Kent V. Flannery discusses altars and religious figures in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Kent V. Flannery

Kent V. Flannery, “Contextual Analysis of Ritual Paraphernalia from Formative Oaxaca,” in The Early Mesoamerican Village, ed. Kent V. Flannery (Studies in Archaeology; San Diego: Academic Press, Inc., 1976), 336-38

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Kent V. Flannery
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Possible Household “Shrines”

Very few features found in household context can be interpreted even tentatively as ritual in function. In Area A at Son José Mogote, we discovered parts of two enigmatic features in stratigraphic Level C3, which dated to the middle of San José phase (ca. 1100-1000 B.C.). The presence of a hearth, a bell-shaped pit, and abundant shell and mica b=debris suggests that our excavations had exposed part of the courtyard in a household cluster, very near the house itself. Feature 3 (see Figure 11.3) was a circular area, 120 cm in diameter and recessed 5 cm into the courtyard, which had been mudplastered and then painted red with specular hematite. Feature 8 was a similar circle, only partly exposed by our excavation, and possibly painted yellow. We cannot imagine what function these features served, but it seems unlikely that it was utilitarian. No other household cluster so far investigated has produced such painted circles, and they are very different in conception from features called “altars” in other Formative sties (Figure 11.4).

Figurines of Dancers

In the introduction to this chapter, we alluded to the likelihood that Early and Middle Formative cultures had “dance societies” or solidarities that performed dances on certain occasions during the year. Such dances were still performed when the Spanish arrived, and are now performed for the benefit of tourists in many areas. Mesoamerican Indian dancers made great use of features, animal fur and gourd and shell rattles in their costumes. They also wore masks, many of which were so small as to cover only the lower half of the face.

Included in the thousands of Early and Middle Formative figurines from Oaxaca are many that seem to represent dancers wearing costumes and makes (Figure 11.5). Some are dressed as fantastic animals, others are birds, jaguars, or pumas. Similar figurines are reported from Tlatilco or Tlapacoya in the Valley of Mexico, some wearing small masks over the lower face (Coe 1965b: Figures 158-158; Piña Chán 1955: Figure 11). Since many of the illustrated specimens are from illegal excavations, contextual data are hard to come by. In the case of Oaxaca, contextual data can be stated quite simply: With the exception of one obviously arranged group (see Drennan, p. 352), figurines and figuring fragments are broadly coextensive with potsherds. They occur in domestic refuse, and wherever sherds are abundant, so usually are figurines. Most of the “costumed dancers2 are Early Formative in date and, whatever their function, they belong contextually with the household cluster. Perhaps some dances are accompanied by the turtle shell drums mentioned earlier, which also may have functioned in a sodality context.

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