Faces of Mexico

Faces of Mexico

Human figurines are found throughout Mexico. From about 2500 B.C. to A.D 1600, numerous civilizations rose and declined in what is now Mexico, including the Olmecs, Maya, Toltecs, and Aztecs. The figurines seen here were collected from all parts of Mexico and thus represent a wide variety of styles and materials. The figurines had a variety of uses in everyday life and were found in many types of locations within these ancient cities. This collection highlights anthropomorphic figurines.

Some figurines represent the great kings of history, deified warriors, and the gods. In Olmec settlements, figurines found in homes and public buildings often depict the goddesses of weaving, embroidery, and other crafts. Other figurines found here may be fertility statues. Religion was prominent in the lives of these early peoples. The people honored, and offered sacrifices to, an array of gods for sun, rain, crops, good weather, and success in battle, but also out of fear of having the world begin again. According to the Aztecs, the world was destroyed and rebuilt when the gods were displeased. This is how they explained the ruined cities of the Olmecs and Maya – as former worlds. A particular means of paying homage to the gods was to leave small representations of them within their temples. The main Aztec temple, the Templo Mayor, held the largest and finest figurines for the priests and nobility to worship, and smaller temples were available to the general public. Small figurines may also have been kept in the home to worship in private and as extra protection to ward off the gods’ more capricious acts. Excavations have also recovered figurines from burial sites and public buildings.


Molds were used to make many of these figurines. Although they were used often, they are rare artifacts. The molds were carved from stone or made of fired clay and were used to make several copies of the same figure. Molds were filled with clay, which was allowed to partially harden; the figurine was then removed and fired.

Hand-Formed. Many of these figurines were formed by hand. Some have designs cut into them using tools. These figures were often painted, and a few of the pieces shown here have visible paint remaining. Many of the figurines in the collection are male, with a remarkable exception in the female figure (MAC 1986-0057, right column).

Carved figurines were generally smaller and made from local stone or jadeite. These figurines were often made into pendants, displayed on temple walls, or attached to much larger statues.

These artifacts all were graciously donated to the Museum of Anthropology. Several of the pieces are from Agnes Deubner, Lloyd Lubensky, James A. Neely, and David T. Owsley; other pieces were donated by J. Lionberger Davis, R. Diehl, E. Guillot, O. R. Johnson, Stanley Marcus, F. Mitchell, Ernest Palmer, and B. Partners.

Text by Anna Frieden Photos by Chiara Della Cava Summer 2009

Molds & Mold-Made
MoldMold Mold 2Mold Mold-Made FigurineMold-Made Figurine Mold-Made HeadMold-Made Figure
Mold-Made HeadMold-Made Head
Jade PendantJade Pendant Relief FragmentRelief Fragment
Hand-Formed HeadHand-Formed Head Female FigurineFemale Figurine Figurine FragmentFigurine Fragment Figurine HeadFigurine Head
Whistle FigurineWhistle Figurine
PendantPendant Carved FigurineFigurine

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