Double faced figurine from Mexico

Tlatilco figure

Materials: moulded slipware, fired, painted and artificially aged
Dimensions: 12 centimeters high
Place acquired: antiques fair, London
Place of manufacture: Mexico

Archaeology can often tell us as much about our own society as it can about the ones it is digging up. Take this little figure for example. The figure itself is not from an archaeological site, it’s just profiting from it’s proximity to one. It is not old, just rubbed with dirt to make it look as if it has been dug out of the ground. It was probably bought at a souvenir shop in or around the district of Tlatilco, which now forms part of the greater urban sprawl of Mexico City. But three thousand years ago Tlatilco was the site of a thriving, localised Mesoamerican culture based on maize cultivation. In the 1930s small, exquisite clay figurines began to be found in the area by brick makers digging for clay, and this led to a series of archaeological digs.

The excavations produced a large quantity of figures mainly associated with burial sites. Most, though not all, of these figures were female, and typically they depicted naked or near-naked figures with elaborate hair styles, short flipper-like limbs, and wide hips and thighs. In the early 1940s the American archaeologist George Vaillant was one of the first to excavate and write up these discoveries and it was he who first put into print the term ‘pretty ladies’. It was a rather quaint but culturally loaded term to describe these female figures, a euphemism for what he perceived as the sexualised nature of the figures. But the term stuck, and even now a Google search for ‘The pretty ladies of Tlatilco’ will take you straight to the heart of both the popular and academic interest in these figures. The archaeological community always uses the term in inverted commas, but it has arguably distorted the way these figures have been interpreted. They are often talked of, predictably, as fertility symbols, or even as items of sexual fantasy made by male craftsmen and placed in male graves for ‘use’ in the afterlife (even though such a gender distribution by burial is not born out by the archaeology).

This little figure also shows another feature. A small but significant number of the Tlatilco figurines have double faces or double heads. More than one academic source has argued that this is evidence that Tlatilco may have been a genetic ‘hot spot’ for the birth of conjoined twins. A startlingly literal interpretation of the feature.

Of course there is nothing to disprove any of these ideas. That’s the point, we can probably never know. Archaeology will always throw up unknowable mysteries at the heart of its discoveries. What is interesting here though is not just that academic theory can try to explain past societies, but that it can reveal some of the prejudices and preoccupations of our own.