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An excavated collection of year-old fired-clay figurines from the Mixteca Alta, Oaxaca, Mexico, provides evidence for household practices of embodiment at a time of emerging social differences.

A holistic interpretation of the figurines, including their unique archaeological associations, mortuary, faunal and ethnographic information illuminates key aspects of the life-cycle termination of both human and non-human subjects.

The archaeological contexts at Tayata allow for an integrated application of embodiment theory with cross-field anthropological data, and reveal a deep-seated Mixtec worldview concerning the animism of corporeal objects. We are grateful to the people of Sta. Cruz Tayata for the opportunity to study their past. Rosemary Joyce gave us advice for collecting figurine data and its categorization.

Figurine Embodiment and Household Ritual in an Early Mixtec Village

Jo Day and John McCall read previous drafts and clarified theoretical issues concerning embodiment and ancestors. We also thank the two anonymous reviewers and JSA editors for their helpful criticisms and insightful comments on previous drafts.

A version of this paper was presented at the meetings for the Society for American Archaeology in St. Louis, Missouri in Drawing from these works, we propose an emerging analytical perspective on figurines that integrates bioarchaeological, faunal, ethnographic, and ethnohistoric information. This conjunctive and contextual approach e.

These interpretations are supported archaeologically through the ritual cremation and disarticulation of descarvar human and animal bodies at Tayata that parallel the general treatment of figurines.

As part of our interpretive program, we outline strong cultural continuities of Mixtec artifact embodiment and corporeal termination practice through time and among contemporary populations. Our research suggests that figurines should be understood through a holistic approach to anthropological and archaeological data. Although belonging to different research domains, these integrated data sets are critical in understanding Formative period figurines, where meanings and functions are at times unclear and elusive.

Archaeological data, especially for the earliest periods irrea occupation in the region, have lagged behind, giving a distorted picture of the Mixtec as a late Prehispanic phenomenon, but with few known antecedents.

This characteristic continuity allows for an integrative approach, using excavations, ethnohistory and ethnography, paired with complementary studies of writing and regional surveys, to generate interpretive frameworks Marcus and Zeitlin ; Pohl ; Spores and Balkansky ibid.


This conjunctive approach stemming from the writings of Alfonso Caso remains one of our most productive archaeological research methods and has inspired considerable research summarized in Balkansky Excavations were designed to locate the remote archaeological precursors of the Mixtec civilization and trace their development over time.

Tayata was among the earliest complex societies in the region, contemporary with the Gulf Coast Olmec and antecedent to the first-generation cities Balkansky a, b. Excavations at Tayata uncovered: Both locally and foreign made pottery also appeared bearing the pan-Mesoamerican symbolic complex long associated with the Gulf Coast Olmec.

All of this occurred within a relatively narrow time span, and co-occurred with the elaboration of figurines that we discuss below. Nearly all of the figurines described in this article are linked to specific and clearly-dated archaeological contexts rather than surface finds. We focus this study largely on contexts dating to ca. John Robbp. Recent approaches to the topic of bodily representations in the archaeological record have moved toward a modified definition of relational and agent-centered embodiment Joyce and the revived concept of animism see Alberti and Bray ; Groleau ; Hill Further, Joycep.

Such emphasis on metamorphosis is particularly characteristic of Otomanguean religions, including the Mixtec and Zapotec populations in Oaxaca Marcus; Marcus and Flannery Following the work of Alfred GellTamara Brayp. In sum, we suggest that the reformulated theoretical perspectives of animism and embodiment are entirely appropriate, if not necessary, for the study of both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines that have often been interpreted as living effective beings Joycep.

While the size of the Tayata sample is not as large as other Formative period sites see Gillespie ; Lesure ; Marcusit remains one of the largest Formative samples of its kind for the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca. Because of the sparse nature of Mixteca Alta settlement and archaeology, researchers have made considerable efforts to interpret Formative figurines based on limited sample sizes see Blomsterand Thus, we feel that the current sample is appropriate to help interpret general social processes at the village level, despite its limits for conducting statistical procedures.


Similar patterns have been documented to the southeast among contemporaneous Zapotec villages Marcusp. Such hollow whiteware figurines are found at major Early and Middle Formative sites throughout Mexico Coe ; Blomster ; despite their considerable craftsmanship, they are often found in households and middens Blomster ; Coe and Diehlpp. We identified the Tayata figurines based on secondary sexual characteristics because primary sexual characteristics were generally absent.

Among females, a variety of differing hairstyles were noted, which may have served to communicate social information about status see Marcuspp. Example A likely represents a fetus or bundled child. We have suggested elsewhere that status-marking adornment and realistic portraiture has a tendency to increase at Tayata during the Middle Formative transition, although a larger sample is needed to adequately explore this hypothesis South and Meissner ; Meissner et al.

Brian Strossp. Archaeologically, the intentional breakage of artifacts to mark life-cycle events is well documented across Mesoamerica from the Formative period to Spanish contact. To infer deliberate breaking and scattering, archaeologists often consider: The animism of objects is manifested in the material record through a series of habituated behaviors. If an object is involved relationally with other persons or embodied objects, it can be viewed archaeologically through the special treatment of objects including offerings, contextual associations and architectural contexts Bray ; Groleau In the case of Tayata figurines, nearly all were recovered in fragmentary form in both the Early and Middle Formative periods, and it was impossible to piece fragments back together even when recovered from the same context or midden.

There were two Early Formative figurines that were nearly intact, but still had damage to the head and face that may have been intentional. Both figurines appeared to have been broken despite excellent midden preservation, and missing pieces of the head and face were not recovered from their respective midden deposits. The overall fragmentation of figurines contrasts to the depositional patterns of other artifact classes like pottery. For example, numerous ceramic vessels at Tayata could be reconstructed or, at least, partially refit from the same midden that included non-reconstructable fragments of figurines.

This pattering of figurine breakage prior to discard is consistent with the site of Etlatongo in the Mixteca Alta Blomsterp. Middle Formative figurines recovered from the Pacific Coast site of La Victoria, Guatemala, show evidence for the intentional removal of mouths prior to discard Coep.

Although some Formative figurines may have simply been broken accidentally, Marcusp. Despite the presence of elaborated grave offerings at Tayata that include greenstone, shell beads, dog bone, and whole pottery vessels, no whole figurines have been found as intact primary offerings in a mortuary context.

However, there are at least two instances of burials dating to the Middle Formative transition and Middle Formative period that contained broken figurine fragments that were included with the burial matrix. At least six fragments were recovered from this burial feature four legs, one arm, and one unidentified leg. These figurines do not appear to have been primary offerings, although it is possible that the fragments were present during the burial rituals.

Another potential interpretation is that these figurines were unintentionally included in the burial fill. The general confinement of Tayata figurines to domestic spaces is consistent with other figurine assemblages in the Oaxaca region Marcus ; Flannery and Marcusp.

Although the practice is not found at Tayata, the deliberate burial of whole figurines is found in other areas of Mexico, including the Valley of Oaxaca.

At Hacienda Blanca, a burial of unknown sex was discovered dating to the Tierras Largas phase, and included four whole figurines. Michael Whalenpp.

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Such burning was likely intentional, as artifacts directly associated with the figurines did not show similar signs of charring. Our analysis distinguished between two types of burn patterns on figurines: We also noted that several figurines had carbonization extending across original surfaces and throughout broken areas, suggesting that they may have been broken first and then burned.

Charring was not limited to one area of the body, but rather extended across faces Aarms Alegs Atorsos Abacks A and even pregnant torsos A Such patterns were encountered on two examples of well-crafted figurine heads A from the Early Formative; A from the Middle Formative transition with status-marking adornment including head wraps, earflares, descartar a mask.

This applies to both human and non-human figurines whose treatment does not appear to differ between these two categories. Later burials dating to the Classic period show some signs of continuity in the disarticulation or removal of skeletal cataloyo, but also include full inhumations typical of Mixteca pit burials. Dating to the Postclassic period A. This individual was buried in a seated position, with the head tightly tucked down in between the knees and the hands placed near the ankles Bedardp.


Their placement within or near a house foundation is consistent with contemporary Mixtec ideals of the protection of deceased souls within the household Monaghanp. These cremations may have been important individuals within the community, and their special mortuary treatment through burning may have been crucial in their life-cycle transition to ancestors.

We suggest that these burials and others from Tayata provide an important microcosm of ritual activity during the Middle Formative transition, and are useful for understanding the Tayata figurine assemblage.

The burial was placed face-down within the burial cut and cremated in situ as evidenced by a thick ash layer surrounding the skeletal remains, and the reddening of fired soil inside the burial cut.

This is not the case at Tayata, as fires set to bodies and accompanying offerings was not hot enough to reduce bones to ash. Photo by Liz Farmer. Modern soil disturbance may have affected the preservation of the pedal phalanges, which were missing from the skeleton. These ashy concretions are not consistent with carbonization and descaegar of cooking events, and instead appear to have been part of the cremation ritual as an offering ibid.

In 20112, there was evidence for marine shell production materials within the burial fill, along with figurine fragments including an arm, a finely crafted head of a female and a goggle-eyed dog A, A, A The burial was found with loose beads and a pottery vessel as a primary offering, and domestic materials such as metate fragments, potsherds, and burned adobe brick were recovered within the burial cut. Faunal data indicate that the burial fill included two canine teeth from a dog ibid.

This interment was unique as it contained a human skull where the occipital bone was intentionally removed from the back of the skull and placed over the face prior to burial. Evidence of a cutmark was found on the right parietal, and the overall shape of the cross-section shows it likely resulted from a biface desxargar and not a flake tool Duncanp.

While the exact nature of this deposit is yet to be fully interpreted, it is possible that cataoogo skull was placed as a dedicatory offering prior to the construction of a plaza. Its overall form of disarticulation removal and replacement of the occipital over the face is unique for the region and time period, although post-mortem modification of skulls continued into the Late Formative period in the Mixteca Alta Gaxiola ; Christensen and Descarrgar The cut itself was located beneath a stone feature constructed in a later episode that contained a high proportion of ash.

The depositional contexts of this feature were complex, and the burial cut itself showed evidence for later mixing of stratigraphic levels. Closely associated with the human remains were two nearly intact vessels belonging to the Cruz C phase, including an Atoyac Yellow-White vessel, a well-crafted greenstone earspool, and several figurine fragments discussed below.

Such reasoning is consistent with later Zapotec practices in the Valley of Oaxaca, where tombs were often re-entered for the purpose of retrieving skeletal elements of ancestors Feinman et al. This feature contained one cranium and several mandibles belonging to different individuals Duncan The cranium showed evidence for pre-mortem modification in the form of lamdoid flattening, and the cranium and several of the longbones and ribs were potentially exposed to the elements prior to interment based on sun-bleaching and rodent gnaw marks.

In addition, a small v-shaped cutmark was found on one of the ribs, urrfa may have occurred post-mortem ibid. Although the post-depositional processes of this burial are not entirely clear, there is no evidence for descaargar of the pottery offerings associated with the burial. Thus, it is plausible that the omission of skulls was an intentional act performed for ritual purposes given the contexts of mortuary treatment at Tayata.

The skull was found approximately 30 cm from a well-crafted stone lined pit and there was no additional evidence of faunal material at the same level, suggesting it may have been part of a ritual event and not simply household refuse.

Interestingly, a greenstone bead was placed as an offering near the mouth of the dog skull, attesting to the special nature of this deposit Lapham et al. Flannery and Marcusp.