THE ROMAN HEAD FROM TECAXIC-CALIXTLAHUACA, MEXICO: A REVIEW OF THE EVIDENCE
Romeo H. Hristov (b) and Santiago Genovés T. (b)
(a) Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque NM 8713 1, U.S.A.
(b) Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas-UNAM, Ciudad Universitaria 04510, México, D.F., MEXICO
From the early sixteenth century until present many hypotheses of Pre-Columbian transoceanic contacts have been discussed (Sorenson and Raish 1996). With the only exception of the well-established Medieval Norse contacts with North American Indians (McGee 1984) all of the mentioned hypotheses share a common critical weakness: the lack of support in direct archaeological evidence, that is, genuine Old Word objects found in Pre-Columbian archaeological contexts (Willey 1985: 358). During the XIX and XX centuries some more or less reliable finds of such objects were reported from Mesoamerica; however, until the present time none of them have been accepted as incontrovertible evidence of interhemispheric contact before 1492.
Among the mentioned data one of the most trustworthyis a small terracotta head of supposed Roman origin found in Mexico (García Payón 1961, 1979: 203-205; Heine-Geldern 1961; see Figure 1a, b). The figurine was discovered in 1933 during the excavation of a burial offering in the Pre-Hispanic settlement of Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca, located nearly forty miles NW of Mexico City (Figure2). The offering was placed under three intact floors of a pyramidal structure and, besides the head include different objects of gold, copper, turquoise, rock crystal, jet, bone, shell and pottery. Although the burial itself was dated between 1476-1510 A.D., Ernst Boehringer, a respectable classical archaeologist, has argued that the head is a Roman work from the II-III century A.D. The considerable discrepancy of more than a one thousand years between the figurine and the other artifacts in the offering has originated certain suspicions about the reliability of the find, and therefore it was not generaly accepted as evidence of transoceanic contacts in the 34th International Congress of Americanists (Vienna, 1960).
In 1995 FS Archaeömetrie in Heidelberg, Germany has performed a thermoluminescence (TL) age test of the piece which established its age limits between IX century B.C. and the middle XIII century A.D (Schaaf and Wagner 2000, Hristov and Genovés 2000). This result clears up the doubts of Colonial manufacture of the artifact, and makes the hypothesis of Roman origin –among other possibilities- applicable. The identification of the head as Roman work has been further confirmed by Bernard Andreae, a director emeritus of the German Institute of Archaeology in Rome, Italy. According to Andreae
On the other hand, an examination of the field notes of the archaeologist in charge of the excavation as well as the site itself have not revealed, in either case, signs of possible disturbances of the context (Hristov and Genovés 1999). During the last three decades over a dozen of references concerning re-use of small Olmec artifacts in Classical (III-IX centuries A.D.) or the Postclassical (X-XV centuries A.D.) contexts have been published, which give sufficient credibility to the appearance of a piece from the II-III century A.D. in context of the late XV century A.D (Navarrete 1982). Especially suggestive in this respect is the discovery of a small Olmec mask from the first millennia B.C. inside a XV century A.D. burial offering in the Great Temple of Mexico-Tenoctitlán (Matos 1979). Furthermore, the recent discovery of a Roman settlement from the I B.C.-IV A.D. centuries in the Lanzarote island, Canary Archipelago (Atoche Peña 1995) suggest a possible relationship of the Roman find from Mexico to some trans-Atlantic voyage during that period.
The publication of the complementary research of the apparently Roman head discovered in Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca (Hristov and Genovés 1999), has generated much controversy, and has been discussed in publications in at least sixteen languages, as well in several radio and television programs. Three of the objections against the reliability of the evidence deserve especial attention.
The first one, formulated before the TL analysis, is that the terracotta head is a Colonial-period object, introduced in an unclear way in a pre-Hispanic context; in fact, it is catalogued as such in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City. This supposition, however, is not based on any concrete fact. On one hand, the three undisturbed floors under which the burial was found, and above all, the gold pieces of the offering are sufficiently clear indications that the context did not suffer any alteration during the Colonial period. On the other hand, the result of the thermoluminescence (TL) age test clears up any doubts that the piece was manufactured at least two century before the celebrate voyage of Columbus in 1492.
The second objection is that the artifact, although seems to be Roman could have been imported by the Spaniards during the firsts decades after the Conquest, and re-used in funeral context dating to the early Colonial period. This idea is more consistent than the previous one, but neither is supported of any data in the description of the excavation. As mentioned previously, the settlement was destroyed and abandoned in A.D. 1510, that is, about a decade before the Spanish Conquest. If we assume that the burial dates to Colonial times, we would expect to be find traces of clear intrusion through the three superimposed floors of the pyramid, under which the offering was deposited, especially if we bear in mind that complete repairing probably was not performed, due to the disuse of the structure. However, in the detailed report of the excavation (García Payón 1979: 204-205) there is not any mention of alterations of the floors under which the burial was deposited. Another possibility is that the head could have been imported into the New World by some European visitor between A.D. 1492-1510, and somehow found his way to Central Mexico (Down 2000: 24-25). In this regard we must remind we that during the mentioned lapse of time the Matlatzincas were under Aztec domain, so the artifact would have come to the Toluca Valley most probably through the Aztec "pochtecas", but in any case with Aztec knowledge. In this context, however, the lack of the slightest reference about any encounter of the Aztecs or their vassals with Europeans is inexplicable in the otherwise detailed and reasonably reliable late historical tradition in Nahuatl. And such silence makes the proposed idea highly improbable if we bear in mind: (1) the deep religious and political meaning of the Aztec belief that bearded foreigners coming westward from the Atlantic would conquer and destroy their kingdom and, (2) how fast Moctecuhzoma II was informed about the Spaniards arrival in Veracruz in 1518, and the great impact of this event among the Aztec rulers.
The third objection is that the head was "planted" as a joke to José Garcia-Payón. Similar situations have happened in the past (Buttrey 1980: 13), and probably will happen in the future as well. For this reason, we believe that it is a good idea to keep in mind such a possibility, if personal impartiality and prejudices are not confused -or pretend to pass- for respectable scholarly precaution. In an informal letter to the Editorial Office of Ancient Mesoamerica dated from March 6, 2000, Paul Schmidt from the lnstituto de lnvestigaciones Antropol6gicas at UNAM, Mexico City, suggested such a possibility. Below are a few paragraphs from his letter that are self-explanatory:
In late 1996 Schmidt informed Hristov that "everybody knows that the head is Colonial" and that García-Payón was not present during the excavation, so surely somebody had "planted" it as a joke. Neither the thermoluminescence (TL) age limits, nor the excavation report supports the suspicion of Colonial manufacture and intrusion of the artifact into the apparently pre-Hispanic archaeological context. In 1997 Hristov personally asked Fernando García Payón, José García Payón's son, if he knew something about the first objection. His response was that during the 1960s his father frequently was asked if he was present during the excavation, and he always assured them that he had been.
A few months later Hristov asked Schmidt again if he could remember the source of his information about the "planting" of the head, and Schmidt informed him that he believed to have heard from John Paddock that Hugo Moedano "planted" the head. By that time both (Paddock and Moedano) had passed away. Therefore, the only option we had was to ask several of the respectable and usually well-informed Mexican scholars of the older generation. None of them had ever heard such a story, neither from Hugo Moedano nor from John Paddock (Román Piña Chán, Angel García Cook, Luis Torres Montes, Carlos C. Navarrete, and Jorge V. Angulo, personal communication to Romeo Hristov 1997). At that time we stopped further investigation of the mentioned allegation. Recently, however, Romeo Hristov asked Fernando García Payón if he knew something about a possible "planting" of the artifact by Hugo Moedano. His response was that Hugo Moedano "...had never been present during the excavation", and this was just "nonsense". (Fernando García Payón, personal communication to Romeo H. Hristov April 04, 2000).
As final remarks we would like to emphasize, once again, that in its fundamental aspects such as domestic plants and animals, knowledge and use of metals, writhing and language systems, and religious beliefs, among others, the Old and the New World civilizations until the early sixteenth century were firmly different and, consequently, independent from each other (Hristov 1998: 237, Hristov and Genovés 1998: 52-53). However, there are also some data of various kinds and levels of credibility that suggest the existence of a few sporadic, most probably accidental, transoceanic voyages before Columbus, which apparently had very limited -if any- cultural and biological impact. The find of an apparently Roman head in Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca, Mexico, seems to support the occurrence of one such voyage across the middle Atlantic, possibly somewhere in the first centuries of the Christian era.
On the other hand, notwithstanding that the Canary Islands were discovered around 1334 A.D., the highly probable contacts between the ancient Mediterranean world and the Canaries were confirmed only a decade and half ago with European and African objects found in the archipelago in archaeological context prior to fourteenth century A.D. In 1987 a Roman settlement dated between the first century B.C. and the fourth century A.D. has been discovered in the Lanzarote island (Atoche Peña et al. 1995), and more recent archaeological research has proved that not only Romans but also Phoenicians and Berbers reached at least two of the Canary islands (Tenerife and Lanzarote), as early as the sixth or fifth century B.C. (Behrmann et al. 1995, Atoche Peña et al.1997). The implications of these discoveries in the discussion of possible Pre-Columbian Trans-Atlantic contacts are obvious, and it is not entirely unreasonable to expect in the near future that systematical archaeological studies in the Caribbean, Central America and Brazil may provide more -and more conclusive- data related to small scale Trans-Atlantic voyages before 1492.
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Text at the figures
Figure 1. Frontal (a) and lateral (b) views of Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca head (Photo Romeo H. Hristov, 1993).
Figure 2. Location maps of the archaeological zone of Tecaxic-Calixtiahuaca in Mexico (inset) and structures in the zone (after García Payón 1936: 18).