a stranger had wandered around in the mountains of the present state of
Guerrero some time between 1200 B.C. and A.D. 200 - the conjectured dates
for the span of the Mezcala and Chontal lithic industry - he would, upon
approaching one or another scattered settlements have heard, above the sounds
of twittering birds and the chatter of monkeys in the surrounding forest,
the staccato from compounds where the vast inventory of stone objects which
have appeared on the market, especially since the 1950s, were carved. Pebbles
and boulders for blanks from the river beds in the deep ravines would have
been piled in the stone cutter's yard, and among the tools at hand: celts,
hammer stones, choppers, sandstone blades and burins.
In the earliest phases of the industry, responding to a demand for effigies in accord with an instinctive belief in afterlife, and requisite for formalized burial rites, celts, the ubiquitous tool of early man in many parts of the ancient world, were adapted and humanized by grooves distinguishing the head from the torso, and wedge-shaped cuts defining the legs. The basic shape of the standing celtiform figures endured through centuries of innovative efforts to create a viable human likeness.
In his book
Mezcala, Ancient Stone Sculpture from Guerrero, Mexico, Carlo Gay
noted that the tops of the heads of many subsequent standing figures,
while retaining the overall format of the celt and directly carved from
pebbles or boulders, were purposely left unfinished, or arbitrarily textured.
Based on this observation, he surmised that the conceit was meant to endow
the effigies with the magical
Even the stylized ear flanges of some models adapted from celts became a characteristic trait of increasingly more highly developed Mezcala and Chontal figures and face panels, as well as of their Olmecoid and Teotihuacanoid counterparts which have come to light in Guerrero.
Considering the vast amount of artifacts found in Guerrero, it is logical to conclude they could neither have been conceived nor achieved without the involvement of a workforce consisting of thousands of part- and full-time craftsmen; possibly of an entire community including the children. Also, due to the amazing variety of subjects - particularly of the Mezcala tradition, which is surely greater than that of any other society on a Neolithic level of development - the disparate range, which includes standing and seated figures, masks and face panels, facades of so-called temples, musical instruments, miniaturized animals, reptiles, birds and household equipment, may have been made under the jurisdiction of guilds or their equivalent, and/or by shamans and specialists in one or another kind or type.
Other than at least two Chontal models of palanquins, or litters, with reclining personages, and a few Mezcala and Chontal figures and face panels whose heads bear decorated bands, enigmatic horn-like elements and zoological creatures, there are few signs of grandiose rank or hierarchy associated with the artistic production of socially and politically advanced societies. This alone seems to prove that, as Miguel Covarrubias proposed in 1946, Carlo Gay iterated in his book Mezcala in 1992, and Robin Gay reiterated in Chontal. Ancient Stone Sculpture from Guerrero, Mexico in 2001, the Formative Period of Mexican cultural history may well be in Guerrero.
In the 1930s, a few Mexicans, among them Diego Rivera and Miguel Covarrubias, began collecting Precolumbian artifacts. In the 1940s and 1950s an influx of expatriates from the United States and Europe arrived in Mexico, many of whom became fascinated with the unique legacy of their adopted country and began collecting. Legendary names include Frederich Field, Franz Feuchtwanger, Daniel Brenman and Milton Leof, each of whom would become a serious student in his particular field of interest. Among the most ardent was Milton Leof who not only amassed a comprehensive collection of Mezcala and Chontal artifacts but deserved the rare title, "expert." Together, the expatriates and subsequent collectors from the United States and Europe can be credited not only with awakening a global interest in Mexican archeology, but with provoking the scholars and archeologists who claim that contextual and temporal evidence is destroyed by looters encouraged by market demands. On the other hand, the collectors defend their moral right to salvage material that otherwise would have been lost.
The situation in Guerrero is what it is: few scientific excavations have taken place there; the demand for artifacts is increasing; forgeries are compromising scholarship; and the entire archeological region, encompassing one of the most provocative seminal cultures of the ancient world, remains enigmatic. However, one important factor is missing: anyone having visited the mountain villages of Guerrero would surely have noticed the abject poverty of its inhabitants, much of whose meager income is based on the sale of their ancestral heritage. Never mind that they receive a tiny fraction of the money the objects will bring on the Mexico City, New York and European markets - it may be enough for their survival. Scholars might do well to consider the incipient cause.
In order to partially ameliorate past omissions, it is imperative for the academic community to objectively study the vast subjective evidence provided by the artifacts themselves. In turn, this places a responsibility on the part of dealers, collectors and curators to impartially scrutinize objects in their care for suspicious signs of forgery, and to resist the temptation to acquire exotic subjects touted as coming "from new finds."
I have known Gerard Geiger since around 1988, when I first started drawing the miniatures, (which were too difficult to photograph), for Carlo Gay's book Mezcala, eventually published in 1992. Each of the numerous times I have spoken with him since, he has plaintively repeated the question, "Why haven't archeologists understood the importance of Guerrero?" Probably the most valid reason is that archeology in all of Mexico was only seriously undertaken beginning in the 1950s; money was scarce, and there were -compared to the hundreds working today - very few archeologists available to investigate prestigious Olmec, Maya and Teotihuacan sites, among others. Also, at that time, the Guerrero people were thought to be hostile and the rewards too apocryphal to risk the archeologists' lives. Unfortunately there have been a number of kidnappings in Guerrero in recent years which does give pause for concern. However, in the 1960s, Carlo Gay and I spent many fearless times in the Guerrero mountains, always finding the peasants very hospitable.
Whatever the ethical, moral or politically correct views concerning Guerrero, it is after all thanks to collectors that the plethora of evidence of an extraordinarily inventive society has been preserved for the study and appreciation of generations to come. And Gerard Geiger's connoisseurship is the reason his collection is so unusually comprehensive. Among the profound presence of the larger figurative works, there are more than a hundred miniatures which demonstrate the versatility of Mezcala artisans. Included are monkeys, serpents and birds which, as most bear biconical suspension holes, are probably totemic amulets and/or clan insignia. There are also figurines, and even replicas of household equipment: jugs, bowls and metates, the latter identical to ones used today for grinding corn. The inclusion of several serpentine grooved-pendants is of special interest as they are precursors of the enigmatic jade "spoon," often credited to the Olmec, but, like other fine jade lapidary work from Guerrero, are more likely to have been commissioned by them. Compared to the abstractions of today's Brancusis which are arbitrarily contrived conceits, the small animals, birds and serpents were the results of a sincere effort to capture their essence.
Of all the illustrations I have made of Precolumbian artifacts, none has given me more satisfaction than my efforts to memorialize the versatility of Guerrero artisans by drawing the small objects Gerard Geiger has collected. In addition to the concentration involved, I was rewarded by a greater awareness of the pieces' technical and stylistic traits, as well as of anomalies that otherwise might have been overlooked. The effort enhanced a sense of empathy with their creators as my mind and eye followed the contours and traced the cuts and grooves delineating the subjects. I am still haunted by the experience, imagining with what tenderness a father would have placed a beastie, serpent or bird talisman that he himself may have made in the grave of his child for protection in the spirit world.
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