Once part of an incense burner, this artifact consists of several pieces: a face with a headdress, a backdrop, and hands and arms. It has been part of the Bliss Collection since about 1963 (Elizabeth Benson, personal communication, 22 August 2002).
The face has a prominent nose and wrinkled skin, and wears an imposing headdress featuring an inverted “V” or ray form over a complex trapezoid, suggesting a stylized A-O year symbol. This is surmounted by a short panache. Although the face is carefully modeled, the headdress and panache are composed of fillets of clay appliquéd to the background. The figure wears large clay ear spools and a double strand of clay beads. His hands and arms are modeled of clay fillets, and each hand grasps a snake or a snake-shaped scepter. The arms have been crudely and recently attached to either side of the base of the face. The background form seems to represent an abstract feather panache. The figure is in fragile condition and has numerous breaks. In spite of the figure’s poor condition and haphazard reconstruction, the pieces seem to have once been part of a whole composition, because the clay is consistent in color, quality of grain, type of temper, and white slip.
The wrinkled visage is typical of a Mesoamerican deity known as the Old God or the Old Fire God, found throughout the Central Highlands as well as in West Mexico, Oaxaca, the south-central Gulf Lowlands, and the Guatemala Highlands—in fact, the Old Fire God’s territory corresponds well to Mesoamerica’s zone of active volcanoes. In representational form, he is often depicted as a seated figure in stone or ceramics as part of an incense burner; such incense burners seem to have been part of household rather than temple rituals. The Old Fire God was known as Huehueteotl to the Aztecs, and was thought to represent an elderly avatar of Xiuhtecuhtli, the Central Mexican fire god, who was associated with youthful warriors and rulership. He is thought to have been the principal deity at Cuicuilco, the Late Preclassic city in the Basin of Mexico that was abandoned after volcanic activity in the southern basin subjected it to ash falls and lava flows. Its population may have contributed to the growth of Teotihuacan at this time: Old Fire God incense burners have been found in domestic contexts in the city, which is itself a safe distance from active volcanoes.
The Bliss Collection incense burner, however, is not similar to Central Mexican specimens. Rather, it more closely resembles Old Fire God incense burners found in southern Veracruz. Images of the Old Fire God are common in this region and seem to express localized ceramic figure traditions like the type.
The Lirios type was defined from figurines found at the Lirios site, a few miles from Tres Zapotes. Lirios pieces are unusual in the delicacy of their expression and modeling, they are made of reddish brown paste, sometimes markedly sandy in texture; they are hand-modeled (rather than mold-made) figures with appliquéd pieces; there is an emphasis on naturalism in the faces, suggesting portraiture and including a variety of facial expressions; aged individuals, with seamed and sunken cheeks, are fairly common; hands consist of gracefully curving but apparently boneless long fingers and a thumb; headdresses are formed by strips of clay; and clay ears and ear spools are attached to the sides of the head.
In addition to an affinity with south-central Veracruz based on stylistic traits, the origin of this piece in that region has been substantiated to some degree by instrumental neutron activation analysis, which determined that the clay is probably from the area of the Río Blanco drainage of the Río Papaloapan basin. A sample from the figure was tested with a large set of samples from utilitarian and service vessels from that area. The sample from PC.B.052 was assigned to the overall western lower Papaloapan basin compositional group, but it could not be placed in any of the three subgroups of sherds from this region, possibly because the clay and temper selected for a special ritual item were not the same exactly as those used for the pots in household use. The western lower Papaloapan basin has Río Blanco as its principal channel, and the Mixtequilla region and Cerro de las Mesas are along the lower Río Blanco drainage, whereas Tres Zapotes is in the eastern part of the lower Río Papaloapan drainage.
Thus, although the Bliss Collection Old Fire God incense burner is incomplete, the masterful depiction of its portrait face earns it well-deserved respect for its quality. Based on its style and material, it seems likely that it can be classified as Lirios ware, and that its provenience was south-central Veracruz, dating to the Early Classic period. This probable location and period of use, together with its design and iconography, indicate that it was a type of object fairly common in its culture, being used for rituals honoring fire and the hearth.
"Lasting Impressions: Body Art in the Ancient Americas" , Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 10/1/2011 - 3/4/2012.