Pre-Columbian Colima culture known for its pottery dogs
NEW YORK – Although little is known about western Mexico’s Pre-Columbian Colima culture (circa 200 B.C. to A.D. 400), deep shaft tombs have revealed tantalizing aspects of the daily lifestyle and values of the area’s inhabitants. Many shafts, along with bodies of the dead, yield hollow, highly burnished, earthenware effigy vessels depicting hairless dogs indigenous to the region.
Many of these squat, pot-bellied pottery pups, companions through the afterlife, are surprisingly realistic. Scores of them, immortalized with perky ears, stubby legs, upturned snouts and curly tails, seem radiantly happy, ready to play. Others suggest common customs, myths and legends of the time. Dogs curled up, crouched, reclining, or on all fours, with pour-spouts emerging from their bodies, for instance, may have served in burial rites. Those with flattened ears, flared nostrils, bulging eyes, and snarly grimaces may have guarded and guided dead souls as they wandered through the underworld. Since pre-Hispanics believed that man was originally made from maize, dogs gripping corncobs between their teeth may have symbolized sustenance through the circle of life and beyond.
Scholars believe that Colima dogs, like those of similar societies, may have served multiple purposes in life, as well. Appealing ones may have been close companions, while fierce ones functioned as watchdogs. Others may have served as handy, home-grown, hot water bottle-type “healers.”
Even today, some say, remote Central American and Mexican villagers “apply” warm, soothing, smooth-skinned Chihuahuas or Mexican hairless dogs to achy arms or legs. In addition, Colima priests, warriors and royalty, perhaps to mark the close relationship between humans and animals, may have ceremonially sacrificed well-fattened dogs to the gods.
Rare Colima dog effigies also appear to dance, bear turtle shells on their backs or feature open mouths – but lack pour-spouts. Some, perhaps for spiritual reasons, wear eerie, stylized human-face masks, evoking ones that once adorned the dead. Others embody unusual poses, feature oddly shaped necks, ears, eyes, snouts or teeth, or were crafted in exceedingly rare blackware. Pairs of Colima effigy dogs standing erect in fighting or frolicsome confrontation, however, are most collectible of all. Some may fetch six figures.
The size of a Colima dog effigy, which ranges from tiny to over 20 inches, is a factor in determining its value as well. So does its coloration. Redware ones, fashioned from locally sourced manganese-rich clay, vary from pale orange to deep mahogany. Scores are unadorned. Some feature large decorative red belly-spots, mineral-hued stripes, painted black eye masks, incised lines, or circles, triangles, or squares, perhaps with ancient religious significance. Other dog effigies feature root marks or deep brown and black manganese blooms, indications of great age.
Artists, art lovers and history buffs often find Pre-Columbian Colima dog effigies enticing. Dog lovers, however, may be charmed by the fact that even with the passage of time, the poses, expressions and features of the centuries-old canines are delightfully familiar.
Our thanks to Bob Dodge of Artemis Gallery for providing expert information used in this article. Click to visit Artemis Gallery online.