Mezcala mask in andesite from the Guerrero region in Mexico

Mezcala culture mask

State of Guerrero in Mexico

Pre-Classic Period, 300-100 BC. JC

Covarrubias: Type 2

Carlo Gay: M18 / M14

Material: Green Andesite

Presence of deposits

Height: 6 cm

Expertise : Sibbel-Brinkmann Knut-Katsura


Photographes of the Work : 


1/ Detail of the Mezcala Mask | State of Guerrero Mexico | Pre-Classic Period, 300-100 BC. JC

2/ Front View of the Mezcala Mask | State of Guerrero Mexico | Pre-Classic Period, 300-100 BC. JC

3/ Perspective view of the Mezcala Mask | State of Guerrero Mexico | Pre-Classic Period, 300-100 BC. JC

4/ Rear view of the Mezcala Mask | State of Guerrero Mexico | Pre-Classic Period, 300-100 BC. JC


Mezcala statuary


The name of Mezcala was given by Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957). This self-taught ethnologist and historian of art was the first to gather under a single denomination the small objects of polished stone, peculiar to the State of Guerrero. These objects are in the form of figurines and masks, animal effigies and ornaments such as pearls, pendants or earrings (Covarrubias 1948, 1956, 1966).

It is to Miguel Covarrubias that we owe the first classification of the Mezcala style (1948: 86-90). The study of the lithic production of the Balsas river basin led to the identification of five major groups:


Type 1: Olmec or La Venta style (Chontal) Objects

Type 2: Olmec Style Objects

Type 3: Teotihuacan Style Objects

Type 4: Olmec-Teotihuacan Objects

Type 5: Local Style Objects


It is to this last category: "the local style" which is referred to when speaking of the Mezcala style. It is the particular schematized and stylized aspect of these pieces which led them to be grouped together and dissociated from the others.

These objects are often made from a form of ax, with cuts and planes arranged symmetrically and features barely suggested. The raw material used is generally a hard stone whose color varies from green to gray green or gray (Diorite, Serpentine, Andesite, etc.) Miguel Covarrubias also mentions marble and obsidian. The Mezcala style is not limited to anthropomorphic representations. Miguel Covarrubias makes a list of other objects: 

Representations of animals (jaguar, frog, monkey, squirrel, bird, duck head, tarantula, etc.) 

Facsimiles in miniature of various objects including the famous facades of temples, stone recipients, rectangular or triangular palettes, axes, polishers, pearls and earrings, etc. 

The area of presence of the Mezcala statuary was defined by Miguel Covarrubias based on the presumed provenance of archaeological finds from illegal excavations (Covarrubias 1948: 86, 1966: 106) 


Map of the region Mezcala and Chontal | Guerrero region in Mexico


This area is located in the north-central part of the State of Guerrero and is crossed by the Balsas River. To the northwest it extends as far as Tejupilco, in the State of Mexico; Its southern boundary is around Tixtla and Chilapa. This defines an area of 180 kilometers long and 80 kilometers wide at the most. 

Miguel Covarrubias will not pronounce himself as to the dating of this statuary.

Carlo Gay (1967) will restrict the Mezcala style to the most schematic objects. Beyond a certain degree of realism he attributed them to the Chontal style. For him: the more abstract the more ancient. He proposes a dating of the Preclassic Recent to the Ancient Preclassic but without real proofs.

Serra (1973) established a new classification of anthropomorphic representations of the Mezcala style. As for Carlo Gay, the bases are far from solid.

Through the books, it is very difficult to get a real idea of the origin and the function of this statuary. The poverty of literature on the subject, invites us to be interested in the few discoveries of Mezcala objects in archaeological context.


Discoveries in an archaeological context outside the Mezcala area


The first evidence of Mezcala objects in context is outside the Mezcala area defined above. They correspond to a late reuse of these votive objects:


Teotihuacan (Rubín de la Borbolla 1964)


Valley of Xochicalco (Noguera 1961 ; Sáenz 1961, 1963 ; Litvak King comm. pers. à Gonzalez 1987)


* Several figurines of the Olmec and Teotihuacan groups of Covarrubias were found in funeral offerings dated from the Old and New Classic.

* An anthropomorphic figurine of the local group, ie Mezcala, would have been identified near Xochicalco in association with Tlahuica Polychrome pottery, giving it a date of the Old Postclassic


Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan (Batres 1902 ; Angulo 1966 ; Contreras 1979 ; Gonzalez 1986, 1987).


Templo Mayor is the name of the great pyramid of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs. Destroyed in the 16th century by the Spaniards, its exact location was then forgotten. Encased under the modern city of Mexico, it was in 1913 that the archaeologist Manuel Gamio rediscovered the southwest corner of the pyramid. But it is an extraordinary discovery on 21st February 1978 that will start a program of large-scale excavations. On that day, workers uncovered a stone disc of 3.1 meters. It is a monumental representation of the Aztec Coyolxauhqui goddess of Darkness.


Azteque Coyolxauhqui disc from the Templo del Mayor in Mexico City


This Pharaonic program required the destruction, buildings, shop and cut an important artery of the Mexican capital. It made it possible to excavate the monumental ruins of this pyramid with steps that measures 80 meters by 90 meters of base.


3d model of the Azteque Pyramid of Templo del Mayor in Mexico City produced by Leigh Thelmadatter


Consistent with what is found in the culture of the Mesoamerican peoples, they have built their new sanctuary on earlier edifices. The excavations revealed that there were seven pyramids built on top of each other. Stage I corresponds to the oldest pyramid; stage VII to the most recent pyramid. The Mezcala style statuettes were discovered in phase IV. It would be contemporaneous with the emperors Moctezuma I and Axayacatl. This corresponds to the recent Postclassic period, the second half of the 15th century. This is mainly an extension of the main façade. From this phase remain spectacular elements. There are the great braziers that bear the face of Tlaloc (God of water and fertility). There are others who wear a knot, symbol of Huitzilopochtli (God of war and the sun). We must also add the monumental serpent heads and the bas-relief of the Queen of Darkness.

The results of this archaeological work are exhibited at the Museo del Templo Mayor in the historic center of Mexico City.  

1/ As early as 1902, Batres mentions a considerable number of stone figurines found in the Templo Mayor, some with attributes of the Teotihuacan group but the majority comparable to the local types of the Guerrero de Covarrubias. 

2/ In the 1960s, Angulo and Contreras described an offering in the structures of the Templo Mayor which contained, among other things, five figurines and five anthropomorphic masks of Chontal style (type 1 of Covarrubias), two masks of type 3 and a small one Model of temple. This offering corresponded to stage IV of the construction of the Templo Mayor. Step IV corresponding to the Recent Postclassic 

3/ 1978-1980: Gonzalez refers to Mezcala plays appearing in a total of 13 offerings. They are all directly associated with the structure of the Templo Mayor. A total of 321 anthropomorphic representations on stone of the genus Mezcala have been discovered. 

- 78 % are clearly linked to the "local" group (Mezcala in the strict sense)

- 17% to the Teotihuacan Group

- 5 % cannot be included in any category 

This campaign made it possible to highlight an extremely interesting element. The Aztecs were offering Mezcala statuettes to the deities of fertility, especially Tlaloc.


Discoveries in context of Mezcala’s pieces in Guerrero


A - Organera-Mezcala (Beginning of 1980, Rodriguez) Discovery of an offering in a ball game field, which contained a Mezcala type 2 of Covarrubias. It was in the presence of fragments of pottery interpreted chronologically as going from the Classic Recent to the Old Postclassic.

Classic Recent corresponds to a period of 600 to 900 ap. J.-C.

Postclassic Ancient corresponds to a period of 900 to 1200 AD. J.-C. 

B - Cocula Valley (Early 1986, Cabrera) Discovery of two Mezcala figurines (type 2 of Covarrubias) from a residential structure at the El Mirador site. They were associated with pottery of the Recent Classic. 

C - Teopantecuanitlan (Early 1980) Discovery of two Mezcala figurines, made of limestone. They were found on the surface of a structure belonging to the third stage of construction of the site, between 800 and 600 BC. J.C. The proximal presence of a postclassical occupation does not allow to associate them with certainty to the former. 

D - Ahuinahuac (1989-1990 Excavation Campaign) Discovery of 7 Mezcala figurines. This is the first real discovery of importance in context in Guerrero.


The Mezcala figures of Ahuinahuac


The site is two kilometers downstream from the modern village of San Juan Tetelcingo, municipality of Tepecoacuilco, in the State of Guerrero.

Detailed coordinates: 99 ° 32 'West longitude | 17 ° 56 'north latitude.


Map of the Archaeological excavations Mezcala of the Ahuinahuac site


The site was located during surface surveys carried out in 1980. It has architectural and artefactual remains over its entire surface. The different surface samples show two different occupations, one in the north and the other in the south. The first intention of the archaeologists was to check and document the presence of the Balsas province. The question of its responsibility in the genesis of votive objects Mezcala was underlying. Excavation activities will be concentrated on the central terrace. This terrace of dimension of approximately 200 meters by 200 meters has a relief well flattened. It overlooks the Balsas River by a steep slope of about 15 meters of vertical drop.


There will be three excavation campaigns:


- La Trinchera in 1984

- Ahuinahuac in 1987

- Ahuinahuac in 1989-1990


It is during this last that the Mezcala figurines will be discovered.


Ahuinahuac in 1987


Discovery of an architectural complex. It has a residential and funerary function. The development of residential homes is reflected in the presence of series of contiguous rooms with elaborate stone masonry and of various funerary trenches.


Ahuinahuac in 1989-1990


Extension of the excavation area of 1987 by two trenches: one along the axis of the terrace, the other perpendicular to the latter. Six of the seven Mezcala objects are discovered within a two-meter radius at Operation 6 (see the plan of the excavations). These pieces consist of four masks and two figures. They are all anthropomorphic and are shaped in a metamorphic stone of a greenish gray marbled with white.


Discovery of Mezcala Masks at the archaeological site of Ahuinahuac


- Five pieces: the four masks (3D4, 6D2, 6B1 and 4F1) and the figurine (4G2) form a very homogeneous ensemble.

- The small figurine (4B1) was distinguished from the others because of its more detailed shaping.


Discovery of Mezcala statuettes at the Ahuinahuac archaeological site


These six Mezcala pieces rested, at various depths, inside a thick embankment. This embankment is associated with the demolition of the buildings and the redevelopment of the terrace. Therefore archaeologists have deduced that these stone idols were surely offerings deposited to underline a period of important changes in the history of the site.

The seventh Mezcala piece, the squirrel (or monkey), was discovered during Operation 5. It was also in an embankment.

The occupation of the site of Ahuinahuac is located between 500 av. And 500 ap.


Ahuinahuac in 1989-1990


The real discovery of Ahuinahuac is the recognition during surface reconnaissance of at least two polished stone sites (high concentration of polished stones at different stages). They are located on the right bank of the Balsa River, on alluvial terraces. The systematic examination of these places will make it possible to document further the rituals of elaboration of these stone idols. It is the first time that indisputable traces in situ have been discovered.


The function of these stone idols


The discoveries of the site of Ahuinahuac show us that these stone idols were deliberately buried in an embankment that served as the basis for the construction of new housing structures. It is difficult to know the precise motive of this gesture. Archaeologists cite several possibilities:


- Cult of the ancestors

- Homage to Fertility Deities

- Consecration of the place


However, it can be said that these are offerings deposited during a ritual practice.

In El Mirador, Cabrera Castro talks about the association of his two figurines with a housing structure. It may be a context quite similar to that of Ahuinahuac


At La Organera-Mezcala, the Mezcala figure was also part of an offering buried in a ball playground.

The presence of Mezcala pieces among the Aztecs in the 15th century, about 1500 years later, proves the reuse of these idols. We can read regularly in the press that the Aztecs were deliberately digging up Mezcala idols. It is possible but we have no evidence. The discovery of the Templo Mayor with its 321 anthropomorphic representations, however, teaches us that the Aztecs used them as offerings. They associated them with deities of fertility, especially Tlaloc (Gonzalez 1987).


Source: Paradise Louise I., Belanger Сhristian, Raby D., Ross B. The Mezcala style discovered in context in Guerrero (Mexico). In: Journal of the Society of Americanists. Tome 76, 1990. pp. 199-212;


Forget the "artistic" and/or "aesthetic" approach


To make an artistic or aesthetic approach to prehistoric statuary, even if it is common in literature, for us, makes no sense. They are votive objects from a ritual.

Even if it is difficult to apprehend, it is essential. At the time of the elaboration of these sculptures everything is sacred: animals, plants, tools, pottery, constructions. There is no distinction between material and spiritual. It is a time when the world was a Whole, sacred, multiple and unique. Everything is bound by "sacred strings" that are broken or consolidated by seeking and demanding universal harmony at the Whole. The sacred remains immutable, only the rules governing it evolve.

If we were lucky enough to be able to contemplate one of these statuettes with the eyes of an Indian Mezcala we would become aware that it is not a statuette but the very soul in its entirety of this vanished world. One way to understand this dimension is to watch the American science fiction film, Avatar, directed by James Cameron in 2009. The people of Pandora, one of Polyphème's moons, operate according to this ancestral principle. The director has succeeded in offering us a visual and accessible approach to this primordial concept of "universal sacrality".

Ultimately, it is certainly through the instinctive emotional intensity that we perceive in contact with these statuettes that we can truly realize this extraordinary dimension. It is an invitation to regain the "magic" dimension of our existence. This is a state in which all our ancestors at one time or another have lived. "Universal sacrality" is the essence of the original man.




Carlo Gay


Mezcala-Ancient Stone Sculpture from Guerrero Mexico

Gay, Carlo & Robin

Edited by Balsas Publications, Geneva, Swirzerland, 2001


Miguel Covarrubias, William Spratling, André Emmerich


Mezcala, Ancient Mexican Sculpture

Miguel Covarrubias, William Spratling, André Emmerich

Edited by Andre Andre Emmerich Gallery, 1956