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Figurines, materiality and social life in ancient Mesoamerica.

JULIA A. HENDON, ROSEMARY A. JOYCE & JEANNE LOPIPARO. Material relations: the marriage figurines of Prehispanic Honduras, xiv+200 pages, 73 b&w illustrations, 11 tables. 2014. Boulder: University Press of Colorado; 978-1-60732-277-1 hardback $70.

CHRISTINA T. HALPERIN. Maya figurines: intersections between state and household, xi+300 pages, 108 colour and b&w illustrations, 17 tables. 2014. Austin: University of Texas Press; 978-0-292-77130-7 hardback 37 [pounds sterling] & 55 [euro].


Reading these two books is like peering into a magnifying lens. One is able to focus in and reflect on small details, but is also made aware that these details are inextricably linked to, and informed by, other elements in the field of view. In Material relations: the marriage figurines of Prehispanic Honduras and Maya figurines: intersections between state and household, the authors carry out focused analyses of ceramic figurines from pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. Through the theoretical lenses of materiality, practice and mimesis, they show how figurines, as individual objects or assemblages, created social life through their portability, transferability and biographies. Furthermore, because of their association with households, they show how figurines can speak to the lives of women, children and commoners, the dynamics of households, and the relationship between non-states or culturally peripheral areas and the state. These two books stand as nuanced exemplars of microscale approaches in archaeology and a concern with intimate practices to reveal larger social phenomena.

Material relations is an accessible and engaging exploration of the diverse ways that marriage (or double) figurines in pre-Hispanic Honduras, dated to between AD 500 and 1000, created social relationships through their production, use and display. A subset of ceramic figural imagery found in these societies, double figurines are a relatively uncommon class of figurines that depict two people standing close to each other. The authors focus their analyses on double figurines found in western Honduras, on the outer edge of Maya influence, in order to illuminate the internal social dynamics of the communities that lived there. The authors devote one chapter each to six sites where double figurines have been found: Copan, Tenampua, Campos Dos, Curruste, Travesla and Cerro Palenque. With the exception of Copan, these sites lack the kind of evidence used to evaluate the role of the state, such as monuments with inscriptions. Their analyses reveal the diverse ways that double figurines were implicated in creating alliances between social houses and, ultimately, the flexible and heterarchical social landscape of western Honduras.

At Copan, for example, six marriage figurines (more precisely, figurine-whistles) depicting a male and female with special clothing, headdress and jewellery were recovered. Most were associated with the wealthier houses at Copan. The authors interpret these figurines as representing the union of two important families and, given their similarity to figurines from Tenampua, a defensive site some 150km away, they suggest these represent the alliance of two families from these two communities, with the female--given her headdress--most likely from Tenampua. This alliance, they suggest, would have put the Copan family in a social debt and created a relationship of inequality. Similar yet distinctive from the figurines at Copan and Tenampua is a figurine found at the small village site of Cerro Dos. The details expressed on the female figure (including filed teeth), in contrast to those of the male, suggests that the female came from the more socially prominent family, although their similar headdresses suggest they both came from the same locality. Analyses of the figurines recovered at Curruste, Travesla and Cerro Palenque also reveal intriguing insights into the social dynamics of communities, including ancestor commemoration.

By focusing on figurines found at sites in western Honduras, Hendon, Joyce and Lopiparo contribute to reconfiguring the relationships between the Maya state (and large central places) to non-states and marginal places. Their research also challenges the applicability of state-centred/top-down terms like 'Mayanise' and 'Mayoid' to understand the processes by which material culture was created and used in pre-Hispanic Honduras, as they tend to erase or peripheralise the distinctive histories of indigenous groups. By including the study of museum pieces (sometimes poorly provenanced), as well as more recently excavated pieces, the authors also aim to promote the study of museum collections, in line with the Society for American Archaeology Code of Ethics. Although the book is accessible to the non-Mesomericanist, some additional information would have been helpful at times. For example, a chart summarising cultural phases and figurine traditions would have been helpful in the Introduction, as would an estimate of how many double figurines exist, or their proportion relative to other figurines. For the photographs of the figurines, it would also have been useful to have a scale or some indication of their size (most do not).

In Maya figurines: intersections between state and household, Christina Halperin analyses figurines of the Late Classic Maya period (AD 600-900). Halperin's focus, therefore, is not on a traditionally marginalised region, such as western Honduras, but on a marginalised space--that is, households of elites and commoners--and an examination of how figurines are implicated in the making of states through everyday practices. Thus, her aim is similar to that of Hendon, Joyce and Lopiparo--to hone in on small objects to reveal larger social phenomena. In many ways, however, this is a more ambitious and expansive work than Material relations, drawing, as it does, from the author's doctoral dissertation. Halperin deals with a larger set of figurines, including anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and supernatural figurines, and articulates these with other media, such as murals and ceramics. She also considers a larger geographic region--essentially the entire Maya area. In-depth discussions of important theoretical concepts, such as materiality, mimesis, semiotics and the state are woven into this book's narrative, and appendices with summaries of the types and manufacturing attributes of figurines are included.

Through an analysis of figurines, the book deals with an essential contradiction: how are households both part of the state yet also separate from the state? That is, how are households shaped or regulated by the state apparatus, yet at the same time how do they operate in isolation from the state? To deal with this apparent contradiction, Halperin takes a relational approach, developed throughout the book, by considering how households were shaped by (or autonomous of) the state, and, conversely, how the state (and political elites) drew from the resources and legitimacy of households, yet maintained a distance from them and influence over them.

In Chapter 3, for example, Halperin details how most household figurines mimetically drew on the imagery and pageantry of elites in distinctive ways that both reinforced gender and class differences but also introduced new social categories. Interestingly, imagery of household activities, such as women grinding on metates, was relatively uncommon and geographically restricted. More common were figurines, both male and female, often found wearing royal headgear and jewellery, although in a more simplified and less nuanced form than observable on more monumental media or painted ceramics. The strict gendering of musicians found in monumental art was maintained in figurines; women, for example, were never found holding musical instruments. To Halperin, this suggests the penetration and consumption of the visual imagery of the state at the local household level. In other ways, there are intriguing differences. Both male and female figurines hold fans, yet in other media, males are primarily associated with fans, suggesting that women may have played a larger role in public performances than previously recognised. A greater diversity of social categories is represented in figurines than are regularly depicted in elite imagery, such as commoner women wearing broad-rimmed hats. Some of the faces of these figurines are, intriguingly, scratched, perhaps reflecting a private action intended to de-animate or subvert the power of the individual represented.

Perhaps more revealing of the tensions and political asymmetry between the household and the state are the figurines depicting tricksters, clowns, dwarves and other grotesque spiritual beings (Chapter 4). These beings were sanctioned by the state, but they had the potential to challenge the authority of elites, due to their association with disorder and excess. Their imagery in figurines was not as strictly codified as that of deities and they likely served as cues to the recounting of oral narratives in households. Considered by Halperin along with these tricksters are figurines of aged males engaged in undignified activities, such as sticking out their tongue, which subvert the dignity and authority normally accorded to elders.

Halperin considers the political economies of figurines in Chapter 5, drawing on raw material studies of figurines to trace their circulation. These patterns reveal the distinctive social networks that linked households to each other while maintaining separate spheres for elites and commoners. Chapter 6 most directly engages with the materiality of figurines and their role in performances by considering their biographies and sensorial properties--most notably as sound-making devices.

What makes both of these books effective is their multi-scalar approach. The authors skilfully unravel the stories of figurines by linking them to other artefacts, shifting their scale of analysis from household, through site, to region, and framing their analyses in contemporary theoretical and anthropological debates, thus pointing the way to their broader relevance. Both also reject a reliance on monumental art, prestige and elite goods as keys to understanding the ways that state power is channelled through individuals and communities. For archaeologists interested in the basic question 'what does material culture do?,' these books are essential reading.

doi: 10.15184/aqy.2014.14

Katina T. Lillios, Department of Anthropology, University of Iowa, 114 Macbride Hall, Iowa City, IA 52242, USA (Email:
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Title Annotation:'Material Relations: The Marriage Figurines of Prehispanic Honduras' and 'Maya Figurines: Intersections Between State and Household'
Author:Lillios, Katina T.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Feb 1, 2015
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