May 14, 2015: Smiling Face Figurine (Sonriente)
Veracruz, East Mexico
Late Classic Period, C.A. 600-900 CE
10 x 13.5 x 9 cm
Smiling face figurines, such as this one, are characteristic of the Remojadas style, a component of classic Veracruz culture. Break patterns on the base of the head suggest that this artifact was once attached to a ceramic body, similar to other smiling face figurines recovered and another we have at the museum. The holes in the back and sides of the head suggest that this piece may have also served as whistle, although these holes were needed to allow steam to escape the fired clay and may have served as holders for feathers or other decorative attachments.
There are multiple standing interpretations concerning the purpose of these figurines, however none of these explanations are conclusive. One explanation for their drunken appearance is that the figurines may have had some connection to the pulque cult, a suite of rituals that revolved around the production and consumption of an alcoholic beverage made from the sap of maguey, an agave plant. However, it is also speculated that the appearance of stupor on the figurines’ faces could be related to hallucinogenic rituals underwent by individuals prior to being sacrificed. Similar types of ceramic figurines are thought to have been symbolically sacrificed, ritually decapitated and smashed. The abundance of recovered heads compared to bodies is sometimes used as a line of evidence to support the symbolic sacrifice interpretation, however as the head is the most recognizable feature of this form, a high collection bias for heads is expected.
To moderns, this form was rare and little was known about it until an influx of smiling face figurines entered the antiquities market in the early 1950’s due to looting. Local government efforts to protect the archaeology resulted in excavations that have yielded much of the information known about these figurines, however looting remains a serious threat to our global understanding of the past.
This piece is affectionately called “Drunk Uncle” by the museum staff and interns. The realism of the face, likely molded from a cast and detailed by hand, contrasts with the exaggerated shape of the head, giving the impression of something that is both familiar and strange, such as the transcendent feelings that accompany music, dance, and perhaps intoxication.