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Faces of ancient people in clay.

Representation of the human figure in clay has a very long history. The earliest known depiction of human form in clay is about 26,000 years old. A small figure of a woman, about 11 cm tall, is from the archaeological site Dolní Vestonice in the Moravian region of the Czech Republic. It was recovered from the site along with thousands of clay fragments of animal figures - a few nearly complete depicting lion, horse, bear, mammoth and rhinoceros. All were fired in relatively low temperature and are rather brittle.

Ancient civilisations in what is now Mexico used a highly developed pottery over 3,500 years ago. Among the objects made of clay are numerous figures, including miniature representation of humans. Some researchers hold the view that the prolific production of these figurines has no parallels in other cultures. About 2,000 years ago they become more widespread in Mexico until Spanish conquest in the early 16th century. Many figurines and faces, 3-5cm in size, are strikingly expressive, suggesting they were made by skilled artisans.

The purpose of these figures is not known, they could have been used in ceremonies and some placed in burials. Some faces may represent mythical characters, but it seems that most of them depict people in ordinary life situations and possibly are even mini portraits of individuals. Regardless of their use the clay faces, by sheer numbers, provide an astounding visual insight into long vanished generations. With a degree of stylistic influence many faces appear realistic, perhaps pensive – immobilised in clay-fragments they look at us face to face across centuries.

The heads in our collection have no firm provenance or any meaningful documentation. They probably changed hands many times going from one casual collector to the other. Digging out treasures of higher of lesser value has a long pedigree – dating back to ancient Egypt. In recent times such a pastime was frequently pursued by gentlemen of means as well as local peasants to supplement their income. Such casual digging on occasions resulted in great archaeological discoveries – Machu Picchu is a good example - but frequently they caused destruction of archaeological sites. It is quite likely that the clay heads in our collection were recovered by ‘small’ treasure hunters, still active in many countries.

Most of our Mexican clay heads were donated by Sydney solicitor Hugh Peden Steel in 1940. Steel may be remembered for the fact that his poems entitled A Crown of Wattle was the first book published by Angus & Robertson in 1888.


Machu Picchu is a 15th-century Inca settlement complex – now an archaeological site - located 2,430 meters above sea level, in the Cusco Region of Peru, South America.