Ancient West Mexico

The shaft tomb tradition is thought to have developed around 300 BCE and lasted until around 300 CE. Like much else concerning the tradition, its origins are not well understood, although the valleys around Tequila, Jalisco, which include the archaeological sites of Huitzilapa and Teuchitlan, constitute its “undisputed core.” The tombs found in western Mexico are characterized by a vertical shaft dug 3 to 20 meters, usually into underlying volcanic tuff. The base of the shaft opens into one or two horizontal chambers, approximately 4 by 4 meters (varying considerably), with a low ceiling. The shaft tombs were often associated with an overlying building. Multiple burials are found in each chamber and evidence indicates that the tombs were used for families or lineages over time. The labor involved in the creation of the shaft tombs along with the amount and quality of the grave goods indicate that the tombs were used exclusively by the society’s elites, and demonstrate that the shaft tomb cultures were highly stratified at this early date.

Grave Goods

Grave goods within these tombs include hollow ceramic figures, obsidian and shell jewelry, semi-precious stones, pottery (which often contained food), and other household implements, such as spindle, whorls and metates. More unusual items include conch shell trumpets covered with stucco and other appliqués. Unlike those of other Mesoamerican cultures such as the Olmec and the Maya, shaft tomb artifacts carry little to no iconography and so are seemingly bereft of symbolic or religious meaning. The plentiful ceramic figurines have attracted the most attention, and are among the most dramatic and interesting produced in Mesoamerica. In fact, these ceramics were apparently the primary outlet for artistic expression for the shaft tomb cultures and there is little to no record of associated monumental architecture, stelae, or other public art. Since the vast majority of these ceramics are without provenance, analysis has largely focused on the styles and subjects of the ceramics.