A Rare and Unusual Nayarit Shaft Tomb Figure

  • Sale
  • $950


A rare and unusual Nayarit Shaft tomb figure. This exceptional image dates from around 100BCE. It is in very good condition and displays well.

7”tall x 5”wide x 2”de

For 500 years, from 250 BCE to 250 CE, people on the west coast of Mexico developed a thriving culture. Because they left no written language, all that is known about them comes from their ceramic art, which, for its time, is rivalled only by the Han Dynasty in China. This art is the visual voice of the ancient people, but to this day ethnographers and art historians have not clearly interpreted what the artists were saying. One thing is certain: The ancient artists of West Mexico found beauty in ordinary things and celebrated life in all its complexity and diversity.

The Shaft Tomb culture was named because this group’s only remaining structures are large, underground burial chambers, connected to the surface by a vertical shaft (sometimes up to 40 feet deep). The low-fired, fragile ceramics survived for more than 2,000 years because they were placed in the tombs along with the dead. Had they been left on the surface, they would have returned to the earth they were made of.

Distinct artistic styles developed in what are now the modern states of Colima, Jalisco, and Nayarit. Although the art from each area is different, they were all culturally connected; the same imagery appears throughout West Mexico, and figures from different stylistic areas sometimes appear together in one tomb.

It is thought that the ceramic sculptures served as companions, guides, and guardians of the spirit of the deceased, and/or that they represented what the deceased knew or believed while alive. Many are vessels (often with a spout), so they might have provided a symbolic form of nourishment to be enjoyed in the afterlife. It is not certain whether the ceramics were made only to be interred, as some show signs of being handled above ground.

In sharp contrast to the courtly art of other cultures in Mexico, such as the Maya and Aztec, the artists of the Pacific Coast sculpted images of daily village life and people engaged in ordinary activities, such as playing ball, preparing food, petting dogs, nursing children, feasting, playing instruments, dancing, and lounging. Because so many of the same characters are repeated — the ballplayer, the dwarf, the hunchback, the shaman, the warrior — it can be assumed that they played a role in an oral folklore or mythology. In any artistic tradition, the distortion of human proportions requires technical dexterity and the intention to express an idea. The ancient artists of West Mexico excelled at distorting anatomical parts of the body, along with animals and plants, for maximum aesthetic effect.

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