resembles this one.50
To make the transition now from my role as professional ethnographer to that of amateur artist, I would like to pass around some images 51 in which I have transformed, graphically, the fragments into whole figures – which in turn ‘embody’ a new set of cultural meanings and perceptions.
Graphic bodies of imagination
The later peoples of the Valley of Mexico valued the material remains of earlier inhabitants, including those from other cultures, sometimes uncovering objects and depositing them in caches in their own ritual sites. Such acts of cultural appropriation may have been accompanied by a reinterpretation of meaning or the assignation of new significance.52 I have continued in this vein by using my own holiday snapshots, a form of ‘vernacular photography’, suggesting a certain (spurious of course) authenticity, all taken on the Gulf of Mexico, into which I have inserted some of the pre-Columbian heads, attaching or ‘returning’ them to the casually posed bodies of my husband and friends (fig. 11), (fig. 12).
In an even more explicitly ‘Maussian moment’, I have ‘given’ my mother and my father two of my favourite Mexican fragments, exchanging them for the parental heads in a photograph taken the night my parents became engaged in 1945, in the dying days of the Second World War. The setting is the officers’ club in an American naval base in the Caribbean (fig. 13). I have also returned the ‘gift’ to the original donors, the people who all of those hundreds of generations ago created the figurines, by appropriating the bodies of the present for the use of the ancient heads, suggesting a fictive or at least imagined or imposed cultural intimacy and personal rapport.
In the 1960s, about the time my mother gave me her gift, two children living on the isthmus of Tehuantepec were out looking for a stone to use for cracking palm nuts. They discovered an ancient monumental sculpture in ‘greenstone’, or nephrite, of a young man, seated, with a half-human, half-jaguar ‘baby’ on his lap. The children’s parents, believing the sculpture to be of the Virgin Mary, dug it from the ground and installed it in their house where their neighbours joined them in venerating this ancient Olmec sculpture. Its fame spread to a nearby village, whose inhabitants borrowed it for a festival, adorning it with paper flowers and moving a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of the state of Mexico, so that it might have pride of place on an improvised altar. 53 This exercise of agency, demonstration of human innovation, and capacity for appropriation seems to me to provide an excellent precedent for us today.
Losses and gains/conclusions
What have we come to know or understand through the act of cultural restoration, through the creation of a new body or head for an old fragment? Has anything more than some sort of postmodern pastiche been created? At one level, that would be enough – just playing around both with the ideas here and the heads and bodies. But something else has happened. ‘Art continues to be the space in which difference, identity, and cultural value are being produced and contested.’ 54 And anthropology continues to be the way of looking at the world in which we live that most illuminates difference, identity, and cultural value – it is, to use Hal Foster’s description, ‘the science of alterity’.55 He outlines certain attributes that make it attractive to artists – including the anthropological concern with context as well as content, a certain reflexivity, and the centrality of culture, however it is defined.
In producing these new works using ancient fragmented figures, so that they are no longer ‘embedded’ in their original context, we have approximated, without the historicity and cultural specificity, what the original artists did when they fashioned these heads and bodies from the earth of ancient Mesoamerica. These fragments of the past have been relocated in our own time, incorporated into our own cultural practices so that they are no longer positioned as ‘the other’, and by putting these fragments ‘in motion’ 56 we have added another facet to their social lives as things. We, collectively, have been busy constructing social identities – fictive identities manifested in their new bodies – and, in doing so, we have indulged in a bit of fragmentation and its consequence, displacement, in a bit of self-making of our own, as theorists and practitioners, artists and ethnographers.
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|Heads and Bodies Issue 8|