Creating the Human Form:
Figures from Ancient Mexico

February 6 - March 20, 2003

Female Figurine with Large Belly



West Mexico:

Central Highlands Mexico:

Southern Central Mexico:

Axe Figurines


The cultures of Ancient Mexico spent hundreds of years developing distinctive ways of creating the form of a human in clay and stone. These cultures, collectively know as Pre-Columbian, inhabited Mesoamerica and the Andes from 1500 B.C.E., before the arrival of Columbus, to the Spanish Conquest in 1519 C.E. Pre-Columbian objects include pieces of sculpture, ceramics, pottery, and stone that were created by these cultures.

Most of the objects in this exhibition are from the Pre-Classic period of Pre-Columbian, Mesoamerican art. This period lasted from circa 1500 B.C.E.-300 C.E., years that held much innovation and experimentation for the cultures that resided in ancient Mexico. Many of the achievements of this period were extended and refined by later civilizations in Pre-Columbian history.

The quality and craftsmanship of the artwork that arose from the Mesoamerican region is quite impressive, not only for its aesthetics, but also because of the simple technology used to create the figurines. The more sophisticated technology used by eastern civilizations at this time was unknown to the ancient Mexicans. Civilizations such as the ones developing in ancient Mesopotamia, China, India, and the Mediterranean world were using the potter’s wheel and metal tools to shape and craft their stonework and ceramics. In Mesoamerica, the potter’s wheel was only used as a toy and not for making pottery, and metal tools were rarely used.

The primary material used by the Mesoamerican cultures was clay. It was fashioned and used for both household and ceremonial functions. The objects seen in this exhibition had a variety of purposes. Many were found in tombs in order to accompany the dead to the afterlife. Some may have been miniature idols of deities used for prayer and worship in the home, in shrines, and at temples. Some were simply toys for children.

The objects found in this exhibition show many different ways in which the human form was viewed and created during Pre-Columbian times. The figures, both ceramic and stone, are stylized, meaning that their features are more simple and patterned than naturalistic. The clay figurines tend to have a lot of emphasis placed on gender specifications, distinctions of body type, and attention to ornamentation indicating role or status, such as jewelry, clothing, and pigmentation. The stone figurines place less emphasis on gender and pay more attention to the careful placement of lines and grooves to create abstract human features.

The clay figurines in this exhibition were created using two basic methods in combination or solo: hand modeling and moulding. Most of the clay objects were hand-modeled, meaning that an artist had to craft every part of a figurine separately and put them together by hand. During the early Classic period, press-moulds were created, allowing the different cultures to mass-produce specific objects or the details of a specific set of figurines.

The stone figurines in this exhibition were created by carving one hard stone with another. Metal tools were rarely used by the Pre-Columbian cultures, but these cultures fashioned stone tools and drills for use in creating stone figurines.

Nancee Jaffe
Student Curator
Hallie Ford Museum of Art

Central Highlands Mexico:
Tlatilco and Teotihuacan Clay Figurines

“Dancing” Figurine


Warrior Head Figurine


Baby Bodied Figure


The cultures of Tlatilco and Teotihuacan are located in the Central Highlands of Ancient Mexico. Although located in a similar region of Mexico, these two cultures developed at different times and in different ways. Tlatilco was a simple culture; their belongings were few and little evidence of organized religion with shamans and priests has been found. Teotihuacan culture, on the other hand, was highly modernized, being the first in all of Mesoamerica to become fully urbanized with a state level of political and religious organization as well as trading networks with other local tribes.

Although the economic and religious standings of these two cultures were strikingly different, the art that came out of these regions were equally unique and beautiful. The Tlatilco culture is known for its exquisite Dancer and Pretty Lady figurines, (2000.030.011 and 045), which show their versatility in creating the female form. The Teotihuacan culture created the Figurine with Wide-Band Headdress, (2000.030.010), which exhibits their unique way of ornamenting and depicting the human form.


Southern Central Mexico: Mezcala/Guerrero
Stone Figurines

Stone Figurine with Three Fingered Hands


Massive Mezcala Mask


Figure Heads


The Guerrero/Mezcala region was situated in the central-south of ancient Mexico along the Mezcala River and Pacific Ocean. No known clay sculpture has come out of this region, but this area was known for the carving of Jadeite figurines and masks. The Axe Figurines, (2000.030.016 and .003), are great examples of the way the Mezcala culture abstracted the human form, using simple lines to display human features on stone. These sculptures were carved from very hard stones usually in a green, gray or brown color. The makers of Mezcala stone figurines had no metal tools to work with, only simple stone and obsidian drills and chisels, which makes the simplicity of their work quite an extraordinary feat. This culture, like most Pre-Columbian cultures, is basically a mystery with very few hard facts known about the meanings behind their art.


West Mexico:
Jalisco, Colima, Chupicuaro, and Michoacan Clay Figurines

The west Mexican art studied in this exhibit shows a range of the figurines created in this region. Each of the west Mexican states has given a name to a major figure type, but the lines that divide these cultures are presently blurred, making it difficult to associate particular artistic styles with specific regions. The Male Figurine with Shoulder Holes (2000.030.009) shown in this exhibit illustrates the classic facial features used in Jalisco art; having coffee bean eyes and a large, triangular nose. The two figures shown from Colima, the Shoulder-Pellet Figurine and the Male Figure with Crossing Arms, (2000.030.051, 008) are perfect examples of the famous cookie type solid figures from this region. The art from Michoacan and Chupicuaro is known for its distinctive hairstyles and figure shapes. The two shown in this exhibit are the Female Figurine with Large Belly and the Pregnant Female Figurine (2000.030.006, 012), of which both hold signature characteristics of the Michoacan/ Chupicuaro types: unique hairstyle, broad hips and ornamental jewelry. Similarities to look for between the art that comes from these main cultures of West Mexico are a broadness, or thickness to the body, especially the legs and a roundness to the shape of the figurines.

Male Figurine with Shoulder Holes



1 Female Figurine with Large Belly
Circa 500-100 C.E., Possibly from the Pre-Classic Period, Michoacan/Chupicuaro, West Mexico
Collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University.
Gift of Caroline Tarbell Tupper, 2000.030.006

This Michoacan figure has a very characteristic hairstyle and body shape. Her hair is parted in the center and combed sideways and hangs long over her shoulders. This hairstyle creates her triangular shaped face, and identifies her as a close cousin to the Teotihuacan figure style. Her body exhibits many fertile features including a filled-out belly, as if pregnant, large breasts, and inflated thighs. Her hands and feet are shortened and she wears an amulet around her neck.

2 Axe Figurines
Circa 100 B.C.E.-300 C.E., Possibly from the Pre-Classic Period, Mezcala Style, Guerrero, Southern Central Mexico
Collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University.
Gift of Caroline Tarbell Tupper, 2000.030.016, 2000.030.003

These figurines are from the Mezcala region of Guerrero, known for its stone-carved art. They are made from a hard black and green spotted stone and have simple grooves to symbolize arms, legs, mouths and other features. Both of these pieces are considered to be axe figures because of their “axe-poll-like head” and feet that come to blade-like edges. They are also highly polished except for the head, which is left rough in order to cause a more powerful blow to whatever object at which it is aimed.

3 “Dancing” Figurine
Circa 500 B.C.E.-1150 C.E., Possibly from the Classic PeriodTlatilco, Central Highlands, Mexico
Terracotta with traces of pigment
Collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University.
Gift of Caroline Tarbell Tupper, 2000.030.011

This example of Tlatilco sculpture can be characterized as a “dancing pretty lady” figurine, or a D1 figure type, because of its short arms, curved, large thighs that attach to a tiny waist, and small, high breasts. She is shown completely in the nude and is only adorned by small ear disks and possibly a chest ornament. She also has traces of cinnabar paint, a red-orange pigment that was used by numerous Pre-Columbian cultures.

4 Warrior Head Figurine
Circa 1500 B.C.E.-300 C.E., Possibly from Vera Cruz
Collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University.
Gift of Caroline Tarbell Tupper, 2000.030.004

This head was most likely fashioned to a body, possibly garbed in armor. This head wears a headdress that resembles a helmet and has earplugs. Its face is heavily modeled, with deep gouges to the eyes and deep pockets of space around the nose and mouth.

5 Baby Bodied Figure
Circa 1200-900 B.C.E., Possibly from the Early Pre-Classic Period, Possibly Tlatilco, Central Highlands, Mexico
Collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University.
Gift of Caroline Tarbell Tupper, 2000.030.022

This is possibly a Tlatilcan D2 type figurine. The letter D signifies certain traits or a set of figurines that have these traits. In this case, D2 means that the figure is a “pretty lady” figurine but with less detailing than the D1 or D4 type figures, having a bulky body, with less attention paid to jewelry and ornate details. The ceramic baby style for figurines comes from the Olmec.

6 Stone Figurine with Three Fingered Hands
Circa 100-800 C.E., Possibly from the Pre-Classic to the Classic Periods, Mezcala Style, Guerrero, Southern Central Mexico
Green Serpentine
Collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University.
Gift of Caroline Tarbell Tupper, 2000.030.007

This figurine was most likely a ceremonial axe. It has only simple incision marks to display hands, legs and facial structure. Its hands are made from two horizontal lines and one vertical line that delineate its six fingers, three on each hand. Its eyes are two diagonal lines on the sides of the head and the legs are separated by one large vertical gouge.

7 Massive Mezcala Mask
Circa 100 B.C.E.-300 C.E., Possibly from the Protoclassic Period, Mezcala Style, Guerrero, Southern Central Mexico
Weathered Gray Stone
Collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University.
Gift of Caroline Tarbell Tupper, 2000.030.005

This mask is a large pendant and is far too big to be worn as a piece of jewelry, yet was supplied with a suspension hole. This piece was possibly used to adorn the dead or to be attached to a mortuary bundle for other reasons. This size and style mask closely resembles the Teotihuacan funerary suspension masks.

8 Figure Heads
Circa 400-100 B.C.E., Possibly from the Pre-Classic PeriodGuerrero, Southern Central, Mexico
Collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University.
Gift of Caroline Tarbell Tupper, 2000.030.017, 2000.030.018, 2000.030.024

These figure heads are characterized by their elongated faces and upswept hair designs or decorative headpieces. These heads were at one point attached to small squat bodies that constituted less than half the total length of the figure. Mysteriously, many more heads of this figure type than full bodies have survived.

9 Male Figurine with Shoulder Holes
Circa 100-250 C.E., Possibly from the Pre-Classic Period, Jalisco, West Mexico
Collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University.
Gift of Caroline Tarbell Tupper, 2000.030.009

This is a male figurine from the region of West Mexico. He is shown in the nude with only a headdress and an unhooked necklace to clothe him. He also has two drill holes in his shoulders that were most likely used for suspension purposes.


LOCATION: 2rd floor Gallery.
Curator: Nancee Jaffee, Student Curator, Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University

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This page was modified February 25, 2008 jlp.