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A Roman Figurine Found in Mexico

Studies in Archaeological Context

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An article by Romeo Hristov and Santiago Genovés published in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica made the international news in February 2000. In that very interesting article, Hristov and Genovés reported on the rediscovery of a tiny Roman art object recovered from a 16th century site in Mexico.

The story is that in 1933, Mexican archaeologist Jose García Payón was excavating near Toluca, Mexico, at a site continuously occupied beginning somewhere between 1300-800 B.C. until 1510 A.D. when the settlement was destroyed by the Aztec emperor Moctecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (aka Montezuma). The site has been abandoned since that date, although some cultivation of nearby farm fields has taken place. In one of the burials located at the site, García Payón found what is now agreed to be a terracotta figurine head of Roman manufacture, 3 cm (about 2 inches) long by 1 cm (about a half inch) across. The burials were dated on the basis of the artifact assemblage--this was before radiocarbon dating was invented, recall--as between 1476 and 1510 A.D.; Cortes landed at Veracruz Bay in 1519.

Art historians securely date the figurine head as having been made about 200 A.D.; thermoluminescence dating of the object provides a date of 1780 ± 400 b.p., which supports the art historian dating. After several years of banging his head on academic journal editorial boards, Hristov succeeded in getting Ancient Mesoamerica to publish his article, which describes the artifact and its context. Based on the evidence provided in that article, there seems to be no doubt that the artifact is a genuine Roman artifact, in an archaeological context that predates Cortes.

That is pretty darn cool, isn't it? But, wait, what exactly does it mean? Many stories in the news ran amok on this, stating that this is clear evidence for pre-Columbian trans-Atlantic contact between the Old and New Worlds: A Roman ship blown off course and run aground on the American shore is what Hristov and Genovés believe and that's certainly what the news stories reported. But is that the only explanation?

No, it's not. In 1492 Columbus landed on Watling Island, on Hispaniola, on Cuba. In 1493 and 1494 he explored Puerto Rico and the Leeward islands, and he founded a colony on Hispaniola. In 1498 he explored Venezuela; and in 1502 he reached Central America. You know, Christopher Columbus, pet navigator of Queen Isabella of Spain. You knew, of course, that there are numerous Roman-period archaeological sites in Spain. And you probably also knew that one thing the Aztecs were well known for was their incredible trading system, run by the merchant class of pochteca. The pochteca were an extremely powerful class of people in preColumbian society, and they were very interested in traveling to distant lands to find luxury goods to trade back home.

So, how hard is it to imagine that one of the many colonists dumped by Columbus on the American shores carried a relic from home? And that relic found its way into the trade network, and thence to Toluca? And a better question is, why is it so much easier to believe that a Roman ship was wrecked on the shores of the country, bringing the inventions of the west to the New World?

Not that this isn't a convoluted tale in and of itself. Occam's Razor, however, doesn't make simplicity of expression ("A Roman ship landed in Mexico!" vs "Something cool collected from the crew of a Spanish ship or an early Spanish colonist got traded to the residents of the town of Toluca") a criteria for weighing arguments.

But the fact of the matter is, a Roman galleon landing on the shores of Mexico would have left more than such a tiny artifact. Until we actually find a landing site or a shipwreck, I'm not buying it.

The news stories have long disappeared from the Internet, except for the one in the Dallas Observer called Romeo's Head that David Meadows was kind enough to point out. The original scientific article describing the find and its location can be found here: Hristov, Romeo and Santiago Genovés. 1999 Mesoamerican evidence of Pre-Columbian transoceanic contacts. Ancient Mesoamerica 10:207-213.

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