Standing Female Figure with Short Arms and Bulbous Thighs, Tlatilco, 1200–900 BCE, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Ann Ziff, photo © Museum Associates/LACMA

Examining Tlatilco Figurines

November 2, 2020
Fernanda Hernandez, CSUDH-LACMA Anthropology Intern, Art of the Ancient Americas

LACMA's Art of the Ancient Americas department has partnered with the Department of Anthropology at California State University, Dominguez Hills to offer internships to CSUDH students. The program provides an opportunity for students to learn practical curatorial skills and gain hands-on experience in collections-based research while shadowing LACMA staff. Our inaugural cohort of interns began work in LACMA's off-site storage facilities at the beginning of the spring semester, but the program was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our interns went digital, meeting virtually and researching the permanent collection using LACMA's digital resources. This series of blog posts and StoryMaps showcases what our first cohort of CSUDH-LACMA Anthropology Interns has accomplished. Be sure to read the work of our other interns: Sarahi Vargas's post for Unframed, "Dancing Through Time," and Katherine Gendron's StoryMap, "Art of the Ancient Ones."

Last semester I had the privilege of being one of the CSUDH-LACMA Spring 2020 interns, working alongside LACMA's staff at their off-site facilities. We had the opportunity to work with exciting new photogrammetry technology to create high-resolution 3D models of artifacts from LACMA's Art of the Ancient Americas collection. On the first official day of the internship, I was stoked to see several interesting figurines from Tlatilco, Central Mexico. My studies are in Mesoamerican archaeology with a focus on Central Mexico, which made me all the more excited to work with these exceptional pieces. During our limited-time at the facility, before switching to a remote internship due to COVID-19, we practiced curating methods designed to avoid damaging these fragile objects. We also conducted research to better understand this significant culture and the amazing items made by exceptionally skilled artisans.

Tlatilco, which is the Nahuatl word for "place of hidden things," is an Early Formative period (c. 1200–900 BCE) Mesoamerican site located in the western Valley of Mexico. It consists of three small villages and an extensive cemetery. In the early 20th century, the site was discovered by local miners and instantly attained recognition for its sophisticated archaeological materials. Tlatilco is known for its funerary practices, ceramic vessels, and figurines, most of which date to the site's apogee during the Early Formative period. Tlatilco's pottery vessels include a wide range of types, including animal effigies and many composite and inventive shapes. There are several similarities between Tlatilco materials and those of the Olmec archaeological culture located along the Gulf Coast of Mexico. For instance, a figurine known as "the Acrobat," found in the Tlatilco cemetery among other grave goods, exhibits a theme common in both Olmec and West Mexican art—acrobatic skill and yoga-like poses. Other examples of Tlatilco's Olmec affinities include figurines with wide-open mouths and the common "pretty lady" motif, which I will discuss later. This suggests a strong relationship between these two groups and the diverse cultures characterizing the Formative period in Mesoamerica.

A female figure sitting holding a dog, Mexico, Central Mexico, Tlatilco, 1200–800 BCE, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo courtesy of Fernanda Hernandez
A female figure sitting holding a dog, Mexico, Central Mexico, Tlatilco, 1200–800 BCE, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo courtesy of Fernanda Hernandez

The intricate artifact above is a ceramic figurine of a sitting female with her hands wrapped around a dog. I nicknamed it "Dog Lady." Many artifacts include dogs, suggesting that animals, especially dogs, held important significance to the people of Tlatilco. To me, the prevalence of canines in these artifacts can be taken as early evidence for the idea that "a dog is a (wo)man's best friend." Female figurines also depict pregnant women and women with children. Tlatilco's sculptures show a reverence for bonding, nurturing, and fertility—traits associated predominantly with women. I am a dog lady myself, which is why this artifact instantly resonated with me. Looking closer at the way the lady holds the dog, her hands are wrapped around the animal in an almost protective way, evoking the idea that dogs were important additions to prehispanic households. Tlatilco's artisans made figurines solely by hand, mastering shaping and pinching techniques to create these elaborate pieces without the use of molds. The extraordinary precision it takes to sculpt motifs and fine details in such a small amount of space—most figures are only up to 15 cm tall—reveals the talent and skill held by the people of Tlatilco.

View and manipulate the 3D model of "Dog Lady" below!

Few male figures are represented by Tlatilco's artists. Most often, males are seen wearing masks or costumes, indicating their roles as priests or other ritual specialists. Female figurines are almost always presented nude and with elaborate headdresses and hairstyles. Artists treated hairstyles with great care and detail, suggesting that hair and its styling was of great importance to the people of Tlatilco, as it was for many peoples of this region. Another pattern we see throughout artifacts from Tlatilco is the insignificance or lack of hands and feet, which suggests that other parts of the body held higher significance. For example, many female figurines have an emphasis on wide hips, rounded upper thighs, and a thin, pinched waist, a style commonly referred to as "pretty ladies." Catharina E. Santasilia, a visiting researcher at LACMA, dedicated a blog post to the "pretty ladies" of Tlatilco while analyzing the female figurines for her dissertation. She mentions that the term "pretty ladies" is used to refer to the Type D figurines, "which are always females, [and] are depicted with delicate features, large, slanting eyes, small, upturned noses, and fine mouths"—features that can be seen in the figurine above. This suggests that the people of Tlatilco's beauty standards resemble those held by many people today.

Female Figurine with stretched out earlobes, the decorative fabric around her neck perhaps representing a scarf, and an elaborate hairstyle, Mexico, Central Mexico, Tlatilco, 1200–800 BCE, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo courtesy of Fernanda Hernandez
Female Figurine with stretched out earlobes, the decorative fabric around her neck perhaps representing a scarf, and an elaborate hairstyle, Mexico, Central Mexico, Tlatilco, 1200–800 BCE, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, photo courtesy of Fernanda Hernandez

The people of Tlatilco have left us treasured pieces of what Mesoamerica was once like. Ancient craftsmen and artists have allowed us to view our past through their work which represents the ability we have as a species to evolve in creative ways that also aid in our survival. We see this with the people of Tlatilco—the precision and mastery shown in the details of their figurines are evidence of a craft perfected over generations. I hope to visit Tlatilco in the future as an archaeologist and really understand the people who lived there before and who live there now.

I would like to thank LACMA and CSUDH for teaming up to create this amazing internship. The opportunities for students in this field, or related, have been expanded because of programs like these.

Recommended Sources

Evans, Susan Toby. (2013). "The Olmecs: Early Formative." In Ancient Mexico & Central America: Archaeology and Culture History, 151–53. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Koontz, Rex. "Tlatilco Figurines (Article) | Tlatilco." Khan Academy. Khan Academy, n.d. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-americas/early-cultures/tlati....

Kilroy-Ewbank, Lauren, and Steven Zucker. "Tlatilco Figurines." Smarthistory. https://smarthistory.org/tlatilco-figurines-2/.

Santasilia, C. E. May 10, 2017. The "Pretty Ladies" of Tlatilco, Mexico. https://unframed.lacma.org/2017/05/10/%E2%80%9Cpretty-ladies%E2%80%9D-tl....

Vela, Enrique. Octubre 23, 2019. "Tlatilco." Arqueología Mexicana. https://arqueologiamexicana.mx/mexico-antiguo/tlatilco.

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