This blog represents the twelfth entry in a blog series – Peabody 25 – that will delve into the history of the Peabody Institute through objects in our collection. A new post will be out with each newsletter, so keep your eyes peeled for the Peabody 25 tag!
In the early 1960s, future Peabody director Richard “Scotty” MacNeish undertook several important excavations in the Tehuacán Valley, located in the Mexican state of Puebla. Peabody curator Fred Johnson and Peabody director Doug Byers assisted MacNeish with his project, and provided the institutional support needed for National Science Foundation funding. During the 1970s the data gathered and analyzed by MacNeish was published in a five volume book series which garnered a lot of attention from the archaeological community—these are now available on InternetArchive. While his most prominent contribution to the field involved his research on the evolution of corn, he also provided a great deal of information toward the study of ceramics in the Tehuacán Valley region, particularly when it came to the ceramic figurines that were discovered during his excavations.
In total, MacNeish discovered a total of 74 figurine specimens from the Ajalpan locality of the Tehuacán Valley. While many of these figurines were fragmentary, one was excavated as a nearly whole specimen. This example is made of Ajalpan Coarse red paste and is finished with a thin wash and red pigmented paint which has been applied to some areas. This figurine is quite large, measuring 50 cm tall, 22 cm wide at the shoulders and 9 cm wide at the waist. As with many of the other figurine examples, the Ajalpan Figurine has a large head with an elongated torso and stubby arms and legs. Dubbed the “Dwarf Figurine” by MacNeish because of the figure’s large head and squat torso, these features may be attributed more to style and artistic convention. The large, almond shaped eyes and headdress worn by the figurine led MacNeish to draw comparisons to its resemblance to Egyptian figures.
The presence of the so-called hollow dwarf figurines in the Tehuacán Valley suggested to MacNeish that there were connections between the Late Ajalpan phase of Tehuacán and the San Lorenzo phase of the Olmec area to the east, though it is unclear if contemporary archaeologists would agree. While MacNeish was working in the 1960s it was not uncommon to link interesting or unusual finds to the enigmatic Olmec culture. MacNeish suggested that there were considerable stylistic similarities between the Ajalpan figurines and examples from Olmec sites. He also pointed to the presence at Tehuacán of plain tecomates (a globe shaped vessel with no neck), Ponce Black ceramic sherds, and bowls with thickened rims as evidence of links between the two areas.
Today the Ajalpan Figurine resides in the one remaining exhibit constructed during MacNeish’s tenure at the Peabody.