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Between Art and Artifact

Between Art and Artifact
Archaeological Replicas and Cultural Production in Oaxaca, Mexico

An innovative ethnographic study of tourist art markets in Oaxaca, Mexico, where making and selling replicas of pre-Hispanic archaeological pieces is sometimes met with disdain, despite the artisanal quality and rich heritage associated with the practice

January 2012
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235 pages | 6 x 9 | 25 b&w photos, 1 map |

Oaxaca is internationally renowned for its marketplaces and archaeological sites where tourists can buy inexpensive folk art, including replicas of archaeological treasures. Archaeologists, art historians, and museum professionals sometimes discredit this trade in “fakes” that occasionally make their way to the auction block as antiquities. Others argue that these souvenirs represent a long cultural tradition of woodcarving or clay sculpting and are “genuine” artifacts of artisanal practices that have been passed from generation to generation, allowing community members to preserve their cultural practices and make a living. Exploring the intriguing question of authenticity and its relationship to cultural forms in Oaxaca and throughout southern Mexico, Between Art and Artifact confronts an important issue that has implications well beyond the commercial realm.

Demonstrating that identity politics lies at the heart of the controversy, Ronda Brulotte provides a nuanced inquiry into what it means to present “authentic” cultural production in a state where indigenous ethnicity is part of an awkward social and racial classification system. Emphasizing the world-famous woodcarvers of Arrazola and the replica purveyors who come from the same community, Brulotte presents the ironies of an ideology that extols regional identity but shuns its artifacts as “forgeries.” Her work makes us question the authority of archaeological discourse in the face of local communities who may often see things differently. A departure from the dialogue that seeks to prove or disprove “authenticity,” Between Art and Artifact reveals itself as a commentary on the arguments themselves, and what the controversy can teach us about our shifting definitions of authority and authorship.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction: Between Art and Artifact, The Skull of Benito Juárez
  • Chapter 2. A Wood-Carving Community, Family Photo
  • Chapter 3. Arrazola's Other Craft, To the Top of Monte Albán
  • Chapter 4. Crafting the Past in the Present, Views from the Pyramid
  • Chapter 5. Replicating Authenticity, Authenticating Replicas, Discriminating Tastes
  • Chapter 6. Replicas and the Ambiguity of Race and Indigeneity
  • Chapter 7. Why Fake Jaguar Gods Matter
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Ronda L. Brulotte is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and faculty affiliate with the Latin American and Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico.


Today in the parking lot at Monte Albán vendors sell junky little vases, like pencil holders, with bat and jaguar effigy faces sometimes molded from original pieces. These may be too simple and common to show up in museum collections 100 years from now, but who knows?
—MarcusWinter, Another Fake on Genuine

When Marcus Winter, a prominent archaeologist with the Mexican National Institute ofAnthropology and History (known by its Spanish acronym, INAH), penned the above observation more than two decades ago, he gave voice to a concern shared byarchaeologists, art historians, and museum professionals alike: that "fake" pre-Hispanic artifacts periodically would slip past experts only to later surface in museum collections around the world. As a professionalarchaeologist, Winter had spent much of his career working at Monte Albán, a well-known Mesoamerican archaeology site in the southern Mexican state ofOaxaca, where he was apparently troubled by the public circulation of"fake" Oaxacan artifacts.

Forinstance, he draws the reader's attention to the specific case of a fake Zapotec "Jaguar God" urn that unwittingly appeared in Frank H. Boos's now-classic book, The Ceramic Sculptures of Ancient Oaxaca. According to the text,the piece was in the collection of the Leipzig Museum in what was at the timeEast Germany. The image was disseminated en masse again in 1971, thanks to anEast German postage stamp featuring the piece. With an archaeologist's trained eye, Winter assessed the stylistic elements of the Jaguar God urns in question (the piece illustrated in both the book and the postage stamp was oneof a set of six) and declared that the repetitive "juxtaposition of incongruous and sometimes ridiculous attributes render their authenticityimpossible". He concluded that "if, in the future, some countries decide to commemorate ancient Oaxacan cultures on stamps, it certainly would be preferable if they selected designs based on pieces from known archeological contexts that had some genuine pre-Hispanic significance."

For Winter, the recent fabrication (i.e., not in pre-Hispanic antiquity) of thesepieces stripped them of the perceived value that once made their image worthyof serialization.

As will become immediately apparentin the text, my concern is far more with the field of archaeology’s interest in authenticity and claim to authority than it is with any arbitration of"real" or "fake" artifacts. My intention is to demonstrate that such arguments have effects other than their authors intend and often spin out in fraught and generative ways. I contend that within replicas resides a potent critique of the inner workings of power in the production of cultural and heritage landscapes not only in Oaxaca but throughout Mexico and the world.Replicas demand our attention--better yet, our own self-reflection--as culturalbrokers and consumers.

Returningto Winter's cautionary, albeit brief, note concerning the "junky littlevases" with bat and jaguar faces sold in the Monte Albán parking lot circa 1986, I suspect that the purveyors of such pieces may have included individualsfrom the community that is, in large measure, the subject of this book. Forover thirty years, residents of San Antonio Arrazola have participated in the archaeological replica trade by making and selling pieces to tourists at MonteAlbán. In 1986, before INAH officials enacted tighter restrictions andsurveillance at the site, replicas sellers moved around the archaeological zone, including the parking lot, in a less restricted fashion than they dotoday. The objects they sell, whether as authentic pieces to unsuspectingcustomers or (more commonly) transparently as replicas, are intended to mimicor evoke "genuine" pre-Hispanic artifacts of the type found at thesite. Nevertheless, Winter's comment indicates that he judged the replicas of that time as falling short of that goal; the ubiquity of fake objects and theirallegedly simple designs seemed to preclude the chance that they would be mistaken for genuine archaeological artifacts. Yet he rhetorically posits thatsomeday the replicas sold to tourists at Monte Albán might, in fact, pass asthe real thing, eluding future generations of historical experts.

At the time of my research nearly twenty years later, the sale of unsanctionedcopies of archaeological artifacts remained a critical issue for thoseaffiliated with INAH. But despite the prevalence of replica crafts at Monte Albán (and throughout archaeological sites in Mexico), by and large they remainan unexamined form of material culture. This is notable given that Oaxacan handicrafts and archaeological remains have been intensely studied by professional folklorists, cultural anthropologists, and archaeologists since the early twentieth century. Those seeking to document local folk expressionsperhaps have found little inspiration in objects that, while handcrafted, lackthe supposed authenticity and historical context of the original archaeologicalobjects they mimic. Thus, while a worldwide phenomenon not limited to Oaxaca,replicas are rarely the subject of contemporary cultural analysis.

Similarly,when archaeologists and art historians have written about Oaxacanarchaeological replicas, such as the piece by Winter cited above, the objectsare "exposed" as fakes and described in relation to correspondingoriginal artifacts--an authoritative move that simultaneously reasserts the authenticity and value of the latter (e.g., Monge 1987, 2000; Sellen 2002,2004). Nancy Kelker and Karen Bruhns's Faking Ancient Mesoamerica (2010)points to the continuity of this discourse of exposure as it operates withinboth art history and archaeology. Enlisting war as a metaphor, the authorswrite in the book's introduction:

Although we are not terriblyconcerned with the slings, arrows, and curses that might be hurled at us by art aficionados angry about the debunking of their favorite faux works, we see theproblem of fakes and forgeries of Pre-columbian art as a serious danger toscholarship, and it is for scholarship that we are willing to strap on our armor, take up shields and swords, and do battle in the name of truth andjustice--even if we must, like Joan of Arc, dance in the flames. Forgery is anasty business and debunking fakes is even nastier, but someone has to do it orall scholastic integrity will be lost.

Winter, too, acknowledges theusefulness in studying replicas, but even so, his endorsement contains awarning to would-be investigators. He writes:

Someday perhaps someone will undertake a careful study of the fakes from Oaxaca. This might be aninteresting exercise and expose many of the fakes in museums, but it could alsohave the negative effect of providing a guide for the careful artisan,instructing him on obvious errors to avoid.

Hisobservations hint at the possibility that replicas might compete with, and even displace, the rightful objects of archaeological research, a concern wellfounded within particular scientific and historical epistemologies.

Yetthis criticism does not address the broader aesthetic and sociopolitical dimensions of replica crafts. It negates them as legitimate items of materialculture that have, to borrow Arjun Appadurai's oft-used term, a"social life" of their own. These objects circulate alongside other objects of Oaxacan material culture, indexing multiple regimes of social andeconomic value created on one hand by the tourist art market, and on the otherthrough the practice of archaeological science. In what follows, I take upWinter's challenge of studying contemporary Oaxacan archaeological"fakes," although perhaps not for the reason he had in mind.

In her study of Mayan archaeological sites in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula,anthropologist Lisa Breglia (2006) cautions against understandingarchaeological heritage as a material assemblage whose various meanings andsignificance are squarely locked in a distant historical past; such a paradigminherently privileges archaeologists and other technical experts as therightful interpreters and guardians of cultural materials. Her"heritage-as-practice" approach instead considers archaeological sitesand other forms of heritage as "renewable resources". That is to say, they are actively (re)produced and reinscribed withsocial meaning in the present through particular, ongoing social relationshipsamong all kinds of users of heritage.

Takingthis as a point of departure, I show that just as archaeological artifactsenshrined in museums provide clues about the social, political, and economic organization of pre-Hispanic Oaxaca, replica pieces illuminate these sameissues as they pertain to Oaxaca today. In particular, this book is concernedwith what archaeological replicas tell us about Oaxaca's development into aworld-class cultural tourism destination and the restructuring of many local Oaxacans' lives that this has entailed. It turns out that replicas, and thepeople who make and sell them, offer an astute account of this transformation,one perhaps unanticipated by their critics.