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  • Writer's pictureArthur Bruso

Colima Culture Mask

Updated: Jun 14, 2019

An observer can appreciate an object for its beauty, but the most important aspect of an artifact for archeology is context. Without the knowledge of where something was found, its position in the site and what was found with it, much of the understanding of an object’s use and meaning is lost. Removing a historical or archeological object from its site through looting or ignorance always leaves the scientist with more questions than the object by itself can answer. Such is the case with the Colima Culture Clay Mask. I came across this mask while perusing the Central and South American collections of The American Museum of Natural History. The sparse label information simply identified it as a Colima Shaft Tomb Mask. Colima is a state in western Mexico. Along with the other western Mexican states of Jalisco and Nayarit, Colima was part of a loosely interlocked community of peoples, each with their own culture and visual art style, who used the shaft tomb tradition as their burying practice.

Recreation of a Colima shaft tomb.

The shaft tomb is a method of burying the dead in an excavated chamber connected to the surface by a vertical, or nearly vertical shaft that could descend 10 to 65 feet underground. The tombs were excavated from tuff – an easily worked stone comprised of volcanic ash. They were created between 300 BC to 400 AD, although the end dates are in dispute. The bodies would be placed in the tomb and surrounded with ceramic grave goods (usually figurative) that depicted activities of daily life, along with obsidian tools and weapons, jewelry and household pottery often containing food. The entrance to the burial chamber, at the bottom of the shaft, was usually guarded by a broken clay figure, a “shaman,” (a name given to the figure by the archeologists) designed for the purpose of warning and protection. During its creation, the “shaman” figure was charged with the depicted guardian spirit. It was broken when placed at the entrance to the tomb to release the spirit from the confines of the clay figure. The surface entrance to the tomb was then sealed with a stone slab, which may have been originally on the inside of a dwelling. There is evidence that the tombs were used for successive familial burials. The effort expended in excavating the stone chambers and the high quality of the funeral goods placed in them, indicates that they were exclusive to the elite of the culture.

Examples of Colima grave figures.

Before the discovery of an intact tomb in 1993, all of the western Mexican shaft tombs had been found looted of their ceramic goods. This made determining the purpose of the funeral object’s placement and meaning impossible. The artist Frida Kahlo and her husband, artist Diego Rivera, had a large collection of these shaft tomb figures which they began acquiring in the 1930s. It is possible from the public displays of their collection through photographs and paintings, that they started a greater interest in collecting the shaft tomb figures. By the 1950s, the vogue for the artifacts reached such a demand in Los Angeles that fakes began to enter the market. The fakes caused collectors to place a premium on the original figures and put a huge stress on dealers to find additional authentic objects, while encouraging treasure hunters to find new tombs and caches. The entire burgeoning market stream of collector, dealer and treasure hunter, caused a nearly wholesale desecration and spoiling of most of the western Mexican archeological sites.

Left: Photograph of Frida Kahlo holding a grave figure. Right: Frida Kahlo painting "Self Portrait with Monkey" depicting a grave figure.

It was the almost Cubist abstraction of the human face on this Colima mask that caught my attention. The almond shaped head, prominent brows, close set eyes, the incredibly long and prominent nose that slashes down the face to the frowning mouth, gives the impression that this is a disapproving expression from an entity that is in judgement of the soul. This is not a mask that would be worn by a person to take on a new character or to be used in a ritual. Instead, this is a mask for visualizing an otherwise invisible or imagined entity who is in some way connected with the afterlife, or a stylized impression of how the people saw their own faces. The eyes are not pierced for seeing. There is no accommodation for breathing. The smooth interior would not sit comfortably on the face. Since the mask corresponds with the visual style of other masks that were found within the state of Colima it was almost certainly part of the funerary tradition of the Colima culture.

There is a practice in many diverse cultures of placing a mask on the deceased to hold the spirit in the body and keep it from wandering on Earth. As the body is the vessel of the soul, the face is the connection between the vessel of the body and the world. To place a mask on the deceased face would place a barrier between the face and the world, thus preventing the spirit from wandering, while providing time for the spirit to complete the transformation from material reality to the afterlife.

Masks are also used in various funerary practices, as in ancient Egypt, to preserve the identity of the deceased. Those masks depict an idealization of the deceased face or a generalization of what the people visualized as their cultural ideal. This tradition was practiced where the people believed that the spirit leaves the body to travel to the afterlife but also needs to return to the tomb. The idealized mask helped the spirit to recognize its own body.

Many Mesoamerican cultures believed that the tomb was a transformative space akin to the womb. The tomb is a place where the spirit transitions to a new life. After a complicated afterlife journey, the transformed spirit is reborn to Earth through a woman’s womb. (Kings however were believed to transition into gods.) The belief was that life existed within death, and death existed within life. It was an endless cycle of being and nonbeing; of flesh and spirit. The funerary mask was a symbol of that duality and a conduit that allowed the fusion of life and death. The Colima mask may have been intended for that purpose. By obscuring the true face of the deceased with an idealized identity, along with the magic of the gods, the mask facilitates the re-creation of the old spirit joining the universal. The ideal spirit combines with it to form the creation of a third independent spirit that is reborn to the living plane.

Unfortunately, much of the information about this Colima mask is speculation, only understood through the uses of funerary masks from other cultures, or more specifically, from other Mesoamerican cultures from which we have a more complete understanding of their uses. Since what is known about this particular mask is only its affiliation with the Colima culture, and that has been determined through stylistic analysis of the visual trends of the Colima, we can only make assumptions on its purpose based on how similar cultures used their masks. For us the mask exists as an object that can be admired for its physical form. The acquisition of shiny or interesting objects seems to be a human trait. Great sums are often paid for objects that have a perceived value. Ownership of these items are equated with social prestige. This sets up a competition among people for acquisition of certain objects such as art or other scarce commodities creating an artificial monetary value. This is what happened to the western Mexican funerary objects. Desire for ownership drove a market to loot the ancient gravesites. But the removal of some pottery from an old tomb is more than filling a desire for the market, looting archeological sites results in the theft of cultural heritage. Without in situ study, the context of the object is lost, its deeper meaning can never be known. The richness and depth of its significance to history and the culture is lost. Artifacts can be a doorway to the past, but only if we curb our tendency to value the object over knowledge.

Arthur Bruso © 2019

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