Tlatilco Life/Death Mask

1100-600 B.C.


The Vanishing Non-Technological World : Middle America : Mexico : Olmec

This pottery split-face mask shows the right side of the head (if worn) fleshed with an open eye and eyebrow, and the tongue protruding below the large defined teeth of the upper jaw. The head is split down the center through the nose and the jaw and the left side is skeletal having on open oval for the empty eye socket and large incised teeth. Meyer writes: "The interrelationship of life and death is one of the dominant themes in early Mexican iconography"4 Further comments from Smith speak of the same theme: "Split down the middle, ranging in height from six to twelve inches, these dramatically show a fully fleshed living person on one side with a skeleton figure representing death on the other. Such figurines depict babies, children, and adults in the duality of life and death."5

Cultural Context
Adams writes of Tlatilco: "This site is famous for its spectacular burials of which some 500 or more have been excavated. Tolstoy and Paradise' research indicates that Tlatilco has about four periods represented in its burials, the earliest of which precedes the Tlapacoya material, dating about 1500 B.C. Tlatilco seems to have been a large community with perishable housing, but also possessing low, one-or two-step clay platforms which may have been specialized temple platforms. At any rate, there is a definite Olmec presence at Tlatilco from the beginning, with the characteristic hollow dolls showing up in the burials, as well as other exotic forms of Olmec pottery. Bowls in which excised jaguar paw designs are emphasized by red paint rubbed into them and a black slip surrounding, virtually replicate vessels from La Venta and San Lorenzo. Clusters of figurines with the burials show many life scenes: acrobats, diviners, and women carrying babies, for example. On the other hand much of the exotic material at Tlatilco seems to be of a native ceramic tradition. The famous 'life-death' bowl, which shows a live face on one half with a skull on the other side is such a piece. It is significant that there is no earlier Preclassic culture known for the basin than this Olmec-connected period, with the possible exception of the Toluca Valley beyond. Coe thinks that the two sites together represent the route of access to Toluca for the possible purpose of obtaining jade from that western valley."1

Campbell describes the site as a "prosperous early-agricultural community, whose ancestors had occupied the site from as early as 1500 or even 1700 B.C. They cultivated maize, squash, and chili peppers; hunted deer, rabbits and waterfowl with javelins propelled by spear throwers; caught fish and shrimp in the lakes; and fattened for food a breed of small dog. Their remains betray connections with other early communities far removed, 'some', according to Miguel Covarrubias, who supervised the excavating, 'extending as far north as the Ohio Valley, as far south as Honduras, and all the way to the Peruvian north coast.'"3

Archetypal Commentary
Campbell compares such split masks to the dual form of life and death represented, mythologically, by paired figures of Demeter and Persephone, Inanna and Ereshkigal, and then says, "The statement here is obviously of life and death as one -- life out of death and death out of life -- a dominant theme throughout the dominion of the planting cultures, underlying the frenzy of human sacrifice along the whole range, from Mexico, through Polynesia and South Asia, to Equatorial Africa. No evidence has yet turned up, as far as I know, of human sacrifice in the villages, but in the Olmec ceremonial centers it was apparently the central occasion, as it became and remained, certainly, throughout the Classic and Postclassic stages of Mesoamerican civilization." "Across the Pacific, in throughout the Classic and Postclassic stages of Mesoamerican civilization." "Across the Pacific, in Cambodia, seventh century A.D., an equivalent image fashioned in stone was of a Hindu mythic savior known as Hari-Hari, who in one person united Vishnu the Preserver (the left side) and Shiva the Destroyer (the right). Still further westward along the tropical belt, we find the East African Basungwe, once from the neighborhood of Zimbabwe, with a legend of the Lord of Life and Death at a royal presence in the Underworld, his right side alive and comely, the left rotting, crawling with maggots."3

Material or Technique
Terra Cotta


Repository or Site
Mexico: Mexico City, Museo Nacional de Antropologia

Image Sources
Covarrubias, Mexican and Central American Art, pl IV.


1-Adams, Richard E.W. Prehistoric Mesoamerica. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1977.
2-Bernal, Ignacio. Willis Barnstone, trans. Mexico Before Cortez; Art, History and Legend. Garden City, New York: Dolphin Books. Originally published in Spanish as Tenochtitlan en Una Isla.
3-Campbell, Joseph. Historical Atlas of World Mythology, Vol. II, Pt. 3. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
4-Meyer, Karl E. Teotihuacan. New York: Newsweek (Wonders of Man series), 1973.
5-Smith, Bradley. Mexico; A History in Art. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1968.

La Venta: An Olmec site on the pre-classic period (c.2000 - 150 BC) in the state of Tabasco noted for its magnificent jade figurines and colossal heads of basalt
San Lorenzo: Mexico's first civilization, the Olmec, has been clearly traced to San Lorenzo situated in the Gulf Coast Lowland of the southern state of Vera Cruz. The site was an artificially shaped and levelled hilltop, with rich levee lands of the nearby river for an agricultural base. It flourished from 1200 to 900 with approximately 1,000 inhabitants. It is famous for its large carved stone heads, and for the channeling of water for religious ceremonies.