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J Archaeol Res

Studying Figurines

Joyce Marcus1

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Abstract  Earlier generations of Mesoamerican scholars created figurine types and

chronologies, laying the foundation for today’s archaeologists who have been link-
ing figurines to household archaeology, gender studies, performance, materiality,
embodiment, animism, political economy, agency, and identity. Scholars are estab-
lishing a figurine’s life history from clay procurement to manufacture, manipula-
tion, and circulation; assessing the changes over time in the meaning and function
of handmade and mold-made figurines; reembedding figurines into the dynamic,
social, and animate world from which they emanated; and linking figurines to asso-
ciated artifacts in the house, courtyards, caches, burials, and neighborhood middens.

Keywords  Mesoamerica · Households · Everyday life · Animation · Practice ·

Performance · Ancestors


Ancient societies in both the Old World and the New made small solid figurines in
significant numbers. Early scholars not only wondered why so many figurines were
made, but also who made them, what they meant to their makers, and how they
were used. Such speculation continues today, because archaeologists find figurines
in large numbers and not always in easily interpreted contexts. Figurines have been
interpreted in many ways, e.g., as toys and objects of everyday life, as venues for
the spirits of ancestors, as idealized categories, and as portraits of individuals in the

* Joyce Marcus
Museum of Anthropological Archaeology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109‑1079,

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On occasion we find whole figurines in burials, courtyard shrines, and dedica-

tory caches. Multiple figurines may be shown interacting and performing rites, play-
ing different roles, carrying weapons, sporting masks, or wearing removable heads
or headdresses. Scenes sometimes include both human and animal figurines (Chase
and Chase 1988; Faugère 2014; Freidel et al. 2010; Marcus 1998; McVicker 2012;
Meskell 2008; Sears 2006, 2016).
Part of our attraction to solid figurines is that they are often so small that we can
hold them in one hand. We can look at their tiny faces, whether human or animal,
as we try to divine what they meant to their makers (Allen 2016; Bailey 1994, 1996,
2005; Halperin 2009; Insoll et al. 2012; Joyce 2004, 2007; Kankpeyeng et al. 2013;
Lesure 2011; Marcus 1998, 2009; Selbitschka 2015; Sillar 2004, 2016).
When the faces look generic, scholars often infer that the figurines represent ide-
alized categories, such as young people or old people (Hendon 2003; Hendon et al.
2014; Joyce 2000, 2003). Nakamura and Meskell (2009, p. 227) have argued, for
example, that “figurines are often materializations of idealized or projected types
rather than direct reflections of reality.” When individualizing features are present,
however, scholars suggest that specific individuals are depicted (Bailey 1994, 2005;
McDermott 1996; Norwood 2016; Rice 2015; Sears 2006).
I offer a third possibility—some generic-looking figurines became individuals
during ritual performance. Such an individualizing process might take place when
participants addressed a figurine by name (geneonymy) during a speech or song;
when participants dressed figurines in identifying perishable clothing; and when
they animated them with a vital force by calling a spirit to come and occupy the

Why Village Societies Make Figurines

In Mesoamerica, as in the Near East, clay was used to make figurines even before it
was used to make pottery. At Zohapilco in the Basin of Mexico, the oldest known
Mesoamerican figurine (2300 BC  ±  110) was found near hearths and grinding
stones in Level 17 (Fig.  1a), suggesting that this may have been a woman’s work
area (Niederberger 1976, lám. 95). A second figurine from Zohapilco (Niederberger
1976, lám. 73) was found in Level 13, appearing with the earliest ceramics at the
site. The biggest difference between the Level 17 and Level 13 figurines is the pres-
ence of eyes, nose, and arms on the latter (Fig.  1b). It is not clear how important
this difference is, since as Kopytoff (1971) reminds us, most tribal ancestors were
generic elders whose distinctive individual characteristics had disappeared at their
In contrast to the two human figurines from Zohapilco, the earliest clay image
from Mexico’s Valley of Oaxaca depicts a feline. Found in House 20 at San José
Mogote (ca. 1500 BC), this artifact is a miniature jaguar mask that could have been
worn by a figurine (Marcus 1998, fig. 7.3). By 1300 BC, this same site was produc-
ing more miniature masks, and it is clear that they were figurine-sized copies of the
larger masks worn by villagers during performances. Between 1300 and 1100 BC,
small solid figurines became abundant in Oaxaca households, and far more care was

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Fig. 1  Figurines from Zohapilco, Mexico (redrawn from Niederberger 1976)

paid to modeling the eyes, ornaments, and hairdos. It also became easier to distin-
guish female figurines from male, with females being more frequent. The hairdos of
female figurines were done in such detail that one can—based on the hairstyles of
living women in Oaxaca’s indigenous communities—suggest which figurines depict
older married women and which depict young women of marriageable age (Marcus
1998, figs. 6.5–6.11).
One of the most elaborate hairdos given to figurines of young marriageable
women featured two to four holes punched completely through the hair. These holes
were possibly made so that colored ribbons could be threaded through the open-
ings (Fig.  2, upper row). Such perforated hairdos have been found on figurines in
the highlands of both Oaxaca and Puebla (MacNeish et  al. 1970, fig.  15; Marcus
1998, pp. 44–46, 82, 92). The use of brightly colored ribbons can still be observed
in the hairdos of young indigenous women of the region. Some of these hairdos
are so complex as to require that a second woman (such as a mother or aunt) stand
behind the recipient of the hairdo and assist in its creation. In contrast, many mar-
ried women wear two simple braids (Marcus 1998, fig. 6.6).
To explain the association of Neolithic village societies with figurines, we must
consider the fact that while these societies were too large to be organized like the
hunting and gathering societies that preceded them, they also lacked the formal
organization of later chiefly and state societies. Neolithic villages probably had
social segments such as clans or ancestor-based descent groups. Whether these
descent groups were unilineal clans or bilateral descent groups, their ancestors
often served as the glue holding these societies together. The ancestors became a
body of super-elders who could intercede with the spirit world on behalf of their

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Fig. 2  Two hand-modeled heads (Oaxaca, Mexico); two mold-made figurines (one from Mexico, one
from Guatemala) (redrawn from Marcus 1998; Dieseldorff 1926)

descendants. To intercede, they had to be well treated—ritually “fed” and given

favors—during rites of reciprocity. To participate in these rituals, their spirits
had to be coaxed to a physical venue, such as a figurine (Malone et  al. 2007;
Marcus 1998, 1999). In the ethnographic case of Africa’s Igbo (discussed later),
the venue was a special pottery vessel; in the case of Formative Mesoamerica
(1500–500 BC), I believe that it was the figurine.
Ancestor ritual is virtually a worldwide behavior among living villagers, and
it is no accident that so many Neolithic societies displayed it as well (e.g., Brain
1973; Cox 1998; Fortes 1976; Insoll 2008, 2011; Kankpeyeng et al. 2013; Mar-
cus 1998, 1999; McAnany 1995; Sheils 1975; Steadman et al. 1996). Nor should
we be surprised that in many tribal societies, including Neolithic or Formative
villages, women were deeply involved in the rituals honoring recent ancestors.
Formative Mesoamerica seems to have had separate venues for men’s and wom-
en’s ritual. Men’s ritual may have focused on communicating with remote lineage
founders, rather than on recent ancestors (Marcus 1999; Plunket and Uruñuela
1988, 1998, 2002).

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In regions such as southern Mexico, where we have both houses and dooryards
preserved, one can see which venues were used for figurine use. Nuclear families
at 1000 BC in Oaxaca typically occupied wattle-and-daub houses with limited inte-
rior floor space (ca. 3 × 5 m). The spacing between houses at San José Mogote and
other early Zapotec villages was 20 to 30 m, leaving ample space for outdoor activi-
ties, including ritual and divination. Women conducted many rites outdoors, such
as arranging figurines in scenes to communicate with recently deceased ancestors,
and creating shallow basins for water divination, which entailed casting corn ker-
nels or beans onto the surface of the water (Flannery and Marcus 2005; Marcus
1989, 1998). For their part, men honored more remote or apical ancestors by con-
ducting rituals in men’s houses away from their residences. Men’s rituals involved
clay masks, costumes, musical instruments, narcotic plants, and the use of a special
metate in which strong wild tobacco could be ground (Flannery and Marcus 2005;
Marcus 1989). Corn spirits and ancestors, as well as active volcanoes, lightning,
thunder, and wind, populated the cosmos of the Formative villager (e.g., Marcus
1983; Plunket and Uruñuela 2002). All of these were not only considered alive but
also worthy of offerings.
For the early villagers of Tikal, Uaxactun, and Nixtun-Ch’ich’ in Guatemala, fig-
urines may have been used during communal gatherings (Rice 2015). Cups, dishes,
figurines, and serving platters for tamales were all used in open areas (Rice 2009a,
pp. 407–409); when the ceremonies ended, the items “were terminated: fragmented,
intermingled, deposited, and sealed with plaster” (Rice 2015, p. 15). The use of fig-
urines and other ritual paraphernalia occurred in different social groupings—fam-
ily, neighborhood, and community. Rice (2015, p. 15) suggests that “rituals likely
included integrative or life-cycle ceremonies (initiations, rites of passage), ancestor
veneration (Awe 1992, 2013; Kosakowsky and Robin 2010; Marcus 1998; Robin
et  al. 2012, p. 122), astro-calendric observations (Aimers and Rice 2006; Aveni
et al. 2003), and subsistence-based celebrations (propitiation of supernatural forces
controlling rain, maize growth, and solar movements), accompanied by storytelling,
singing and dancing, and masked pageantry.” Speaking about early Maya villagers,
Rice (2015, p. 31) says, “The settings of early ritual areas, the figurines, and the
feasting and celebrations indicated by chultun [bedrock pit] deposits suggest com-
munity integration and identity building focused on ancestors and maize.”
By the Classic period (AD 250–900), figurines in many parts of Mesoamerica
were mass-produced and mold-made (Fig.  2, lower row). From AD 250–650 at
Teotihuacan, molds were increasingly used for four kinds of figurines: puppet figu-
rines with separate molds for arms and legs that were later attached to bodies; war-
riors holding atlatls, spears, and shields; figurines that represent mortuary bundles
(with a removable mask and headdress); and hollow “host” figurines that contain
solid figurines inside them (Cowgill 2008, pp. 70–71; Fonseca Ibarra 2008; Gold-
smith 2000; Scott 1993, 1994, 2001; Séjourné 1966; Sullivan 2005, 2007).
Michoacan was an exception, because handmade figurines continued to be made
there throughout the Classic and Postclassic, perhaps as an attempt to keep the
Tarascan empire occupants distinct from their rivals in the Aztec empire (Begun
2008; Brumfiel 1996; Kaplan 1958, 2006; Overholtzer 2012a, b). As for the Aztec,
Smith (2002) notes that the state religion, with its pantheon of gods, was distinct

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from figurine use. Aztec families practicing divination and addressing spirits to
ensure better health and harvests used mold-made figurines in the house. Smith
notes that by Aztec times ancestor veneration seems to have become the province of
the rulers and nobles; that is, the ancestors of commoner families were no longer as
important as they had been in earlier times.
In the Old World, it was once typical to see archaeologists graft Greek and
Roman pantheons onto the Neolithic. They tended to interpret the female figurines
as reflecting a matriarchal society with a focus on fertility and Mother Goddesses
(Gimbutas 1974, 1989; James 1959; Renaud 1929). Things have changed. In a series
of overviews (Conkey and Tringham 1995; Eller 2000; Hutton 1997; Lesure 2002;
Meskell 1995; Nakamura and Meskell 2009; Talalay 1994; Tringham and Conkey
1998; Ucko 1962), archaeologists take issue with the idea of the Mother Goddess
and the projection of state religion onto Neolithic figurines. They point out that
scholars were overemphasizing women even though their assemblages contained
many depictions of men and animals.
New World archaeologists, who tend to be anthropologists, have long resisted the
imposition of the Mother Goddess on Formative society. And increasingly, their Old
World colleagues regard Neolithic figurines, such as those at Çatalhӧyük, as “more
in line with other indications across the site that support an idea of the importance
of ancestors, generational continuity, and duration” (Nakamura and Meskell 2009, p.

Effigy Musical Instruments

In regions such as Oaxaca (Barber and Olvera 2012; Hepp et  al. 2014; Martínez
López and Winter 1994), central Mexico (Brumfiel and Overholtzer 2009), and the
Maya area, musical instruments are often included in figurine studies because so
many instruments are human or animal effigies (Bishop et  al. 2000; Butler 1935;
Halperin 2014; Hammond 1972a, b; Hendon 2003; Joyce 1926, 1933; Joyce et al.
1927; Lee 1969; Lopiparo and Hendon 2009; Triadan 2007). The front of the artifact
displays a human or animal while the back is the musical instrument (e.g., whistles
or single-note instruments, ocarinas or multinote instruments with sound changes
produced by opening or closing one or more stops, and flutes, multinote instruments
in which the resonance chamber is a long tube).
Assemblages from Mexico and Guatemala include effigy versions of whistles,
ocarinas, and flutes, with the frequency of each category varying by site and time
period. A plausible explanation for effigy musical instruments is that the sounds gen-
erated by them could be credited to the humans or animals depicted on them (Barber
and Olvera 2012; Barber et al. 2009; Flannery and Marcus 2012, pp. 241–242; Hepp
et al. 2014; Marcus 1998, figs. 17.3, 17.4).
The idea that the sounds generated could be credited to the beings depicted on
them was widespread throughout Latin America. For example, on more than 30
flutes from the Late Archaic (ca. 4000–2000 BC) site of Caral in Peru, the openings
from which sound emanated were the open mouths of ancestors (Flannery and Mar-
cus 2012, fig. 31). And from a burial (ca. 200 BC–AD 200) at the site of Yugüe on

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the Río Verde floodplain of Oaxaca comes a flute made from the left femur of a deer
that displays a skeletal ancestor whose voice could be heard whenever the flute was
played (Barber et al. 2009, fig. 4, p. 100).

Variation in the Maya Region

In Guatemala, female figurines dominated the assemblages of early village societies;

male figurines dominated in the cities from AD 600 to 900 (e.g., Halperin 2009;
Joyce et  al. 1927; Triadan 2007). Male figurines also dominated in the offering
boxes of Aztec temples (e.g., in the Templo Mayor where 53 male figurines of copal
were found, and 19 females of the same material) (Victoria Lona 2004a, b). In con-
trast, female figurines of clay dominated central Mexican household assemblages
(Brumfiel 1996; Overholtzer 2012a, b; Smith 2002).
From AD 600 to 800, the Maya increasingly used molds to make figurines and
musical instruments. This change suggests that there were either more rituals requir-
ing music, or more personnel at each event, perhaps making music for larger audi-
ences. Increasing demand for figurines occurred in other state-level societies, and to
meet that demand, molds make their appearance (e.g., Grossman 1969–1970; Men-
zel 1967).
Late Classic Maya figurines and musical instruments were used in greater num-
bers around elite residences, as well as in state-sponsored events led by nobles
(Álvarez and Casasola 1985, lám. 22–24; Healy 1988; Rands and Rands 1965,
fig.  44). Commoners, too, had access to musical instruments. In addition to the
clay instruments, we see depictions of people making music in wall murals and on
pottery vessels. Scenes show men playing drums and shaking maracas (Hammond
1972a; Healy 1988; Miller 1988).
A number of musical instruments were found in the graves of noble women at
Pacbitun, Belize. One Late Classic (AD 600–900) woman was buried with a drum
and flute-maracas; the second woman was buried with 14 instruments, including five
flutes. Many of the figurine-ocarinas were fragmented, allowing us to see how they
were assembled—their heads and headdresses were mold-made and tenoned into
hollow torsos that could be either mold-made or hand-modeled. Since no molds for
them have been found at Pacbitun, these figurine-ocarinas may have been imported.
Another interesting detail is that the male effigy ocarinas are generally pitched lower
than the female effigy ocarinas, a difference in tone that was probably deliberate
(Healy 1988, p. 30).
Pacbitun is not the only Maya site where figurine molds were rare to absent. At
Copan, 511 mold-made figurines were recovered during the excavation of 13 resi-
dential compounds, but the excavators found only a single fragment of a mold, one
designed to make an animal whistle. In contrast, many molds were found elsewhere
in Honduras, in the Ulúa Valley (Lopiparo 2003; Lopiparo and Hendon 2009) and
in the Naco Valley (Douglas 2002; Schortman et al. 2001). One possibility is that
during the Classic era the Copan elite were importing effigy-whistles from the Naco,
Ulúa, and Comayagua Valleys of northern Honduras, where molds and figurine-
whistles occur in abundance in both elite and commoner residences, evidently used

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by members of all levels of society (Hendon 2003, p. 32). Hendon (2003) has sug-
gested that in the Naco Valley, figurine manufacture was centralized at La Sierra
(Schortman and Urban 1994; Schortman et  al. 2001), while figurine manufacture
was decentralized in the lower Ulúa Valley.

Handmade Versus Mold‑Made Figurines

Mold-made figurines are known from state-level societies all over Latin America
(Benavides Castillo 2009; Brumfiel and Overholtzer 2009; Castillo Aguilar et  al.
2008; Corson 1976; Ekholm 1979a; Feinman 1999; Goldstein 1979, 1980; Gross-
man 1969–1970; Halperin 2007, 2012, 2014; Hammond 1975; Martínez López and
Winter 1994; Menzel 1967; Sears 2006, 2016; Smith 2002, 2005, 2016; Triadan
An individual figurine might be assembled from different molds—one for the
head, one for limbs, and one for the body. These separate components could be com-
bined in assembly-line fashion, raising the possibility that multiple individuals col-
laborated in figurine production. In addition to the many figurines from the Maya
site of Jaina that have removable heads, Goldstein (1980, fig. 2a) also reports a rare
kind of mold-made figurine consisting of a woman whose interior was divided into
two chambers. One chamber (at the top) functioned as a rattle and another (at the
bottom) incorporated a whistle.
Some Classic era sites such as Jaina and Palenque exhibit three kinds of figu-
rines—solid handmade figurines, figurines with handmade bodies and mold-made
heads, and hollow figurines entirely mold-pressed (Goldstein 1980, p. 98; Miller
1975; O’Neil 2012). Although we still do not know when molds began to be used
at each site, molds offered advantages. Molds can facilitate mass production, stand-
ardization, and participation by less-skilled labor. Producing identical figurines
for a particular rite was one motivation. Another was speed. One relevant case is
known from the site of Lagartero near the Mexico–Guatemala border. There,
Ekholm (1979a, b) excavated a basurero (garbage pile) that lacked stratigraphy and
contained thousands of broken vessels and figurines that had been discarded over
a short period of time. She considers the discard pile to be the remains of one rite
because of the homogeneity of the polychrome pottery and mold-made figurines.
Indeed, polychrome pottery comprised 98% of the vessels. Unlike Late Classic
Aguateca where male figurines dominated, female figurines at Lagartero constituted
60% of the figurines. Unlike other Late Classic Maya sites, Lagartero had a small
percentage of whistles among its figurines. The deposit contained several hundred
animal figurines, about 100 of which were dogs (indeed, many dog bones also were
found in the basurero).
Along with this ritual paraphernalia, Ekholm (1979a, pp. 175, 185) found 20
figurine molds and at least 40 examples of one type of figurine (a seated woman
with hands on her knees). More than a dozen female figurines had been made from
the same mold. In this instance, the use of molds facilitated the production of hun-
dreds of figurines, most of which depicted women in elaborate dresses. We do not
know precisely how the figurines were used during the ritual, but all of them were

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apparently discarded following that event. This recovery of 20 molds is the most I
know of from the same discard pile following one ritual event.
From the site of Ejutla in Oaxaca, Feinman and Nicholas (Feinman 1999, pp.
88–92, fig.  6.5; Feinman and Nicholas 2011) report 2000 figurines as well as 15
figurine molds that could be matched to the most common varieties of figurines.
Nearly identical figurines were present in the surface collections of other sites within
a radius of 10 km. Given the presence at Ejutla of kilns, figurine molds, and misfired
figurines, it is reasonable to infer that Ejutla produced a surplus of figurines, some
for local households and some for nearby communities. Roughly 8% of the Ejutla
figurine assemblage was misfired (Balkansky et al. 1997, p. 151). Of some interest is
the fact that so many figurines were unfinished, and “these unfinished pieces,” Fein-
man (1999, p. 92) says, “were in addition to the hundreds of more obvious figurine
wasters.” Another well-documented case of mold-made figurine production is Aztec
period Otumba (Charlton et al. 1991; Otis Charlton and Charlton 2011).
We know remarkably little about mold ownership. We do not know whether
molds were used and owned by one person, by multiple members of the same house-
hold, or by multiple households. We do not know how often molds were traded.
Determining whether the paste of molds was local or nonlocal will affect our mod-
els of figurine circulation and manufacture. Schlosser (1978, p. 42) discusses still
another behavior—one mold was used to manufacture figurines with different clays.
One was made with a carbonate matrix and one with quartz sand. In addition to the
exchange of molds, we might consider the exchange of clays, since the clay used
to make figurines at Calakmul differs from the clay used to create pottery vessels
(García-Heras et al. 2006). Similarly, Haury (1965, p. 233) notes that the 500 or so
figurines from Snaketown were made with clay “of a finer quality than that used in
While there are exceptions (e.g., the Tarascans), mold-made figurines seem to
be more typical of state-level societies. Mold-made figurines appear at Teotihuacan
after the state had formed (Barbour 1975; Cowgill 2008; Goldsmith 2000; Mahoney
2004; Sullivan 2005, 2007). Mold-made figurines also made their appearance in the
Valley of Oaxaca after the state had formed.

Impersonation and the Creation of Figurine Scenes

Some figurines wear masks and costumes while they dance, sing, or participate in
group performances (e.g., Averett 2015; Paddock 1966). Their personal identity is
hidden behind the mask. These disguises allow them to impersonate creatures and
stand in as witnesses, ancestors, or deities. In some regions of the world, it was
important for the mask to cover a performer’s eyes. In Mesoamerica, it was impor-
tant to cover the mouth, the place from which an individual’s breath issued (Marcus
1998, fig. 8.28; Niederberger 2000).
Masked and costumed figurines were widespread in Formative Mexico, from
Tlatilco (Basin of Mexico) to La Joya (Veracruz) to San José Mogote (Oaxaca) to
Cantón Corralito (Chiapas). Individuals wearing masks during a ceremony may
become another person, animal, plant, or mythical creature (Harvey 2006, p. 123;

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Hvidtfeldt 1958; Inomata 2006; Marcus 2007, pp. 64–67). Some figurines show
humans impersonating identifiable animals, such as deer, jaguars, or birds; others
wear masks associated with the sun, lightning, ballplaying, or war. And some wear
costumes depicting composite creatures, combining the features of birds, jaguars,
snakes, and so on.
Elaborate scenes with multiple figurines might be created for funerals, building
dedications, or hosting foreign dignitaries. Numerous officials and witnesses attend
these rites, and some participants impersonated characters of various kinds. Some
of the most complex figurine scenes were created during the Classic (AD 300–900)
(e.g., Freidel et  al. 2010) and Postclassic (AD 900–1400) (e.g., Chase and Chase
1988). One Postclassic cache in Structure 183 at Santa Rita Corozal (Belize) con-
tained 28 figurines, including eight humans (four men, four women) and 20 animals
(Chase and Chase 1988, pp. 57–59). Four warriors with shields and spears were
set upright, each pointing outward to one of the four cardinal directions; between
each pair of warriors was a woman who also faced outward. The eight human figu-
rines were surrounded by four jaguars, four crocodiles or caymans, four sharks, four
snakes, and four birds. This scene may have symbolized the quadripartite cosmos.
Another cache at Santa Rita Corozal (from Structure  213) included 25 figu-
rines—16 surrounding an urn that contained another nine (Chase and Chase 1988,
pp. 48–50). This cache had four deer, four dogs, four coatimundis, and four men
standing on turtles, performing blood sacrifice. Inside the vessel were four male
monkeys, four female creatures, and one human figure sitting on a throne while
blowing a conch shell. Beneath this seated figure were four small shells and a single
piece of jadeite. Both this scene and the one from Structure 183 seem to have been
created for the dedication of Postclassic buildings.
Early villages in eastern Europe also created extraordinary sets of figurines. Find-
ing such sets of figurines offers us a way to advance figurine studies by focusing
on the group, rather than the individual figurine. These groups may constitute an
extended family or ascendant generations. Near Poduri-Dealul Ghindaru in Roma-
nia, archaeologists found 21 human figurines accompanied by 13 chairs, which
meant that 13 of the 21 humans could be seated (Bailey 2010, pp. 114–116). This
find dates to 4900–4750 BC. A similar set of 21 figurines and 13 chairs was found
at Isaiia-Balta Popii, dating to 4700–4500 BC. Each set of 21 figurines was found
inside a pottery vessel, presumably stored for later use.
From a house at another Romanian village came an amazing 75 figurines.
Another 32 figurines were found in a house at the Ukrainian site of Sabatinovka
(Bailey 2010). These figurine sets may have formed a miniature audience or set of
witnesses. The interplay among figurines (some seated, some standing) and humans
(some seated, some standing) may suggest that household members wanted a larger
audience to witness household activities.

Explaining Heterogeneity

Although scholars recognize the heuristic value of creating types, they are taking note
of heterogeneity within figurine types in a given cultural area (Arnold and Follensbee

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2015; Halperin et  al. 2009; Lesure 2014; Triadan 2007). For example, within the
Olmec region of Mexico’s Gulf Coast, Arnold and Follensbee (2015) found that the
figurines of La Joya (a site southeast of Tres Zapotes) showed more similarity to those
of El Trapiche (to the north) than to those of San Lorenzo (to the southeast). As Pool
et al. (2010, p. 103) note, “Early Formative Gulf Coast society was not a homogene-
ous entity, and it cannot simply be reduced to San Lorenzo.” Arnold and Follensbee
emphasize that the Early Formative figurines from La Joya diverge in fundamental
ways from those of contemporaneous sites in Veracruz, and that this heterogeneity is
underappreciated when we continue to call all these sites “Olmec.”
Today’s scholars are emphasizing temporal and geographic variation and employ-
ing a broader comparative approach to document figurine manufacture and use.
They note the many steps in making figurines—deciding where to procure clay and
how to model it, selecting hairdos and ornaments to place on the figurine, deciding
how to construct the eyes and mouth, firing the figurines, holding them while utter-
ing words and singing songs, arranging them in scenes, burying them, or discard-
ing them. In the case of mold-made figurines there are additional decisions, such as
determining the number of components that will be press molded in separate molds,
how many individuals will participate in assembling the figurines, and whether the
figurines will be painted for use in rituals.
Rappaport (1999, p. 24), who witnessed the rituals of living tribal people, has
defined ritual action as “the performance of more or less invariant sequences of for-
mal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers.” The lack of com-
plete “encoding,” he felt, allowed for gradual changes in performance over time. For
her part, Gazin-Schwartz (2001, p. 268) has viewed ritual as “one end of a con-
tinuum of repetitive, structured activities, the other end of which is individual habit.
Ritual actions are distinguished from habitual ones to the extent that they have the
effect of connecting a person with something—gods, spirits, or society—beyond the
physical and concrete world of the individual.” By placing ritual along a behavioral
continuum, Gazin-Schwartz was able to differentiate large-scale communal public
ritual, small-scale noncommunal household ritual, and habitual individual action.
Gazin-Schwartz’s inclusion of the phrase “connecting a person with something—
gods, spirits, or society—beyond the physical and concrete world of the individual”
is something that seems applicable to some kinds of figurine use.
Scenes with a dozen or more figurines are rarely recovered, but when we do, we
see that each figurine may be dressed differently. Ironically, our traditional typolo-
gies—which focus on grouping similar figurines—may miss the significance of
scenes in which each figurine interacts with other different figurines to recreate cer-
tain rituals. These complex scenes may force us to balance the search for similarity,
required for typology, with the search for diversity, required to interpret figurines
dressed to play different roles in the scene.

Connecting to Something Beyond the World of the Individual

Like Rappaport and Gazin-Schwartz, Schieffelin (1985) is concerned with actions

during ritual performances. For him, meaning is created by the performance itself;

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“… the meanings of the symbols and of the rite itself are created during the perfor-
mance, evoked in the participants’ imagination…” (Schieffelin 1985, p. 722).
Obviously, archaeologists cannot witness 3000-year-old ritual performances, nor
hear the utterances delivered when the figurines were arranged in scenes. Some-
times, however, we can reconstruct the life of a figurine from the selection of its
clay, to its modeling, to its placement in a scene, to its eventual burial for posterity
or its fragmentation and discard (Marcus 1998; Walker 1999).
Among contemporary Nahua speakers living in Veracruz, Mexico, the human
form represents “the animating force (the tonali, yolotl, or combination of tonali
and yolotl) of whatever entity the shaman wishes to represent” (Sandstrom 2009,
p. 282). Humans (living and deceased), natural phenomena (e.g., the earth, wind,
lightning), and plants (e.g., maize) are among the entities depicted in paper figures
(Sandstrom 1991), all of them given human form.
A common ritual practice among Nahua speakers is to cut paper into human
shapes that depict the spirit of maize (Fig. 3a; Sandstrom 2009, p. 268). Occupants
of other Nahua-speaking towns, such as Tepoztlán in Morelos, make dolls and figu-
rines out of ears of maize (Grigsby and Cook de Leonard 1992, pp. 113–115). Sand-
strom (2009, p. 282) argues that the human form in the paper figures “represents
the principle of animation and … it is this common element in the paper figures
that reveals the pantheistic quality of the paper cult religions.” Among Sandstrom’s
informants, “sky, earth, corn, ritual objects, and divinatory crystals are literally
human bodies, whether large or small” (Sandstrom 2009, p. 284). This ability of
the human form to represent nonhuman phenomena in ritual should open our eyes
to different ways of thinking about figurines—that is, to focus more on their use in
performance than considering every detail to be self-evident.

Actions and Utterances that Animate Figurines

Some of the most important rituals of the ancient world involved the conversion of
inanimate objects into living beings (Alberti and Marshall 2009; Bird-David 1999;
Groleau 2009; Hallowell 1960; Harvey 2006; Ingold 2006; Marcus 1998, 2007;
Sillar 2009; Viveiros de Castro 2004, 2007; Zedeño 2008). This animation could
involve singing and the handling of objects such as statues and figurines. A well-
known example is the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony in ancient Egypt. During
this ritual, Egyptian priests animated a lifeless statue, magically opening its mouth
so that it could breathe and eat (Quirke 1992). Special paraphernalia—an adze, a
censer in the shape of an arm, a spoon, amulets, and a calf’s leg—were held up to
the statue’s lips. (As a result, a calf’s leg discovered next to the statue in an Egyptian
temple would be considered a ritual item, rather than food remains.)
Similar acts of animation were carried out in highland Mexico and in some cases
continued well into the 20th century (Vogt 1969, 1976). For example, a newly built
house could be animated by conducting a ritual inside, with the sacred parapherna-
lia and offerings subsequently placed beneath its floor (Marcus 1998). After such
a rite, the house was considered alive and likened to a human body, and the terms
for human body parts were used to label the house. The Sierra Zapotec of Oaxaca,

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Fig. 3  Perishable materials used to make: (a) paper figure (redrawn from Sandstrom 2009); (b) copal
figurine (drawn from photo); (c, f) skirt and hair (redrawn from True and Núñez Atencio 1971); (d, e)
facial paint, string necklace, and clothing (Marcus 1987); (g, h) figurines of ground maize (True and
Núñez Atencio 1971)

for example, still refer to the inside of a house as the “stomach”; the roof as its
“head”; the area beneath the house as the “foot”; the rear of the house as the “back”
or “shoulder”; the corners of the house as “ears”; and the doorway as its “mouth”
(MacLaury 1989; Swadesh 1949). Similarly, the Tzotzil Maya of Chiapas use the
term yok (“its foot”) to refer to a house foundation; sc’ut (“its stomach”) to refer to
the midpoint of the house wall; and scikin (“its ear”) to refer to each corner of the
house (Vogt 1976, p. 58).

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Archaeological evidence suggests that the act of animating some prehistoric

houses in Mexico involved a subfloor offering that could include sacrificial knives,
stingray spines for bloodletting, or figurines. These figurines might have been inani-
mate until a ritual brought them—and the house—to life.
The ritual animation of figurines involved several kinds of life forces or essences.
Figurines could be incorporated into the living world by making them animate
during rituals. The Aztec, for example, believed that the human body hosted three
animating essences, each located in a different area—tonalli in the hair and skull,
teyolia in the heart, and ihiyotl in the liver (Sahagún 1961). Such animistic forces—
particularly the tonalli, which potentially enters or leaves the body whenever a per-
son yawns or sneezes—was the easiest of the three animating forces used to animate
a figurine during rituals.
The final disposition of a figurine can provide insight into the length of time it
remained animate. When we find figurines intact, still in a scene in a royal tomb
(Freidel et al. 2010), those figurines probably retained their animate status. In con-
trast, if the figurines are found broken and lying in a midden, their ritual life may
be over and the animating essence released during breakage. As an example, star-
shaped holes in the back of the heads of some Formative figurines (e.g., at Tlapa-
coya-Zohapilco, San Lorenzo, and Cantón Corralito) may be the openings through
which animate spirits could enter for a while and exit when their role in a ceremony
ended (Cheetham 2009, fig. 6.20; Niederberger 2000, fig. 7a).
It is sometimes not fully appreciated how many native peoples believe that names
were sacred (Flannery and Marcus 2012). By naming hills, caves, springs, boulders,
and lightning, indigenous people declare their world to be alive. If called by name
(geneonymy), the spirits of one’s ancestors could be encouraged to occupy figurines
and hence to participate in rituals (Cook 1992; Marcus 1998, pp. 15, 19, 311; New-
ell 1976, p. 20). In such cases, the mere act of uttering a name could bring about
Mesoamerica’s animation of figurines is analogous to the animation of pots with
ancestors’ names among the Igbo of Nigeria (McCall 1995). The Igbo live in a land-
scape of names, including the names of the ancestors who built their houses. “It is
impossible to identify a particular place in the village without making reference to
these names. They are simultaneously its history and topography” (McCall 1995, p.
259). Even the residential compounds of the Igbo are called umudi, “children of the
same husband.” The ancestors that the Igbo invoked by name were the founders of
that particular compound.
Before any living Igbo man takes a drink, he pours a portion into a hole in the
floor, believing that it leads to the mouth of the compound founder himself. Men
are buried below the floor of the house, women beneath the floor of the cook shack.
Female ancestors are memorialized in the form of pots, embedded in the hearth of
the eldest living woman. When the latter places food and drink in those pots, she
asks her female ancestors to ensure the well-being of their descendants.
The eldest Igbo woman “knows the pots and calls each by name” when offer-
ing food and drink, for she is the official genealogist of the maternal descent group
(McCall 1995, p. 260). Were the eldest woman to die, the shrine’s location would be
shifted to the hearth of the next eldest woman, often in some other compound. Male

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ancestors, in contrast, are memorialized in pots regarded as spirit faces. Disputes are
settled with oaths taken on male ancestral pots. The pots memorializing the senior
patrilineage are kept in the main meeting house of the male elders.
The Igbo use of named pots in a woman’s work area is probably analogous to
the way small solid figurines were used in Formative Oaxaca. At San José Mogote,
such figurines were never found in the men’s houses; their major occurrence was in
women’s work areas in the dooryard of the residence (Marcus and Flannery 1996).
Buried beneath the floor of “House 16” (a lean-to attached to House 17) at San
José Mogote, we found an intact scene of figurines (Flannery and Marcus 2005, p.
346). The figurines buried beneath the floor may have been stand-ins for recently
deceased ancestors who were “fed” from Feature 62, a nearby hearth. Keeping this
figurine scene in place would be analogous to the embedding of pots around an Igbo
woman’s hearth, each pot representing a named ancestor.

Seven Approaches to the Study of Figurines

Let us now consider seven approaches to the study of figurines. These are the icono-
graphic and stylistic approach, the contextual approach, performance and practice,
ethnographic analogy, the direct historical approach, chemical composition analy-
ses, and embodiment and materiality. I think the most influential investigations
being conducted today are combining several of these approaches in very productive
ways. Thus, I hope future investigators will consider combining as many of these
approaches as they can.

The Iconographic and Stylistic Approach

Figurine types can be created using differences in material (e.g., clay vs. maize
dough, wood vs. copal), paste color, method of manufacture (e.g., hand-modeled vs.
mold-made), as well as differences in iconography and style (Álvarez and Casasola
1985; Barbour 1998; Butler 1935; Ekholm 1979a; Goldstein 1979, 1980; Lesure
2014; Martínez López and Winter 1994; Menzel 1967; Renfrew 1969, 1985; Vaillant
1931; Vaillant and Vaillant 1934; Weiant 1943). Although it might seem straightfor-
ward to divide a figurine collection into different types, this process always includes
more than a soupçon of subjectivity. This problem arises because many figurines are
difficult to assign to various categories, including male versus female and young ver-
sus old. Once established, a typology can be used to tackle a topic such as gender,
chronology, or marital status, but no typology is equally suitable to address all the
questions that scholars ask.
Idiosyncratic decisions made by one specialist for a particular site not only affect
the creation of types at that one site, but also affect our ability to compare it to types
made by specialists at other sites. One goal is to quantify the frequency of types
from site to site to get a regional picture (for example, comparing the figurines
from a paramount chiefly center to those from satellite villages), but even that is a

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Some analyses go well beyond iconography and style. For example, Goldstein
(1979, 1980) identified eight distinct figurine traditions in coastal Campeche, six of
which were found on the island of Jaina. Her criteria for creating types not only
included style but also differences in manufacturing technology and clay chemistry.
The groups based on chemical composition were in general agreement with her sty-
listic categories—suggesting that each figurine tradition had a different geographic
origin—but one exception stood out. That “style group” revealed at least three
chemically distinct clays, suggesting that figurines of that group (called XAC) were
either manufactured at three different sites or manufactured using clays procured
over a wide area. Over time, XAC figurines came to be made in different ways—
from solid handmade figurines, to combined mold-made + handmade figurines, to
figurines that were completely mold-made.
The Jaina figurines make a particularly good case study for combining stylistic
and chemical composition approaches—first, because the island itself had no clay
source, and second, because the analysis of the clay suggested that at least eight dis-
tinct clay sources had been used. One of those sources was identified as Comalcalco,
based on the clay used for that site’s bricks.
Formerly, description was an end in itself (Butler 1935; Rands and Rands 1965;
Reyna Robles 1971). Scholars now go beyond describing figurines (e.g., Langin-
Hooper 2011) to focus on heterogeneity within and among sites. They are increas-
ingly cognizant that even within types, there is underappreciated variation that offers
us the chance to say something about social personae and status differences. In some
cases it has been possible to link age or marital status to figurine traits (e.g., Joyce
2003; Marcus 1998). In the Valley of Oaxaca, for example, marital status between
1100 and 500 BC was indicated by differences in hairstyle and social status by the
wearing of earspools, mirrors, and shell pendants (Marcus 1998). Many archaeolo-
gists are breaking free from preexisting typologies and overarching labels such as
“Olmec” (e.g., Arnold and Follensbee 2015), working to create a fuller appreciation
of site-to-site variation.

The Contextual Approach

Figurines recovered from primary contexts, such as caches, burials, houses, and
dooryards, provide clues about figurines’ multiple meanings and purposes. Although
some rituals required permanent scenes (Filloy Nadal 2013; Marcus 1996), there
were evidently others for which temporary scenes were sufficient. At the end of the
latter rituals, the figurine scenes were dismantled. Although we do not know the
circumstances or specific rituals that dictated when a figurine scene should be left in
place and when it should be dismantled, I now explore some relevant cases.

Figurines Placed in Burials

Burials could include clusters of figurines. For example, in southern Guatemala a

cluster of figurines was recently discovered in a tomb at Takalik Abaj (Atwood 2013,
p. 49). In the Formative of the Basin of Mexico, too, we see figurines in burials,

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particularly those of women and children. In the 1969 season at Tlatilco, excava-
tors exposed 214 burials, 37 of which included figurines (García Moll et al. 1991).
One teenage girl was accompanied by eight female figurines. One nine-month-old
baby (too young for its sex to be determined) was accompanied by 14 figurines. A
woman in her 20s was accompanied by ten figurines. Another burial of a teenage
girl included a mirror, a clay stamp, and eight figurines placed near her right hand.
One of the most lavish Tlatilco burials was No. 60, that of an adult woman, who was
accompanied by 20 figurines (four near her left hand and 16 near her legs). We can
only surmise that the relatives who arranged these figurines wanted the deceased to
have them as companions in the afterlife.
One burial at the site of Gualupita, Morelos, featured four figurines—two males,
two females (Vaillant and Vaillant 1934, p. 115). One female figurine is seated
cross-legged; another carries a baby on her back (see Fig. 4). Vaillant and Vaillant
identified the smaller of the two male figurines as a warrior, but others regard him
as a ballplayer. These four figurines are so different from each other that few would
have guessed they would be found together in the same burial; two possible explana-
tions are that each figurine was contributed by a different funeral attendee, and/or
these different figurines acquire meaning when grouped together. After finding buri-
als with figurines, Vaillant and Vaillant (1934, p. 112) suggested that the figurines
at Gualupita had been included to ensure that the dead would have companions or
servants. They also discussed Burial 5, which included a figurine that they consid-
ered to have been deliberately broken because its head was carefully set between the
figurine’s legs (Vaillant and Vaillant 1934).
Given the number of broken and decapitated figurines found in household mid-
dens, many scholars have wondered whether figurines were intentionally broken
(e.g., Bánffy 1988; Chapman 2000; Insoll et al. 2012; Kankpeyeng et al. 2013; Mar-
cus 1998; Moser 1973; Rice 2015; Talalay 2004; Verhoeven 2007; Yamagata 1992).
Such a practice may have prevented someone from a different family or kin group
from being able to manipulate one’s ancestors. Decapitation was perhaps one of the
many ways to de-animate the figurine.
Of special interest are figurines of dancing women such as those found in high-
land Mexican graves at Tlatilco (Fig. 5a) and Nexpa (Fig. 5b). In Burial 7, Nexpa
(Morelos), we see the figurine of a dancing woman, her arms raised and her skirt
swinging (Grove 1974, p. 26). These dancing women might represent living rela-
tives who performed at the funerals of the deceased women or deceased relatives
whose spirit was called to perform during the ceremony.
Burial 54 at Fábrica San José, Oaxaca, an elite 15-year-old girl with a deformed
skull, had a large hollow figurine placed on her right shoulder (Drennan 1976,
figs. 84, 89). The position of that figurine was similar to one placed with Burial 8 at
Nexpa (Grove 1974, p. 26).
Site 1-1-16, near Hacienda Blanca in the Valley of Oaxaca, yielded a burial with
two adult figurines. The female figurine had a removable fetus in her abdomen (Mar-
cus 1998, figs. 5.1, 8.1; Ramírez Urrea 1993). At Tomaltepec in the same valley, two
young women were buried with figurines. Burial 35, a woman, had two solid figu-
rines (Whalen 1981, pp. 130–131). Burial 21, a young woman, was accompanied
by a large hollow ceramic figurine. The hollow figurine may have been a sumptuary

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Fig. 4  Four figurines from the same grave at Gualupita, Mexico (drawn from Vaillant and Vaillant 1934)

item, since Burial 21 featured the kind of cranial deformation associated with indi-
viduals of hereditary rank.
While acknowledging the diversity of the archaeological data, we can still offer
a few general observations. The fact that male burials were less often accompanied
by handmade figurines suggests that women held a special relationship to figurines,
especially if they were the ones that created and used them during household rituals;
and in Formative or Neolithic societies women played a key role in communicating
with recently deceased ancestors. In contrast, the figurine scenes in state-level socie-
ties seem more likely to commemorate political events and participating personnel;

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Fig. 5  Dancing women from two early villages: (a) Tlatilco and (b) Nexpa (drawn from photos)

when placed in a burial, many of those figurines may have stood in for the attendees
who witnessed the rites (Caso 1942; Freidel et al. 2010; Hong 2011; Marcus 2009).

Figurines in Tombs

In Oaxaca, figurine scenes were created for tombs. Tomb 103 at Monte Albán, capi-
tal of the Zapotec state of AD 200–500, serves as an example. Sometime after this
tomb had been closed, the Zapotec arranged a scene with 12 figurines (five large,
seven small) in front of the tomb door. The five large figurines held mirrors and wore
removable headdresses; some of the small figurines appear to be singing (Fig.  6).
Although the figurines were ceramic, the scene associated with Tomb 103 included
a stone funerary mask and miniature stone step-pyramid. The mask + pyramid prob-
ably represent a funerary bundle; this scene has been interpreted as a funeral (Caso
1942, p. 183, figs.  18, 19; Paddock 1966, p. 150). The contrast between clay and
stone in the same scene would seem to symbolize the difference between the lord’s
funerary bundle (permanence) and the funeral attendees (living witnesses).
Tombs in other parts of Mesoamerica also include figurine scenes, e.g., in West
Mexico (Beekman and Pickering 2016; Butterwick 1998) and the Maya area (Frei-
del et  al. 2010). The seventh century AD scene from El Perú-Waka’, Guatemala,
has been interpreted as resurrection and metamorphosis (Freidel et al. 2010). Burial
39 included 23 figurines arranged in an outer and inner circle, performing a cer-
emony in which the deceased king was transformed into a maize deity. (This kind

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Fig. 6  Figurine scenes from a prestate and state-level society. Top: Offering 4, La Venta (drawn from
Drucker et  al. 1959). Bottom: Funeral associated with Tomb 103, Monte Albán (drawn from Paddock

of metamorphosis is depicted in stone monuments associated with seventh century

AD Maya kings at Palenque and elsewhere.) The paste of these Burial 39 figurines
(and that of one vessel in Burial 39) has been matched to Calakmul. The figurines
at El Perú-Waka’ depict members of the royal court, the king’s successor and his
queen, dwarfs, scribes, a ballplayer, a frog, and a supernatural deer that prays over
the figurine of the deceased king. The figurine of the deceased Maya king is shown
kneeling with his arms crossed; this body position is similar to that of a figurine in a
scene of noble metamorphosis at San José Mogote (Flannery and Marcus 2005, pp.
268–271). It also reminds us of a Jaina-style figurine, depicting a scene of metamor-
phosis in which a deceased lord emerges from the leaves of a corn plant as a maize
god (Rands and Rands 1965, fig. 23).
Burials in West Mexico also include figurines arranged in scenes. For exam-
ple, a Chupícuaro burial (400–100 BC) from San Cayetano, Guanajuato, includes

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eight female figurines standing in a circle around an open vessel. At the feet of one
woman was a small figurine depicting a duck. Taken together—the central bowl, the
eight women standing around it, and the duck—these components presumably tell a
story, perhaps the recreation of a rite that took place aboveground (Estrada Balmori
1949; Faugère 2014).

Figurines in Caches

Figurine scenes in caches also occur in Mesoamerica. Perhaps the most famous is
Offering 4, a Middle Formative cache at La Venta on the Gulf Coast of Mexico
(Drucker et al. 1959, p. 154). Offering 4 was deliberately buried in Complex A as an
offering (Fig. 6). The cache consisted of 15 greenstone figurines + 1 sandstone figu-
rine (and six celt-like stelae averaging 25 cm in height); all stood upright because
the scene had been deliberately encased in sand (Filloy Nadal 2013). This cache may
be the permanent record of a ritual that took place in that space. Most of the figu-
rines show evidence of cranial deformation, which may signal high rank.
Scenes left in permanent caches—below a ceremonial plaza in the case of Offer-
ing 4—are perhaps more “public” than those left in tombs; indeed, there is evidence
that someone opened a pit to gain access to Offering 4. These caches may commem-
orate what Beeman (1993) has called “theater and spectacle” and what Inomata and
Coben (2006) have called “theaters of power, community, and politics.”

Figurines Used in Building Dedication Rites

From the time of the earliest villages, figurines were used in the dedicatory rites
associated with the completion of a new house. House 2 at San José Mogote in Oax-
aca, dating to 900 BC, provides an example. This residence was a simple wattle-
and-daub building with a stone foundation (Flannery and Marcus 2005, p. 159). A
complete ceramic figurine, depicting a seated man with his arms folded across his
abdomen, had been placed below a foundation stone just north of the house door-
way. Analogies can be found in other parts of the world. For example, McIntosh and
McIntosh (1979) report that at the site of Jenné-jeno in Mali (AD 1000–1300), figu-
rines were placed in the wall foundations of some newly constructed houses.
After the formation of the Zapotec state, figurine scenes were placed in dedi-
catory caches below the floors of temples. Sometime around AD 20, such a scene
was placed below the floor of Structure 35, a two-room temple, at San José Mogote
(Flannery and Marcus 2015, pp. 266–271). The scene was placed in an offering box
below the temple’s more sacred inner room.
Rappaport (1971) has referred to the creation of such caches as “rituals of sanc-
tification” since their purpose was to convert secular space into sacred space. This
figurine cache (Feature 96) consisted of seven ceramic pieces. At the center of the
scene was a miniature tomb made of adobe bricks. Inside this tomb was a bowl
containing a human effigy, kneeling in the same position as the figure in the tomb
at El Perú-Waka’ (Freidel et  al. 2010). Resting against the bowl was a sacrificed
bobwhite quail and a pair of deer antlers possibly used as drumsticks during the
funeral. Lying on the roof of the miniature tomb was a flying human figure wearing

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a mask of lightning, carrying a stick in his right hand, and holding the bifid tongue
of a serpent in his left hand. (In some Zapotec dialects, the words for “serpent” and
“young maize” are near homonyms, leading me to suspect that the object in the fig-
ure’s right hand was a planting stick, and that the serpent tongue was a metaphor for
newly sprouted maize.) Behind the flying figure were four more ceramic effigies,
each depicting a woman wearing a mask. These four women likely represent clouds,
rain, hail, and wind, which the Zapotec considered the four companions of lightning
(Cruz 1946; Flannery and Marcus 2015).
The scene in Feature 96 likely depicts the metamorphosis of a deceased Zapotec
lord into a cloud person, a noble ancestor in contact with lightning. In the miniature
tomb, he is depicted as fully human; above the tomb he is shown as a figure who can
fly among the clouds.

Left for Posterity or Rapid Abandonment?

Offering 4 at La Venta and Feature 96 at San José Mogote represent scenes deliber-
ately left for posterity. In other cases, rapid abandonment of a site can cause items to
be left behind. The latter situation would seem to apply to the Maya site of Aguateca,
which was attacked and burned at AD 810 (Inomata 1997, 2003; Inomata and Stiver
1998). This attack subsequently led to the abandonment of elite residences and the
recovery of many in situ artifacts (Triadan 2007, p. 272). Eighty-six figurines were
complete at the time of abandonment, with twice as many male figurines as female.
Some were found in storage rooms. A sealed storage room associated with Structure
M7-22 at Aguateca contained ceramic masks for impersonating supernatural beings.
These masks, as well as some ceramic drums, were stored between rituals. Stor-
age for reuse presumably applied to some of the figurines found in the abandoned
elite residences as well. Most figurines in middens presumably had been discarded
because they were not going to be used again.
Significantly, most of the figurines in elite residences at Aguateca doubled as
musical instruments. The majority were small whistles embellished with a human
or animal head. Others were flutes or bells with clappers (Triadan 2007). There were
also masks of the appropriate size for wearing by large figurines. Of the male figu-
rines at Aguateca about 30% were warriors carrying a shield and wearing quilted
armor or feathered suits. Many of the figurines from the elite residences were mold-
made and portray individuals with different roles and statuses. “For the first time,”
says Triadan (2007, p. 285), “we have evidence that people used sets of figurines
that consisted of representations of different personages or characters.” All of the
female figurines at Aguateca were single-chambered whistles. It is probably signifi-
cant that male figurines at Aguateca outnumbered female figurines. This is the oppo-
site of what we find in most Formative-era settlements.

Figurines and Miniature Zoomorphic Stones in Courtyards and Domestic Rituals

The function and meaning of miniature human and zoomorphic effigies can some-
times be documented when these objects are found in situ in courtyards. The erup-
tion of the volcano Popocatepetl, some 13 km from the site of Tetimpa in Puebla,

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covered the site’s shrines and residential compounds with volcanic ash. In the court-
yards of these residences, Plunket and Uruñuela (2002) found centrally placed fam-
ily shrines with carved miniature human and zoomorphic stones. These shrines were
constructed around one or two chimneys that had flues leading to holes below the
patio floor.
The miniature human and zoomorphic effigies were placed on top of the flues. To
mimic the eruptions of Popocatepetl, these chimneys were filled with pine splinters
and then lit to produce plumes of smoke that puffed out from beneath the miniature
effigies that capped the flues. These courtyard altars were brought to life with smoke
that imitated the behavior of an active volcano and were perhaps regarded as com-
munications from the ancestors.
Plunket and Uruñuela (2002, pp. 32–33) recovered nine human and zoomorphic
stones still in place on altars, and another 11 in the center of a courtyard without
evidence of a shrine. These 11 effigies may have been placed on perishable altars,
because as Plunket and Uruñuela (2002, p. 33) suggest, elite families probably used
masonry altars while commoner families used perishable ones. Since the shrines
occupied a central position in the courtyard (and involved miniature effigies, incense
burners, and miniature volcanoes with entrances to the underworld), Plunket and
Uruñuela suggest that the shrines were linked to the center of the underworld where
ancestors reside. Indeed, the most important ancestors were buried in the fill of the
platform directly behind the shrines. The Tetimpa courtyard shrines and miniature
effigies—dating to the first century AD—served as anchoring devices, linking the
ancestors and the underworld to the lineage head of each residential compound and
his descendants.
Aztec women also are known to have used figurines in their houses and yards to
conduct rites involving curing, healing, and divination (Overholtzer 2012a; Smith
2002). Because the 16th century Spanish documents focus more on elite ritual than
commoner ritual, our view of the latter needs to be supplemented with data from the
archaeological record. There we learn that figurines and musical instruments (rat-
tles, flutes, and whistles) and incense burners were used in household ritual, e.g., at
Aztec era Capilco, Cuexcomate, and Yautepec (Smith 2016, pp. 59, 64–65).
Aztec family members used figurines to perform a variety of rituals concern-
ing illness, curing, agricultural harvests, and divining. Many rites utilized incense
burners, copal, and figurines. Those artifacts may have formed a single complex of
household ritual objects that operated outside the purview of Aztec state religion
(Smith 2002, p. 113). Such associations between objects are underemphasized when
we pluck figurines from their contexts, i.e., when we analyze figurines separately
from items found with them in the archaeological record.

Performance and Practice

Performance and practice involve interactions that are recurrent and dynamic, link-
ing objects, places, and people to each other and to customs, traditions, and memo-
ries. These relations mutually create a sociomaterial world, a world that gains mean-
ing and value through everyday life (e.g., Bourdieu 1977; De Lucia 2010, 2014;

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Feldman and Orlikowski 2011; Marcus 1998, 1999; Ohnersorgen 2006; Olson 2007;
Overholtzer and Stoner 2011).
Actions and performances are consequential, creating the social matrix in which
relationships are cemented. Agents, whether human or nonhuman, affect the soci-
omaterial world. The intertwining of performance and practice shows that social
life comes into being through practice, performance, and actions, both routine and
Ritual performances link participants, whether dead or alive. Social relations
created during ritual performances have the potential to extend well beyond the
moment of the rite (Kray 2007; Schieffelin 1985). Practice and performance take
into account the short-term and long-term interactions and the dialogue that takes
place between animate and inanimate worlds and between the world of the living
and the dead. In the specific case of Maya figurines and figurine-whistles, Lopiparo
and Hendon (2009, p. 51) note that “…meaning does not exist as some fixed and
essential property inherent in the objects themselves but develops from their par-
ticipation in the social practices and events that contribute to the renewal of social
identities and relationships.”
Kray (2007) emphasizes that ritual reinforces relationships by obliging people to
act in certain ways and that ritual is one of the actual networks through which soci-
ety operates. When more than one person participates in a figurine ritual, new social
relations can be established, and even if there is just one participant, he or she can
form a relationship with the animate figurines and the spirits they represent. Many
societies have hit upon the concept of a medium that can be entered by corn spirits,
earth spirits, and ancestral spirits (Marcus 1998; Sandstrom and Sandstrom 1986).
In ancient Mesoamerica, figurines may have played that role.
Aspects of practice and performance theory have been applied to figurine ritual.
In China’s Shanxi province, for example, archaeologists have unearthed a tomb—
dating to AD 1210—that included a stage built into one of its walls; on that stage
were five painted figurines believed to represent five actors, each playing a different
role. Because the living descendants of the tomb occupants considered their final
resting place to be a venue for ongoing worship, the actor-figurines faced the liv-
ing visitors rather than the deceased (Hong 2011). Hong (2011, p. 109) notes that
“recognition of the miniature theater as a realm midway between two worlds not
only reaffirms that the actors’ ‘performances’ required no spectatorship from the
deceased, but further hints at what constitutes the unusual nature of such ‘perfor-
mance.’” Thus, even though the figurines are set inside the tomb, they “insert them-
selves into the realm of the living.”
An analogous case can be seen in Tomb 5, Cuilapan, Oaxaca (Bernal 1958, p.
57). Three ceramic figures were set on a shelf above the tomb entrance, facing out
toward visitors rather than toward the deceased inside the tomb. As in the Shanxi
example, such “actor-figures” facilitated interaction between the living and the dead.
While the figurines at Cuilapan were skillfully created for a noble tomb, Zapotec
archaeology provides us with cases where the figurines were less skillfully prepared.
For example, Tomb 2 at Lambityeco, Oaxaca, contained a series of hastily prepared
figurines (Paddock et  al. 1968). Most were of unfired clay. One figurine seems to
depict a male with a beard. Other unfired figurines show males and females wearing

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articles of cloth on their head and body. The excavators suspected that the unfired
clay figurines were made hurriedly by family members to accompany a person who
died unexpectedly (Paddock et al. 1968, fig. 22). The Lambityeco case shows us that
the inclusion of figurines was so important that having unprofessionally produced
figurines was better than having no figurines at all.

Ethnographic Analogy

Ethnographic analogy is an underutilized approach for advancing figurine studies.

Ethnographies can reveal behaviors and locations where figurines were used and
where ritual paraphernalia were discarded (e.g., Brown 2000; Brown and Emery
2008; Brown and Walker 2008). Simon and MacGaffey (1995), for example, tell us
that the northern Kongo people of West Africa make figurines of their ancestors,
known as muzidi. When a family is in need of help or protection, they entice the
spirit of an ancestor to animate one of these figurines. Enticements include bever-
ages, food, and use of a diviner’s whisk or mpiya. The whisk—which is animated by
a wily spirit—ensures that the diviner succeeds in luring the ancestral spirit into the
muzidi. When the ancestral spirit hears songs that are pleasing or resounding drum-
beats, he or she comes closer to the figurine. To make sure that the spirit has entered
the figurine, the participants hold it in both hands and question the spirit, asking,
“Have you truly entered this figurine as you were bidden? How are we to know for
sure?” If the ancestor’s spirit is inside the figurine, onlookers will see the figurine
move about in its owner’s hands.
Once the spirit is inside the figurine, the figurine is no longer called muzidi. Now
it is called nkuyu, a term that refers to a living spirit. Simon and MacGaffey make it
clear that it is never the figurine itself that is alive; it is only a venue. If no ancestral
spirit has entered the figurine, the latter is just an object; indeed, once the ancestral
spirit has left, the figurine reverts to the status of an ordinary artifact.
There are many reasons why an ancestral spirit might depart a figurine. A spirit
becomes angry, for example, if its owner has failed to honor a number of taboos,
such as preventing a stranger from putting his hand in the basket where the spirit
resides. An additional taboo is that a husband is forbidden from touching his wife’s
ancestral spirit, and she is forbidden from touching his.
I suspect that this ethnographic case can inform how we think about Formative
Mesoamerican figurine use, including the deliberate destruction of small solid figu-
rines after their use in ritual is over. The purpose of that destruction would be to
prevent use of that figurine by anyone other than the descendant of the ancestor who
animated it.
The northern Kongo also make life-size figures for funerary rites. These larger
figures are held by members of each clan during the funeral dance and are later bur-
ied along with the human remains. The Kongo dig a grave deep enough to accom-
modate the life-size figure, which is buried standing upright. We should consider the
possibility that this provides an analogy with the very large ancestral figures made
by Neolithic villagers at ‘Ain Ghazal in Jordan (McAdam 1997; Rollefson 1983),

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and possibly with large standing figurines used in West Mexico (Beekman and Pick-
ering 2016; Pickering and Cuevas 2003).
Significantly, in West Africa one’s ancestors remain the actual owners of family
property. “All household property is defined, yet again, as the stuff ancestors, not the
living, own” (Gable 1996, p. 112). Among the Manjaco of Guinea-Bissau, accord-
ing to Gable (1996), women play a key role: “with brothers or husbands safely in
the ground, women can become the caretakers, speaking for the males, berating the
living with the voice of obligation.” “Women talk with ancestors often,” Gable says,
while “male orators keep their words short. By contrast, women talk, seemingly for-
ever, in long, disjointed narratives about what they did for the house, about the trou-
bles the house has had. More significantly, women speak directly to the ancestors,
putting them in their place.”
Gable (1996, p. 119) makes it clear that the Manjaco do not worship their ances-
tors as much as domesticate them. Ancestors are not always benevolent; at times
they must be cajoled into acting in the interests of their families. In ethnographic
case after case, it is the women who deal with the family’s recent ancestors, while
the men deal with the more remote ancestors and lineage founders.
Even though these narratives come from a very different part of the world, these
ethnographic data may be analogous to the use of small, solid figurines in Formative
Mesoamerica. At the very least, it would explain why figurines tend to be found in
women’s work areas, rather than in men’s houses (Flannery and Marcus 2005; Mar-
cus 1998, 1999). It would seem that in some Formative societies, women dealt with
recent ancestors, while men dealt with more remote ancestors such as lineage found-
ers (see Plunket and Uruñuela 2002).

The Direct Historical Approach

Ethnographic and ethnohistoric studies show us how indigenous societies use figu-
rines as a venue to be entered by spirits during ritual. Many ethnic groups in Mesoa-
merica believed one’s destiny was tied to that of an alter ego (nagual to the Aztec),
usually an animal born on the same day as its human counterpart (Brinton 1894; L.
Kaplan 1956; Villa Rojas 1947; Vogt 1969). Some groups believed that when one’s
animal alter ego died, so would his human counterpart. While we do not know how
far back this belief goes, prehispanic figurines often depict animals, and some of
these may represent alter egos. Most revealing are figurines that combine animal
body parts with human body parts or humans costumed to impersonate animals, any
of which could show early versions of a belief in the alter ego. The inclusion of ani-
mal figurines in burials also may be related to the concept of an alter ego.
Ethnohistoric documents indicate that the Aztec put clothes on figurines of copal
and dough. Offering 102 below the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec cap-
ital, included four copal figurines that had been painted and dressed in miniature
paper garments (Fig. 3b; Barrera Rivera et al. 2001; Klein and Victoria Lona 2009,
p. 356). Other rituals involved amaranth-dough figurines that were dressed in bark-
paper clothing. During the rite, the clothing was removed and burned separately
as an offering; later, the dough figurines were decapitated and eaten (Broda 1971,

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fig.  14; Sahagún 1950, pp. 21–22). These dough figurines could be stand-ins for
humans, ancestors, or even mountains (for the veneration of mountains, see Bray
2015; Broda 2001; Gose 2006; Plunket and Uruñuela 2002; Townsend 1992).
The Aztec data remind us that figurines could be made of wood, paper, edible
dough, rubber, or copal (Broda 1971, 2001; Guilliem Arroyo et al. 1998; Klein and
Victoria Lona 2009; López Luján 1994), and any equally perishable clothing worn
by a figurine could communicate the figure’s sex or role in a ceremony. Compara-
ble data come from Quebrada Tarapacá in northern Chile (True and Núñez Atencio
1971), where a group of 17 figurines included two of maize dough (see Figs.  3g,
h). The torsos of those figurines were uninformative regarding biological sex, but
several of them were wearing perishable skirts (Figs.  3c, f). Such examples from
the arid Chilean coast let us know how much information we may be missing from
regions like Mesoamerica, where clothing and dough are not usually preserved.
In the Zapotec region of Mexico, the direct historical approach helps explain why
quail bones are so often found in temples and offerings. First, 16th century docu-
ments mention the sacrifice of quail. Second, elderly Zapotec informants explain
that quail are considered “clean” or “pure” animals for sacrifice because they can be
observed drinking drops of dew rather than dirty water.
Sixteenth-century documents indicate that most highland Mexican ethnic groups
believed in a vital force, called tonalli by the Aztec, pèe by the Zapotec, and yni by
the Mixtec (López Austin 1980, 1994; Marcus and Flannery 1978). That vital force
distinguished living matter from nonliving matter. While inanimate objects could be
manipulated by prehispanic technology, anything that possessed a vital force was
deserving of veneration and could be approached only through reciprocity. Exam-
ples of such reciprocity include rituals in which villagers offered their own blood
or that of sacrificed animals or humans, hoping that these offerings would encour-
age favorable responses from supernatural forces. Figurines were part of these ritu-
als, as were activities such as singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, divin-
ing, burning incense, consuming hallucinogens, and drinking fermented beverages.
The direct historical approach helps explain many of the underlying beliefs and the
sequence of activities.

Chemical Composition Analyses

A growing number of studies include analyses of clays and pastes. In particular,

INAA (instrumental neutron activation analysis) has been used for decades to study
the paste of pottery vessels (e.g., Abascal et al. 1974; Alex et al. 2012; Bishop 2014;
Bishop and Blackman 2002). Some figurine projects combine INAA with petro-
graphic analyses (e.g., Bishop et al. 2000; Forouzan et al. 2012; Halperin et al. 2009;
Horcajada et al. 2014).
Both INAA and XRF (X-ray fluorescence) have been used to characterize Calak-
mul’s figurines (Bishop et  al. 2000, pp. 325–326; García-Heras et  al. 2006). The
paste of the Calakmul figurines apparently did not correspond closely to the clays
used to make Calakmul pottery, suggesting that figurine makers either obtained
clays from elsewhere and/or Calakmul was receiving figurines from elsewhere.

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Although figurines are small and portable, scholars have not always focused
on documenting the number of figurines involved in intersite exchange. Inter-
site circulation of figurines was not always of concern, partly because Formative
households usually made solid figurines for their own use. With the emergence
of state-level societies and the creation of multicomponent figurines (assembled
from separate molds for the headdress, head, torso, or limbs), Classic era commu-
nities started to circulate figurine body parts, figurine molds, and perhaps clays.
An INAA project that would analyze all known figurine molds might shed new
light on both figurine manufacture and circulation.
To study the Late Classic (AD 600–900) figurines from Motul de San José,
Guatemala, Halperin et al. (2009) used modal, petrographic, and INAA analyses.
The Motul de San José sample of 2767 figurines was excavated from the center
of Motul de San José and from five of its satellites within an 8-km radius (Akte,
Buenavista, Chäkokot, Chächäklu’um, and Trinidad de Nosotros). Modal paste
analysis of these figurines was similar to that conducted by Foias (1996) on the
pastes of ceramic vessels. The principal categories of the modal analysis were
paste color, paste texture, and the abundance of temper and inclusions. Sixty-two
figurine fragments were selected for petrographic analysis (identification of the
mineral components of the paste) to identify groups with similar paste.
INAA (which quantifies the major, minor, and trace elements of the paste) was
completed on 104 figurines. The petrographic groups closely agreed with the
color categories and, to some extent, with the modal paste categories. The INAA
analyses revealed four main paste groups that appear to have been local, with
three other nonlocal groups compositionally similar to Tikal pastes; indeed, 16%
of the figurines from Motul de San José were produced from clays found near
Tikal (Halperin 2007, pp. 114–116, tables  8.7, 8.8). Since Tikal is only 32  km
distant, it seems likely that some residents from Motul de San José attended festi-
vals or fairs at Tikal and acquired figurines there, or that people at Motul de San
José acquired figurines via gift giving, exchange partners, or other mechanism
such as itinerant figurine makers. Analyzing other sizable samples of figurines
from big sites and associated satellite sites would provide new insights on the
circulation of figurines.
The Motul de San José figurine data show similarities to data from Classic period
Teotihuacan and Postclassic Aztec sites, which suggest that both commoners and
elites, as well as rural and urban sites, possessed many of the same figurine types
(Halperin et al. 2009, p. 468). The Motul de San José data provide a contrast to the
data from the Ulúa Valley in Honduras, where figurine types were made by an indi-
vidual household and distinct from house to house (Lopiparo 2003, 2006). Douglas
(2002) and Schortman and Urban (1994) have shown that other Honduran sites and
households present evidence of household production for household use.
Since most Maya figurine molds have been found in the epicenters of major sites
(rather than in site peripheries or lower-order sites), Rice’s solar model (1987) may
apply to figurine distribution at some Maya sites. The solar model describes the
movement of items from site core outward to the periphery. The outward flow of fig-
urines contrasts with the inward flow of storage and cooking vessels; those vessels
seem to have been manufactured at peripheral sites and then carried into site cores.

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Halperin et al. (2009) note that paste and distribution data from the Motul de San
José region suggest that figurines were regularly circulated beyond the community
and that a “festival fair model” best fits the distribution of the Late Classic figu-
rines. They argue that some figurines could have been obtained at festivals and, in
turn, may have served as mementos and memorials of those events, thereby linking
households to state affairs. Their festive fair model is analogous to that of 12th cen-
tury AD China in which figurines and other “spirit articles” could be obtained either
in markets or at festivals. In China some itinerant merchants exclusively sold such
items (Hong 2011, p. 84), and it is possible that the Maya also had itinerant figurine
makers, painters, and artists (e.g., Rice 2009b, p. 144). In another Maya figurine
study, Sears discovered that Cancuén’s figurines had profiles consistent with local
clays and clays from Salinas de los Nueve Cerros, a site in the nearby Alta Verapaz
region (Sears 2006, 2016; Sears et al. 2004).
Goldstein (1979, 1980), in her study of the figurines from the western Maya area,
combined an analysis of figurine style with INAA chemical profiles from sites such
as Jaina and Comalcalco. Goldstein showed that the Jaina figurines had been made
on diverse clays, and that the greatest distance over which mold-made figurines had
been traded was a few hundred km. Her study is an exception to most figurine stud-
ies because she was able to document circulation over much longer distances.

Embodiment and Materiality

Figurine analysts use concepts related to materiality and embodiment to discuss the
materials (clay, dough, copal, paper, bone, wood) used to create a body and adorn-
ment; how figurines relate to other material objects; how figurines embody society’s
values; and how figurines affect members of the household and community (Borić
and Robb 2008; Brumfiel and Overholtzer 2009; Clark 2003, 2009; Cyphers Guillén
1993; Insoll 2017; Joyce 1993, 1998, 2003, 2005, 2014; Lesure 2005; J. Marcus
2007; M. Marcus 1993, 1996; Meissner et al. 2013; Meskell and Joyce 2003; Naka-
mura and Meskell 2009; Weiss and Haber 1999).
Scholars such as Butler (1990, 1993, 1997), Clark (2003, 2009), Csordas (1990,
1994), Hallowell (1955), Joyce (2003, 2004, 2005), Meskell and Joyce (2003), and
Nakamura and Meskell (2009) have made archaeologists think about identities and
social roles, how identity is something created by doing activities, performed in
relation to objects and people. When a figurine is suspended from the neck of a per-
son (or when it is hanging from a peg in one’s house), how might that figurine affect
identity and social relations in the household? (An example of a figurine with a loop
for suspension can be seen in Marcus 1998, fig. 8.44.)
Nahua speakers of Mexico’s Gulf Coast still regard maize as anthropomorphic
and believe that humans took their bodily form from corn (Sandstrom 1991). They
liken the life stages that the human body goes through from birth to adolescence
to adulthood to the life history of maize. Looper (2014), however, stresses that it is
still difficult to know the intent of the person who made a figurine and the extent to
which that figurine represented a specific person or a generic category. When a figu-
rine is dressed in perishable clothing that defines the person, or when the name of a

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specific person is uttered during a rite, those actions might signal the moment when
a figurine acquires its sex or gender identity or becomes recognizable as a specific
Within Mesoamerica one might consider the 16th century friar Sahagún (1950,
1961) to be the father of embodiment studies, given the rich detail he supplied on
Nahua society, human bodies, essences, partible souls, gender and identity, and vital
forces. These topics have been followed up by anthropologists (Busby 1997; Duncan
and Schwarz 2014; Furst 1995; Geller 2012; Joyce 1993, 1998, 2003, 2004; Lesure
2011, 2014; López Austin 1980). The essences and partible souls would have occu-
pied figurines during performances, only to be released when the figurines were bro-
ken and discarded.
Some prehistoric figurine heads exemplify partibility because they were made
with a tenon that could be inserted into the figurine body, allowing for the easy
removal of heads. For example, the heads of some figurines from Jaina were ten-
oned for insertion into the bodies, which aided in head removal and substitution
(Goldstein 1979, 1980). Some archaeologists have described head removal as “rit-
ual decapitation” (Grove 2008, p. 139) and pointed out that it occurred at many
sites, including Nixtun-Ch’ich’ (Rice 2015), Chalcatzingo (Grove 1987; Grove and
Gillespie 1984; Harlan 1987), Santa Cruz Tayata (Meissner et  al. 2013), Cantón
Corralito (Cheetham 2009), Etlatongo (Blomster 2004), Puerto Escondido, and Las
Honduritas (Joyce 2008). One study of a figurine assemblage from Veracruz reveals
that 99% of the heads had been separated from the bodies (Follensbee 2009, p. 81).
To be sure, determining whether head removal was inadvertent or intentional is
often a challenge (Chapman 2000; Marcus 1998, p. 312; Verhoeven 2007).
Bánffy (1988), Chapman (2000), and others (Chapman and Gaydarska 2007; Gal-
legos Gómora 2011; Grove and Gillespie 1984) have discussed the deliberate break-
ing of figurines. In some cases, pigment was applied to the broken edges, suggesting
reuse after breakage. By breaking a ceramic figurine, one could release the inner
spirit after a ritual ended. When figurines were made of amaranth and corn dough,
the spirit could be released by consuming them (Broda 1971). Partibility can be seen
not only in figurine head removal but also in limb removal. As mentioned, it is not
always clear whether breakage was accidental or intentional, but Rice (2015) has
demonstrated intentional breakage by showing that a figurine-whistle from Nixtun-
Ch’ich’ (Guatemala) had had specular hematite pigment applied to the breaks.


Researchers have used many approaches to study figurines—typological, icono-

graphic, stylistic, functional, contextual, performance-based, ethnographic analogy,
direct historical, chemical compositional, embodiment, or materiality. Inferences
and conclusions are usually more robust when multiple approaches have been used.
Investigators have successfully established figurine life histories by document-
ing clay procurement, methods of manufacture, manipulation, circulation, and final
disposition. They continue to infer the meaning, symbolism, and function of both
handmade and mold-made figurines, and they are working to reembed figurines into

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the social world by linking them to the associated objects that co-occur in houses,
burials, and neighborhood middens.
More attention should be directed to figurines whose sex cannot be determined.
We do not know why some figurine makers indicated the sex of the figurine and
others did not (Follensbee 2014; Haury 1965, pl. 206; Kuijt and Chesson 2004; Mar-
cus 1998; Mina 2007; Nakamura and Meskell 2009; Talalay and Cullen 2002). Did
such sexless figurines represent a category of humans (e.g., elders, apical ancestors)
whose sex or gender was less important to specify? Was their sex specified by the
perishable clothing they once wore (see Fig. 3)? Or was their sex revealed when the
figurine was addressed by name? When I worked on the arid Peruvian coast, I found
that a figurine’s torso might be sexless, but its sex was often indicated by clothing—
an item that would rarely be preserved in Mesoamerica (see Figs. 3d, e) (see also
Gallegos Gómora 2011; Hepp and Rieger 2014; Marcus 1987, figs. 21a, 22d).
Other articles—of equal length to this one—could be devoted to figurines made
of perishable materials. Figurines of paper, maize dough, wood (Gunnerson 1957),
split twigs (Jett 1991; Kinnear-Ferris 2007), and copal (a tree resin that produces an
aromatic smoke when burned) deserve more study. Furthermore, some clay figurines
are adorned with hair, feathers, string, and cloth, and those perishable additions pro-
vide valuable information. Future articles could be devoted to the intercommunity
circulation of molds and figurines and to documenting each house’s inventory and
each neighborhood’s use of figurines.
More progress has been made in the last few decades than at any time in the past,
partly because figurine databases are expanding. So, too, is the implementation of
productive theoretical frameworks.

Acknowledgments  I appreciate the encouragement and insights supplied by Gary Feinman and Doug-
las Price, and the excellent editing and information provided by Linda Nicholas. I also want to thank
Leonardo López Luján and David Freidel as well as the seven anonymous reviewers who offered valu-
able ideas for improvement. I am grateful to John Klausmeyer for his marvelous artwork, which certainly
enlivens any discussion of figurines.

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