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Tlatilco Figurines

by Dr. Rex Koontz
Double-faced female figurine, c. 1200–900 B.C.E. (early formative period, Tlatilco), ceramic with traces of pigment, 9.5 cm high (Princeton University Art Museum)

Intimate and lively

Tlatilco figurines are wonderful small ceramic figures, often of women, found in Central Mexico. This is the region of the later and much better-known Aztec empire, but the people of Tlatilco flourished 2,000–3,000 years before the Aztec came to power in this Valley. Although Tlatilco was already settled by the
, most scholars believe that the many figurines date from the Middle Preclassic period, or about 1200–400 B.C.E. Their intimate, lively poses and elaborate hairstyles are indicative of the already sophisticated artistic tradition. This is remarkable given the early dates. Ceramic figures of any sort were widespread for only a few centuries before the appearance of Tlatilco figurines.
Double faces (detail), Double-faced female figurine, c. 1200–900 B.C.E. (early formative period, Tlatilco), ceramic with traces of pigment, 9.5 cm high (Princeton University Art Museum)


The Tlatilco figurine at the Princeton University Art Museum has several traits that directly relate to many other Tlatilco female figures: the emphasis on the wide hips, the spherical upper thighs, and the pinched waist. Many Tlatilco figurines also show no interest in the hands or feet, as we see here. Artists treated hairstyles with great care and detail, however, suggesting that it was hair and its styling was important for the people of Tlatilco, as it was for many peoples of this region. This figurine not only shows an elaborate hairstyle, but shows it for two connected heads (on the single body). We have other two-headed female figures from Tlatilco, but they are rare when compared with the figures that show a single head. It is very difficult to know exactly why the artist depicted a
figure (as opposed to the normal single head), as we have no documents or other aids that would help us define the meaning. It may be that the people of Tlatilco were interested in expressing an idea of duality, as many scholars have argued.
Reconstruction of a house, c. 1200 B.C.E., central Mexico
The makers of Tlatilco figurines lived in a large farming villages near the great inland lake in the center of the basin of Mexico. Modern Mexico City sits on top of the remains of the village, making archaeological work difficult. We don’t know what the village would have looked beyond the basic shape of the common house—a mud and reed hut that was the favored house design of many early peoples of Mexico. We do know that most of the inhabitants made their living by growing maize (corn) and taking advantage of the rich lake resources nearby. Some of the motifs found on other Tlatilco ceramics, such as ducks and fish, would have come directly from their lakeside surroundings.
Shaman, c. 1200–600 B.C.E. (Middle Preclassic, Tlatilco), 9.5 cm high (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City)

Male figures are rare

Tlatilco artists rarely depicted males, but when they did the males were often wearing costumes and even masks. Masks were very rare on female figures; most female figures stress hairstyle and/or body paint. Thus the male figures seem to be valued more for their ritual roles as priests or other religious specialists, while the religious role of the females is less clear but was very likely present.

How they were found

In the first half of the 20th century, a great number of graves were found by brick-makers mining clay in the area. These brick-makers would often sell the objects—many of them figurines—that came out of these graves to interested collectors. Later archaeologists were able to dig a number of complete burials, and they too found a wealth of objects buried with the dead. The objects that were found in largest quantities—and that enchanted many collectors and scholars of ancient Mexico—were the ceramic figurines.
Tlatilco figurine of a woman with a dog, c. 1200–600 B.C.E. (Tlatilco), ceramic (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


Unlike some later Mexican figurines, those of Tlatilco were made exclusively by hand, without relying on molds. It is important to think, then, about the consistent mastery shown by the artists of many of these figurines. The main forms were created through pinching the clay and then shaping it by hand, while some of the details were created by a sharp instrument cutting linear motifs onto the wet clay. The forms of the body were depicted in a specific proportion that, while non-naturalistic, was striking and effective. The artist was given a very small space (most figures are less than 15 cm high) in which to create elaborate hairstyles. Even for today’s viewer, the details in this area are endlessly fascinating. The pieces have a nice finish, and the paint that must indicate body decoration was firmly applied (when it is preserved, as in the two-headed figure above). Many scholars doubt that there were already full-time artists in such farming villages, but it is certain that the skills necessary to function as an artist in the tradition were passed down and mastered over generations.
Essay by Dr. Rex Koontz

Want to join the conversation?

  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user trek
    I wonder if the figurine at the top could be of a pair of actual Olmec conjoined diprosopus twins?
    (20 votes)
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  • aqualine sapling style avatar for user destineefpayne
    why are male figurines rare
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user brunssteve
    Does anyone else see 5 eyes? It clearly looks like there is an eye in each mouth--and not just in this piece, but in others as well.
    (6 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user daniella
      The depiction of multiple eyes in Tlatilco figurines is a notable characteristic. Some figurines do indeed have eyes depicted in unusual places, such as in the mouths or other non-traditional locations. This artistic choice likely held symbolic meaning, though the exact interpretation is not fully understood. It could represent spiritual beliefs, duality, or other concepts significant to the Tlatilco culture. This kind of artistic expression often reflects deeper cultural or religious ideas that are not always fully documented in historical records.
      (1 vote)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Bethany Kraft
    so what is the main function of the figurines
    (4 votes)
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  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user Andrea Calderon
    In your opinion, why would be important for this community to replicate daily day actions in ceramic?
    (2 votes)
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  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user JacBud
    Does anyone know where someone from the northeast United States could view Tlatilco figurines in person in addition to the Princeton University Art Museum?

    The MET, FMA Boston, and the Worcester (Mass.) Art Museum have several examples in their collections, but their respective websites indicate that they are all "not on view".

    Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archeology & Ethnology has a nice collection, but its website does not indicate if any of them are on view.
    (3 votes)
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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Sam
    How can we know for sure how old they are?
    (2 votes)
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  • purple pi purple style avatar for user louisaandgreta
    In the Appearance paragraph there seems to be a misspelling of the word female written “femaile”, I looked it up in case it was a real word but it doesn’t seem to be.
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user s1030781
    what was the artist name that made Tlatilco Figurines
    (1 vote)
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  • starky tree style avatar for user DragonArtt
    is it possible that there are more figurines of women because they were held in high esteem? like earlier in this course (unit one, what art tells us about gender) it was said that there was special art made for women to show their honor and reverence in the Maya community. Couldn't the Tlatilco people have something similar? To honor people?
    (2 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user daniella
      It's plausible that Tlatilco women held a special status in their society, similar to other Mesoamerican cultures where certain gender roles and distinctions were emphasized in art and society. The prevalence of female figurines in Tlatilco culture suggests that women may have held significant roles or were revered in some way. The elaborate hairstyles and body features depicted in these figurines could indicate a form of honor or status. However, the exact societal roles and meanings behind these figurines remain speculative without written records. Like in other ancient Mesoamerican cultures, art can provide valuable insights into social structures and beliefs, but it requires careful interpretation and analysis to draw concrete conclusions.
      (1 vote)