Reverse engineering of ceramic anthropomorphic figurines from the Tumaco archaeological tradition in southwest Colombia

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Bustamante, Nohora Alba  ORCID logo
Escobar, Jairo Arturo 
Martinón-Torres, Marcos 

Traditional studies of archaeological ceramics in Colombia have been largely based on visual and stylistic analyses. Here we introduce frameworks and concepts of reverse engineering as a complementary strategy to develop hypotheses about ceramic manufacture, as a first step to the address possible cross-craft relationships and broader sociocultural parameters affecting technical traditions. Our case study is focused on ceramic figurines recovered from two archaeological sites in southwest Colombia (Inguapí and La Cocotera), both dated to the period of greatest cultural and technological development of the Tumaco tradition (350 BC–AD 350). The results of the analyses including microscopy, XRF, SEM-EDS and XRD revealed two manufacturing pathways within the broader tradition, developed locally and adapted to the natural resources available to each site. These are shown through chemical and mineralogical differences in the raw materials, as well as differences in their preparation and shaping, molding, and modeling processes as observed at the microstructural level. Estimated firing temperatures are under 600°C for La Cocotera, and under 800°C for those of Inguapí, with an inhomogeneous, oxidizing atmosphere probably related to firing in a pit. The superficial characterization shows that all the figurines were painted, with those from Inguapí externally smoothed and polished, and those from La Cocotera covered with a slip. Notwithstanding differences between sites, the ceramic figurines illustrate a particular technical style that undoubtedly conveyed a shared ideological message of cultural affiliation. These results contribute in an innovative way to archaeological ceramic studies in Colombia from a different perspective that is complementary to the more common typological studies.


Funder: University de los Andes de Colombia

Funder: Institute for Archaeo-Metallurgical Studies (IAMS)

Research Article, Physical sciences, Social sciences, Earth sciences, People and places, Ecology and environmental sciences
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