The fish vessel was acquired for the Sainsbury collection in 1983. In this essay it will be discussed and considered in relation to the Sainsbury collection. Issues surrounding the contested terms 'Olmec' and 'mother culture' will then be introduced. The physical characteristics and stylistic details of the vessel assist in placing the vessel must be used in the investigation to place it geographically and may suggest ideas about the kind of community it was made in. From these details ideas about how the fish vessel would have been used and in what context can be formed.
The exact provenance of the vessel is unknown and this may be the reason for the difference in description between the catalogue and the gallery panel. The gallery notes point out that it is 'a more abstracted version of the one found in Burial 53 at Tlatilco and it may have come from that site or one of the other highland sites near what is now Mexico City' (Hooper 1997). This highlights the problem that archaeologists, art dealers and all those interested in the culture of Mexico (and indeed all cultural heritage of the world) have when an archaeological site is looted. When an object is looted, provenance details are not recorded so it is purely through comparison work, a knowledge of similar objects and the geographical area that those interested can create a picture of these artifacts. Las Bocas is known by archaeologists, art dealers and looters as a site that produced high quality articles. The site is therefore, often assigned to an article that is sold, provenance unknown, to increase its value. We must unfortunately bare this in mind when considering an item found in these circumstances.
Steven Hooper has introduced us to some of the founding ideas behind the Sainsbury collection. The collection was founded on the principle of visual delight, with an aim to show the fantastic creativity of people through time and space. The collection is made up of pieces that create an emotional response from people. The fish vessel shows the Sainsburys' strong feel for shapes and craftsmanship.
One of the Sainsburys' earliest purchases (before the main body of the collection was formed) was a Henry Moore sculpture; Square From (object no.83, acquired 1936). At the start of Moore's career (in the 1920s/1930s) he used sculptural shapes that made his work stand out from other artists at the time. The Sainsbury's appreciation of these startling shapes dissociated them from the norm (in the art and collecting world) and is typical of their strong sense of style which has formed such a unique collection.
The strong sense of shape held in an artifact such as the fish vessel mimics the clarity of line that we also see in Moore's work. Later in his career, Moore is known to have drawn creative influence from Mexican sculpture; "Its stoniness by which I [Moore] mean its truth to material, its tremendous power without loss of sensitiveness, its astonishing variety and fertility of form - invention and its approach to a full three-dimensional conception of form, make it unsurpassed in my opinion by any other period of stone sculpture" (Beckett 2003: 68-69).
Viewing the Fish vessel through the glass from all angles (as is possible in the gallery) we can appreciate the pleasing soft curve of the fins, the open, welcoming and fish like mouth, poised for a drop of liquid or a gulp of air and the fantastic creation of an eye in the negative space of the hole in the middle of the body form.
The fish vessel is thought to have come from the highland area of Las Bocas that is in the district of Puebla, central Mexico but there is also a strong resemblance to the terracotta work from Tlatilco that is less than 5 miles from Mexico City as we know it today (Item 1). Las Bocas and Tlatilco are approximately 80 miles apart and are both known as highland archaeological sites producing a number of high quality and stylistically similar ceramic vessels. The fish vessel is from the period of 1100-600 BC; this is called the middle Pre-Classic or Formative period and is from an area which is believed to have been influenced by the 'Olmec' people and art style. The vessel is approximately 17.1 cms high and its volume is small, which leads us to the idea that it may have been a burial or ritual item, not for everyday use. It is made of terracotta which was then covered in a black slip, polished and decorated with traces of red pigment around the eyes. We can also see patterned incised marks on the fins. The gallery notes mention that there are some minor repair marks that have been made on the fins but these are difficult to see, so were perhaps covered over with a black slip after the repair work.
An examination of the site where the vessel was found suggests possible uses and influences and even reasons why it was made in this unusual form. According to Piña Chan during the middle formative period 'agricultural communities move in the direction of a more densely populated type of village or town ... and develop local variations in both traditions of pottery.' (1989: 34). 'Olmec' culture was a strong influence on the highlands from the coastal region, showing trade and possible fusion of ideas. During this time we see an increase in population due to the more dependable maize crop that comes from settled and organised life. The increasing population in villages would have made people more dependent on the foods that they could grow reliably and predictably, such as maize and fish from the nearby river and lake. These sources of protein would have been very important in a landscape that suffered from droughts and low rainfall (Item 5).
In the highland areas, water and resources related to water such as reeds, clays and animals (ducks and fish) would have been important in a different way than maize. Both are featured heavily in local mythologies. Maize is a cultivated, tamed crop that needs humans to reproduce it by spreading its seed. Fish and birds are from untamed water; the underworld. The fish that influenced the vessels from this area appear to be freshwater fish. As Elizabeth Benson notes, 'Bodies of water and water creatures were important in iconography and cosmic schemes, and fish-related rituals had to do with the resources of the earth as well as fishing activities' (1997:117). The fish vessel is a clear indication that the ideology and cosmology of the people is embodied in the material culture that they produced.
The use of the term 'Olmec' is contested. It has been used quite freely to refer to 'a people' and by others to refer to 'an art style'. The 'Olmec' art style is so widely spread that it is difficult to see where it originated from and to truly define where a style began or whether it is fused with a local style. In this essay I will refer to 'Olmec' in terms of an art style. It is of course questionable how much the 'Olmec' ideas influenced or indeed saturated Las Bocas and other highland settlements.
A parallel discussion related to this area is the use of the term Mesoamerica; Rosemary Joyce notes that the important point in the study of archaeology is to look less at the traits of people and more at the practices of people to define them into groups (Joyce 2004). I mention Joyce's idea of traits and practices because it is relevant in the use of the term 'mother culture', first used by Miguel Covarrubias in the 1950s. The term encompasses the idea that the 'Olmec' influence came from the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the low-lying marshland where agriculture flourished. Where there was economic stability, the 'Olmec' art style that we see at sights such as La Venta, San Lorenzo (where 10 magnificent sculptured heads have been found), Tres Zapotes and Cobata flourished.
Others believe that there was not just one dominant culture in Mexico at this point but that there existed other 'sister cultures'. These assisted the growth of the ?Olmec? style and could have added to, rather than just absorbed from, the set of ideas emerging from the heartland at this time. The discussions continue and definitions keep shifting, adding new ideas to the pieces that represent the 'Olmec' culture and style.
Representations of the human, natural and supernatural worlds from the 'Olmec' period are thought of as strong indicators of the style. There are sculptures of different materials, from the huge basalt heads at San Lorenzo to small clay figurines from Tlatilco and the greenstone sculpture of a seated figure holding an 'Olmec' rain deity from Las Limas in Veracruz. The 'Olmec' 'baby' figures are a defining feature within the style. During this period there was a wide use of different materials and techniques. A material that the 'Olmec' used very successfully, especially for the 'baby' figures, was kaolin, white clay that is more delicate and with a finer grain than terracotta and a white slip added post-firing
We can question the use of the material to try to fathom if there was a hierarchy attached in the use of a certain type of clay, which might help us in determining how the fish vessel was used. Jeffrey Blomster (2004) notes that when the baby figures in kaolin and those in terracotta are compared, there does not seem to be a more detailed or finer design on the white kaolin figures as compared to the terracotta ones. Therefore the hierarchy of materials that is apparent in jade or greenstone 'Olmec' items do not seem to be apparent in the clay hollow 'baby' figures.
The fish vessel is made from terracotta with a black slip. Terracotta is a strong and durable clay. When it is moulded and fired it can make items which hold liquids and can endure very high temperatures. The hierarchy of materials does not seem to proceed to the terracotta fish vessels from this area. I have seen that the terracotta is not the part of the vessel that is emphasized, rather the form, decoration, size and most relevant here, the blackness of the slip. This does not detract from the meaning that terracotta may have held for those using it, a 'material that is slowly and gently deposited in beds of soft layers in standing bodies of water... to work with clay the artist kneads it and adds other minerals to make it to the desired consistency' (Reilly 1995: 50). We can note that the slip is well applied but not as smoothly as that of the Seated Figure with Splayed Legs (object no.697, acquired 1978) also in the Sainsbury collection.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the fish vessel is the technique that the maker has used to create the exciting shape, or as some have called it the 'doughnut shape'. The body of the fish would have been formed from one long rectangular length of clay that would have then been made into a hollow sausage shape, which was then joined at the top and flattened on the base with a hole left open for the mouth. The mouth and fins were added after the body shape had been smoothed. Note how no joins are evident on the body, they have been smoothed over with a slip; showing how keen the maker was in perfecting the finish of the vessel. It would be interesting to try to recreate the technique of making the fish vessel and to compare it with the hollow baby technique. My point here is that a lot of hours have been put into making this form and to making sure that the finish is to a high standard.
From some basic ideas about the colour and finish of the material used, we can associate ideas of earthiness and darkness. The shine that a fish has on its scales may have been influential on the polish that the slip was given. Burnishing the slip after application would have achieved this shine. The darkness of the slip links the fish to the cool and dark waters of the large lakes in the highland areas as well as to the underworld. Do these ideas about hierarchy of materials and fineness of design enable us to work out who used this vessel and in what context? I think that whoever made the fish vessel was interested in the important characteristics of the fish; shine, shape, mouth and the position of the eye. Can I suggest that these are the characteristics that people who work with or worship water and the earth would want to celebrate.
The design of the fish suggests that the maker has imagined the form of the fish that is not in front of the eye but under water. The flat bottom of the vessel suggests that the tail of the fish and half of its body seems to be submerged under whatever surface it stands on. This ability to mould the form with the assumption that the viewer would know what was hidden under the surface of the water, shows a stretch of the imagination, a willingness to create or complete a form that is hidden. But where is the tail and rest of the body? The 'Olmec'' placing of themselves in time and space are evident. We can compare this fish vessel to another similar vessel from the highlands that shows the flat base and similar upturned mouth, waiting for a drop of rain, food or air (Item 2).
The most striking design feature must be the eye, the hole of the eye is too small to fit one?s hand through which would make the fish quite an awkward object to handle and to actually pour from. I suggest that the fish was meant to be standing on a still surface, therefore it was not used in a ritual where it was held and moved around (Piña Chan has noted that flat bottomed vessels are associated with the Gulf coast 'Olmec' heartland) unless it was moved with two hands, cupped between offering hands.
The vessel might have held a liquid that was related to fish, maybe an oil or a liquid that allowed the drinker of the given liquid to pass into the realm of the underworld. There is a possibility that when liquid is poured from the vessel it might make a noise as the air enters the top loop of the head. The small volume of the vessel suggests that whatever was held in the container was a valuable commodity. Perhaps a liquid was dripped into the open mouth of the vessel, such as a fish oil, that was then burnt. Other anthropomorphic vessels such as the duck found at Las Bocas (Item 3), with pierced breast and upturned head, were perfect containers in which to place burning incense, smoke would emerge from between its patterned pierced stomach. There is also the fish container that has a chimney-like pipe balanced on its mouth from the same area, suggesting that fish vessels were also used to burn substances (Item 4).
'Creatures of the water, earth, or air- the three levels of the cosmos - are represented [in 'Olmec' sculpture]. The vessels may have been containers for substances inducive to shamanic trance and transformation, in the form of the animal spirit companion, the nagual, who accompanied the shaman on his journey to the supernatural world.... The presence of these zoomorphic vessels in tombs at the sites of Tlatilco and Las Bocas in the Mexico-Puebla highlands indicates that the tombs and their contents were regarded as gateways to the underwater/otherworld' (Reilly 1995: 36).
The most striking and central feature on the fish vessel is the eye, or the negative formation of an eye where the hole is. The Tlatilco fish's eye is deep and has a bulging eye ball (Item 2). The centrality of the circular eye balances with the large open mouth, the back fin and the two balancing side fins as well as the patterning on the underbelly. There is not one feature here that is picked up and emphasised as much as the eye of the Las Bocas fish. Why would the ceramicist want to emphasis the eye to such an extent? The eyes and mouth are linking orifices to the interior and exterior worlds. Reillys examination of the iconography of the 'Olmec' Dragon is relevant here, as a being that inhabits more than one cosmic realm, 'Iconographic investigations reveal that the 'Olmec' dragon, like later Mesoamerican primordial monsters, floated on the surface of the waters of creation... The great, gaping maw, a feature of most frontal 'Olmec' dragons, could function as the portal between the natural and the supernatural divisions of the 'Olmec' cosmos.' (Reilly 1995: 35).
The fish is seen raising his head, gasping for air, this is a feature that I have seen in most of the fish vessels of this time. The fish breaths the air of the overworld, the same air that humans breath and in return offers the contents of the vessel or body; a liquid that would help the drinker to enter into the underworld that the fish inhabits. Changing from one realm to the other was an important transformation for the Shamans who had the ability and social standing to travel this journey. 'For Mesoamericans, the celestial realm was closely related to the underworld/ otherworld, which they also conceived of as an underwater domain. The exquisite renderings of fish, ducks, turtles and other aquatic creatures, hallmarks of Early Formative ceramics, are almost certainly metaphors of this underwater/ otherworld' (Reilly 1995: 35).
Whatever liquid was held in the vessel, be it water, blood, fish oil or even pulque, the eye and the mouth are the key features of this vessel. It seems to be quite a coincidence that the site where the fish vessel was found is called Las Bocas and that it 'is at the mouth of a valley system, quite constricted at this point (and hence the name 'Las Bocas', the mouths) which leads eastward towards Tehuacan (and ultimately the Gulf Coast).' (Grove 1984: 182). Geographically this site would have experienced a large amount of trading due to its physical position and these links would have brought and fed the new ideas from the 'Olmec' heartland on the coast.
This essay considers influences from the landscape, from trade movements and similarities between other similar artifacts. The unusual design of the vessel shows the possible links to Shamanism while hinting at ideas of who may have used this vessel and in what setting. The earthiness of the material, shine of the finish and unusual shape lead us to draw conclusions that highlight the link that those who used this vessel had with the earth. The sculptural shapes of the pieces from this area are influential for artists and sculptors today. The 'Olmec' fish is an interesting and humorous addition to the Sainsbury collection.Lucy Watts | Oct 2004