Articles

A PHYTOMORPHIC JAR

 

Perhaps as long ago as 10,000 years and at least by 7,000 years in the past, the natives in what is now called Central America began growing and eating a strange little fruit.  The seeds of this vining plant that produced the editable delicacy were apparently traded into the nation that is now known as Mexico where the indigenous people grew the plant along with sunflowers, maize, chiles and beans for human consumption.  In the far western region of the country, which was segregated from most of Mexico by volcanoes and rugged terrain, the natives of this Pacific Ocean bordering territory, now known as Colima, were cultivating this plant by 200 BC and probably long before that date.  These people were among the greatest pottery makers ever known in the world and they used their imaginations to create many simple as well as complex vessels.  Among the favored pottery themes were the fruits and vegetables grown by these aborigines which embraced many forms, including this phytomorphic jar.

 

Phytomorphic or phytomorphism is a word that simply means having the attributes of a plant.  In the case of this vessel, the gadrooned shape is of the fruit from that ancient plant originally grown in Central America and that is now known as being in the cucurbitacea family which includes squashes and gourds.  We modern humans simply call it the pumpkin.  The word pumpkin originates from the ancient Greek “pepon” which translates as “large melon” and it certainly is, by today’s standards, a large melon.  But the current belief is that it was, those many thousands of years in the past, a small summer squash type vegetable or fruit in size.  Thousands of years of careful cultivation and genic manipulation have altered it into the large pumpkin as we currently know it with the orange color and the many arcs in its curvilinear outer surface.

 

The inhabitants of ancient Colima were different from many of the other residents in Mexico and that was probably because of the natural geographic barriers that separated them from the pyramid building and pagan god worshiping peoples further north, south and east.  Even though they probably did practice shamanism and worship some type of deities, the only representations of gods in the regional art of the natives is in their unorthodox human-type effigy vessels. They apparently developed no hieroglyphic writing systems and built very few large stone or earthen monuments or ceremonial ball courts as was done by the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec civilizations.  This was probably, at least to some extent, because of the extreme earth surface on which they lived.  Each relatively small family and/or village territory had a limited spatial capacity for agriculture which could not withstand substantial exploitation by the humans. But all that does not mean that the Colima natives were backwards bumpkins.  Their pottery creations definitely show their intelligence and creativeness.  They were apparently obsessed with their worship of a “cult of the dead” which was a definite life after death belief as was emphasized in their customs and crafts.  They dug many thousands of shaft-chamber tombs in which they interred their deceased ancestors along with a great multitude of pottery vessels beginning in what is called the Late Formative Period or around 200 BC until around AD 300.  Today we do not know the names these people used for themselves or even the language they spoke so we simply call them Colima from the name later given the people/territory in the native Aztec Nahuatle language  - COLI meaning gods and MAITL meaning domain – thus Domain of the Gods.  And these aboriginals were probably tranquil in their isolated land until the Spaniard Gonzalo de Sandoval led his army into the territory in AD 1523 in a quest for gold and silver.  The Europeans enslaved many of the natives as miners in the precious metal quarries until they managed to kill off an estimated eighty per cent of the population, at which time the conquerors abandoned the region for lack of workers.  But the Spaniards did not seem to have any interest in the shaft tombs or the ceramics hidden within.  That changed only in the 1930’s when modern collectors discovered these treasures and the local indigenous diggers, called “moneros”, began excavating the pottery art and selling the items to individuals and museums.  Between 1930 and 1960, it is estimated that the native laborers eradicated as many as 90 per cent of the ancient sepulchers and sold the vessels they found into Europe, the United States and other regions of Mexico.  They could make in a week or occasionally in a single day, as much as they made in almost a year of farming their harsh land; so it can be understood why this happened from the economic stand point of the local people.

 

It is believed, today, that the dried hulls of the various members of the gourd or squash family, including the one we called the pumpkin, were used as bulk food containers as well as cups and dishes long before the invention of earthenware pottery receptacles in the Western Hemisphere.  It is also theorized that this led to the development of the overall curved shapes of most ceramic bowls and jars.  This particular vessel was probably made as an imitation of a pumpkin which some agronomists call a fruit and others claim it is vegetable.  It was legally acquired by an American tourist in the 1950’s which was before the State of Colima passed the 1971 law banning the export of their ancient treasures.  It is a 6 3/8 inches tall by 4 inches diameter jar form with a narrowed neck and a lengthy everted rim.  The color is the typical red-brown of the vessels made by the regional natives in the Late Formative Period and is extremely well burnished on the multi-segmented exterior surface.  There are several areas with black firing clouds and reasonably heavy manganese deposits from it being in a sub-surface locale for maybe over a thousand years.  The Colima artisans are revered for making the stylized human and anthropomorphic jars and bottles but they also had to have everyday usage jars and bowls and bottles, of which this is probably one but with some extra fluted modeling to make it more of a conventional appearing pumpkin.  Or maybe it is a copy of an acorn or a Hubbard squash.  Or perhaps it is a duplication of the mature ovary of a reeded organ cactus.  Or is a replica of the hallucinogenic fruit of the peyote?  The debate could continue as to whether it is a vegetable or a fruit and just which it represents, but there is no doubt that the vessel is obviously a facsimile from the plant kingdom and is therefore a beautiful phytomorphic jar.

 

REFERENCES:

Bell, Betty, Editor                                                                    1974

     THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF WEST MEXICO

Castillo, Bernal Diaz del                                                         1956

     THE DISCOVERY AND CONQUEST OF MEXICO

Coe, Michael D. & Rex Koontz                                                1994

    MEXICO: FROM THE OLMECS TO THE AZTECS

Gallagher, Jacki                                                                       1984

     COMPANIONS OF THE DEAD: CRAMIC TOMB SCULPTURE FROM ANCIENT WEST MEXICO

Kelly, Isabel                                                                             1978

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Messmacher, Miguel                                                              1966

     COLIMA

Reynolds, Richard D.                                                               1993

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Townsend, Richard F. Editor                                                   1998

     ANCIENT WEST MEXICO – ART & ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE UNKNOWN PAST

Von Winning, Hasso                                                               1974

     THE SHAFT TOMB FIGURINES OF WEST MEXICO

Weigand, Phil C.                                                                     1996

     ANCIENT MESOAMERICA