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Mesoamerican Figurines

Small-Scale Indices of Large-Scale Social Phenomena

Edited by Christina T. Halperin, Katherine A. Faust, Rhonda Taube, Aurore Giguet

Publication Year: 2009

Although figurines are among the most abundant class of artifacts known in the vast Mesoamerican culture, this is the premier single volume to examine these figurines from the Olmec to the Aztec civilizations.

These small, often ceramic objects are commonly found at many archaeological sites. They appear in the shape of humans, supernatural beings, animals, and buildings. Mesoamerican Figurines brings together many seasoned and respected scholars of art history, archaeology, ethnohistory, anthropology, and social theory to analyze these objects by their stylistic attributes, archaeological content, function, and meaning.

Because of their variety and number, figurines represent a rich dataset from which ancient Mesoamerican identity and practices can be ascertained, including human body symbolism, materiality, memory and human agency, trade and interaction, and religion.

Published by: University Press of Florida

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

List of Figures

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pp. vii-xi

List of Tables

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pp. xii

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pp. xiii-xiv

This comprehensive volume breaks new ground by bringing together, for the first time, an important body of figurine data sets from several time periods throughout Mesoamerica. The study of figurines has been frequently overlooked even though they are found in considerable numbers throughout Mesoamerica. ...

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1. Approaching Mesoamerican Figurines

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pp. 1-22

Mesoamerican figurines have allured archaeologists, art historians, and aficionados, as well as the general public, since their first appearance in excavated contexts, publications, museum exhibits, and private collections. One of the most striking aspects of figurines is their iconic quality, in which images of humans, ...

Part I. Context and Practice

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pp. 23-24

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2. Rethinking Figurines

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pp. 25-50

Figurines fascinate us—images of fellow humans small enough to be held in our hands, seemingly encouraging us to look into their faces, making us believe that we can read the minds of their makers even though thousands of years separate our culture from theirs. Their shared humanity entices us into thinking ...

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3. Honduran Figurines and Whistles in Social Context: Production, Use, and Meaning in the Ulúa Valley

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pp. 51-74

Excavations at five Late to Terminal Classic period sites (AD 600–1000) in the lower Ulúa valley in northwestern Honduras have produced a sizeable collection of ceramic figural artifacts, including figurines and whistles, from controlled contexts. Our research draws on secure provenience information to address ...

Part II. Social Identities

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pp. 75-76

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4. Formative Period Gulf Coast Ceramic Figurines: The Key to Identifying Sex, Gender, and Age Groups in Gulf Coast Olmec Imagery

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pp. 77-118

While the task of isolating and understanding concepts such as gender, age groups, and sociopolitical structures in the remains of any ancient culture is difficult, studying these concepts in Gulf Coast Olmec material culture is especially problematic. Unlike scholars of later cultures such as the Maya and the Aztec, ...

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5. Identity, Gender, and Power: Representational Juxtapositions in Early Formative Figurines from Oaxaca, Mexico

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pp. 119-148

Clay figurines constitute one of the few artifact categories that provide insights into how Early Formative (1500–900/850 BCE) villagers viewed the human body, themselves, and social identities; they illustrate a kind of self-awareness that is very physical and more visual than on other ceramic objects. ...

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6. Early Olmec Figurines from Two Regions: Style as Cultural Imperative

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pp. 149-180

Olmec style—among Mesoamerican archaeologists the mere mention of this phrase can incite heated debate and intense posturing. At stake is its meaning in terms of early Mesoamerican peoples and cultures. After all, as the first widespread art style, it is tied to the birth of Mesoamerica itself. ...

Part III. Cultural Aesthetics

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pp. 181-182

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7. Crafting the Body Beautiful: Performing Social Identity at Santa Isabel, Nicaragua

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pp. 183-204

The recent theoretical trend toward agency-based archaeology includes greater interest in the human body as an arena for the expression and negotiation of social identity. As such, it further advances the utility of archaeological evidence as a means for inferring anthropologically relevant information ...

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8. New Fire Figurines and the Iconography of Penitence in Huastec Art

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pp. 205-235

Iconography adorning anthropomorphic figurines, sculptures, and vessels speaks to the vigorous manner in which the Huastec inhabitants of the northeastern Gulf Coast region of Mesoamerica marked and branded their bodies, thereby creating a unique aesthetic of self. While scholars generally agree ...

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9. The Beautiful, the Bad, and the Ugly: Aesthetics and Morality in Maya Figurines

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pp. 236-258

Beautiful and ugly depend on principles of taste. For European philosophers, such as Immanuel Kant, aesthetics—the philosophy of the beautiful— denotes a branch of metaphysics, which contains the laws of refined taste as perceived through the visual. This appraisal of things visually pleasing has a striking parallel in ...

Part IV. Embodiment

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pp. 259-260

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10. The Weeping Baby and the Nahua Corn Spirit: The Human Body as Key Symbol in the Huasteca Veracruzana, Mexico

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pp. 261-296

Many North American anthropologists continue to be fascinated by symbols, meaning systems, and the emic realm in their studies of culture. The aim of their research strategy is interpreting, or giving an account of people’s behavior. The focus on meaning, however, is often accomplished at the expense of ...

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11. Alien Bodies, Everyday People, and Hollow Spaces: Embodiment, Figurines, and Social Discourse in Postclassic Mexico

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pp. 297-324

At Xaltocan, a Postclassic site in the northern Basin of Mexico, figurines come in many forms (Brumfiel 1996a, 2005; Rivera 2003). These include figurine heads that predate the occupation of the site; minimally human “mud men” (some of which are clearly “mud women”); freestanding, moldmade, flat-backed figurines, ...

Part V. State and Household Relations

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pp. 325-326

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12. Sex in the City: A Comparison of Aztec Ceramic Figurines to Copal Figurines from the Templo Mayor

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pp. 327-377

Scholars have often noted that of the thousands upon thousands of cached artifacts unearthed at the Aztec Templo Mayor, or “Great Temple,” the largest and most important temple-pyramid in the Aztec imperial capital, Tenochtitlan, none is a ceramic figurine.1 This is surprising because thousands of Aztec ...

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13. Figurines as Bearers of and Burdens in Late Classic Maya State Politics

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pp. 378-404

Mesoamerican scholars often portray clay figurines as resisting (Brumfiel 1996) or unrelated to politics and the affairs of the state (Borhegyi 1956; Gossen and Leventhal 1993: 211; M. Smith 2002). Such conceptions arise from (1) the domestic recovery contexts of figurines, (2) their depictions of humans ...

Part VI. Discussion

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pp. 405-406

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14. Making a World of Their Own: Mesoamerican Figurines and Mesoamerican Figurine Analysis

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pp. 407-426

The chapters included in this volume raise three interlocking questions. First, is there a viable project we could call Mesoamerican figurine studies? If so, what are its necessary components, and do we each need to supply all of them, or can this be made a corporate project? Finally, if we can have a common project ...


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pp. 427-428


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pp. 429-440

E-ISBN-13: 9780813045672
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813033303
Print-ISBN-10: 0813033306

Page Count: 464
Illustrations: 142 b&w figures, 20 tables, 8 maps
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Indian pottery -- Mexico.
  • Indian pottery -- Central America.
  • Maya pottery.
  • Pottery figures -- Mexico.
  • Pottery figures -- Central America.
  • Indians of Mexico -- Antiquities.
  • Indians of Central America -- Antiquities.
  • Mayas -- Antiquities.
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