UCR grad student curates exhibition on Mesoamerican culture

On Friday evening, Feb. 2, the exhibition, “Uncovering Ancient Mexico: The Mystery of Tlatilco,” opened at the Riverside Art Museum. The exhibition was curated by Catharina E. Santasillia, a UCR Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology, in collaboration with the Riverside Metropolitan Museum.

The exhibition is filled with ceramic figurines and other artifacts from the ancient community of Tlatilco, today located underneath Mexico City. Tlatilco is one of the earliest complex societies of Central Mexico that flourished about 3,000 years ago contemporaneous with the Olmec in the Gulf of Mexico.

In an interview with The Highlander, Santasilia said she is relieved and excited now that the exhibition is finally open. A conference, titled “The Rise of Civilization in Mesoamerica,” was hosted on Feb. 3. Researchers from the United States, Canada, Mexico and Belize all spoke at the conference and presented their research. This conference was held in conjunction with the opening of the exhibition. According to Santasilia, this conference went spectacularly. Santasilia stated, “This conference really helped put this exhibition on the map and it really promoted it. I am so grateful for all of the speakers who came to speak and shared their knowledge with us.”

The figurines on display at the exhibition all vary in shape and size and Santasilia stated that this could be due to the fact that that none of the figurines are believed to have been molded or mass produced. These factors, according to Santasilia, are the most probable reason for the variety and distinction in the figurines. Some of the figurines have two faces which Santasilia notes is very important. Santasilia explained that these double faces could potentially represent the doubling of corn, which is when two corn ears grow on one stem. The Tlatilco people potentially placed large significance on duality, according to Santasilia.


Santasilia noted that one of the reasons she considers this exhibition “so incredible” is because of the amount of people who helped her put it together. The exhibition includes an animation that was put together by Night Fire Films, a film production company based in Los Angeles. This animation illustrates 214 Tlatilco figurines. Santasilia claims that this animation is important because of the amount of figurines it animates and how it allows visitors get to experience ancient cultures. The exhibit features 55 physical figurines, not including the 214 that are illustrated on the animation. Santasilia stated, “Not many exhibits illustrate so many objects, so I am really grateful to Night Fire Films because their animation made the exhibit that much more special.”

While they are not on display at the exhibit, large panels at the exhibition explained how many burial sites of the Tlatilco were discovered and how many held vast amounts of grave goods. These burial sites, as well as the figurines, were “rediscovered” by Miguel Covarrubias, a Mexican painter, caricaturist, ethnologist and art historian. Santasilia stated that Covarrubias essentially rediscovered the “importance” of Tlatilco.

Santasilia noted that the presence of grave goods could potentially suggest that the Tlatilco people had a belief system. The grave goods, according to Santasilia, suggest a belief in life after death. Santasillia also stated that since maize was so important to this community, there is strong evidence that the Tlatilco people believed in a maize god.

These burial sites also allow archaeologists to draw conclusions about the way the Tlatilco lived their life. Santasilia stated that the Tlatilco people tended to have osteoarthritis, a type of arthritis that occurs when flexible tissue at the ends of bones wears down, at a very young age. This suggests that these people lived a very difficult and physically taxing life.

Santasilia stated, “My extensive network made this entire thing possible and I am so grateful. Without it, this would not have happened. I’m just so honored at the support I have received.”

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