The "Roman Figurine" Supposedly Excavated at Calixtlahuaca

by Dr. Michael E. Smith
Professor of Anthropology, Arizona State University

In 1960 José García Payón reported finding this figurine, which looks Roman in style, in his excavations at Calixtlahuaca in the 1930s. After many decades, interest in this find has increased with the publication of an article by Hristov and Genovés in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica. (Romeo Hristov and Santiago Genovés,  1999,  Mesoamerican Evidence of Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Contacts. Ancient Mesoamerica 10:207-213.) The diffusionists have taken this case up with a  vengeance, and the "Roman" figurine is all over the web. After some research on Calixtlahuaca, I am dubious of the validity of this find. I will be doing additional research on the site and on García Payón's notes and publications, and my views may change in the future. But the case for a Roman object in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica remains weak.

**** NOTE ON THE PHOTOGRAPH (November 2011). This photograph was taken by Romeo H. Hristov. Photograph, © Romeo H. Hristov. I thank Mr. Hristov for use of his photo of the figurine. ****

Here are some possibilities for the "Roman figurine" from Calixtlahuaca.

1.  This may be a hoax. This could be a Roman figurine, but it was planted at the site, or in the laboratory, by a student or colleague of the excavator.

The late Dr. John Paddock, a leading Mesoamerican scholar, used to tell classes at the Universidad de las Américas that the object was planted as a joke by Hugo Moedano, a student who worked at the site. Many archaeologists in Mexico have heard this story and they tend to believe it. I have checked with people who knew García Payón and some who knew Moedano, and I have been unable to confirm or reject this suggestion. Hristov and Genovés neglect to mention Paddock's ideas in their article.

2.  This may be a Roman figurine, but it was introduced into the Calixtlahuaca artifact collections, after exavation, through error.

García Payón did not take extensive notes on his fieldwork, and it is entirely possible that extraneous objects may have been introduced into the collections after excavation. The collection of artifacts from Calixtlahuaca, now curated in the Museo de Antropología in Toluca, includes numerous donations of ceramic vessels from other sites, added to the collections after excavation (see: Smith, Michael E., Jennifer Wharton and Melissa McCarron,  Las ofrendas de Calixtlahuaca. Expresión Antropológica (in press, 2002) Perhaps the Roman figurine can be explained in a similar fashion.

3.  This may be a Roman figurine, but it was introduced to Calixtlahuaca in the early days of the Spanish colonial period.

It may have been brought from Europe to Mexico by a Spaniard, and it found its way into a Terminal Postclassic/Early Colonial offering at Calixtlahuaca. It is not possible to tell, from the contents or context, whether the offering dates to the period before the Spanish conquest of Mexico or from the early Spanish colonial period. My continuing analyses of these materials may shed light on this issue in the future.

4. This is a post-Roman European Christian figurine, introduced to Calixtlahuaca in the early days of the Spanish colonial period.

This was the initial professional reaction upon García Payón's publication of the object in 1960. I have yet to be convinced that the figurine really is Roman in origin - no one has shown illustrations of known Roman figurines next to this object. Could it be a post-Roman Christian figure? More research is needed. Arguments that this figurine is Roman in origin need to back that notion up with more than vague statements that "Professor so-and-so says that it looks Roman."

5. There is a slight chance that this may actually be a Roman figurine that somehow made its way from Europe to Mexico in ancient times.

It then may have been kept as a valuable good and ended up in a buried Postclassic offering at Calixtlahuaca. I seriously doubt this was the case, but it cannot be ruled out at this time.

6. There are problems with the thermoluminescence dates reported by Hristov and Genoves. The physicists who ran the dates have objected to the way the dates are described by Hristov and Genoves (Wagner, Günther, letter to New Scientist April 8, 2000 (no. 2233), pp. 64-65). This is discussed in the following articles:

Schaaf, Peter and Günther A. Wagner (2001) Comments on "Mesoamerican Evidence of Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Contacts" by Hristov and Genovés. Ancient Mesoamerica 12:79-82.

Hristov, Romeo H. and Santiago Genovés T. (2001) Reply to Peter Schaaf and Günther A. Wagner's "Comments on 'Mesoamerican Evidence of Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Contacts'". Ancient Mesoamerica 12:83-86.

Problems with the archaeological context of the “Roman figurine”

 The “Roman figurine” supposedly excavated at Calixtlahuaca was not documented using standard archaeological procedures. Excavator José García Payón did not publish professionally adequate descriptions of any of his excavations at the site. After his death, two posthumous reports were issued (García Payón 1979; 1981), but these contain very little specific information on the excavations or individual contexts. The “Roman figurine” cannot be considered well documented according to the normal standards of archaeological practice. If one compares García Payón’s publications with any of the excavation reports listed below, the contrast is obvious. The following kinds of documentation—standard for professional archaeological fieldwork in the twentieth century—are lacking for Calixtlahuaca:

1. Photographs of the process of excavation.
2. Photographs of the object in situ.
3. Photographs of the offering said to have yielded the figurine.
4. Plan maps of the excavation, the object in situ, or the offering.
5. Profile drawings showing the stratigraphic context of the figurine or the offering.
6. Detailed descriptions of the course of excavation (there is a brief summary)
7. Descriptions of the excavator’s reconstruction of the processes of construction and deposition of the structure and offering.
8. Illustrations of the figurine, the offering, or the associated objects, made at the time of excavation.
9. Catalog entries for the figurine or any of the finds from Calixtlahuaca.
10. Laboratory or museum records showing the presence of the figurine and associated objects from the time of excavation.

 These problems of data reporting affect more than just the “Roman figurine” from Calixtlahuaca. The lack of documentation applies to nearly all of the finds from García Payón’s fieldwork. While these problems do not invalidate the “Roman figurine” as a potentially valid Precolumbian find, their implication is that it is impossible today to reconstruct the archaeological context of the find. It certainly cannot be claimed that this find is “well documented” or that it comes from “a good archaeological context.” The excavation of the “Roman figurine” fails to meet even the minimum standards of archaeological reporting.

 One might be tempted to suggest that such reporting standards were lower in the 1930s than they are today, and thus it may be unfair to criticize García Payón on these grounds. While archaeological documentation and publishing standards certainly are much higher today, other archaeologists working in central Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s—Mexicans, North Americans, and Europeans—provided adequate documentation of their fieldwork and finds that meets the standards listed above. The following examples support this claim:

1935 Tenayuca: estudio arqueológico de la pirámide de este lugar. Departamento de Monumentos de la Secretaría de Educación Públic, Talleres Gráficos del Museo Nacional de Antropología, Historia y Etnografía, Mexico City.

Bernal, Ignacio
1979 A History of Mexican Archaeology: The Vanished Civilizations of Middle America. Thames and Hudson, New York.

García Payón, José
1979 La zona arqueológica de Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca y los matlatzincas: etnología y arqueología (textos de la segunda parte), edited by Wanda Tommasi de Magrelli and Leonardo Manrique Castañeda, vol. 30. Biblioteca Enciclopédica del Estado de México, Toluca.

1981 La zona arqueológica de Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca y los matlatzincas: etnología y arqueología (tablas, planos e ilustraciones de la segunda parte), edited by Wanda Tommasi de Magrelli and Leonardo Manrique Castañeda, vol. 31. Biblioteca Enciclopédica del Estado de México, Toluca.

Linné, Sigvald
1934 Archaeological Researches at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Publication, vol. 1. Ethnographic Museum of Sweden, Stockholm.

Vaillant, George C.
1930 Excavations at Zacatenco. Anthropological Papers, vol. 32, no. 1. American Museum of Natural History, New York.

1931 Excavations at Ticoman. Anthropological Papers, vol. 32, no. 2. American Museum of Natural History, New York.


"The Calixtlahuaca Head", from J. Huston McColloch's website, "Some Archaeological Outliers: Adventures in Underground Archaeology"

"Calixtlahuaca Head", from Romeo Hristov's home page.

"Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca Head", from Wikipedia. They obtained the photo from this website, although as stated above this is not my photo. Incidently, Tecaxic has nothing to do with the site or the figurine.

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