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Antiquity Vol 79 No 304 June 2005

The 'Phoenician' head from Las Balsas, Mexico

Romeo H. Hristov & Santiago Genovés T.

In 1929 Heath Steele, a retired employee of the American Metal Co., donated to the American Museum of Natural History in New York a few artefacts that had been found in different regions of Mexico. Among them was a small terracotta head representing a male personage with a tuft of a hair in the centre of an otherwise bare head, prominent cheekbones, bulbous nose, and moustaches and a long beard showing traces of black paint (Figure 1). The artefact is 8.3cm high, 6cm wide and 4.5cm thick. According to the information provided by Mr. Steele, the head was found by a peon in the vicinity of the Rio Balsas, near the village of Las Balsas in the state of Guerrero, Mexico (Figure 2; a brief description of the place and the circumstances of the discovery is provided by Heath Steele to AMNH's Clark Wissler in a personal letter dated 7/02/1929).

Figure 1

Figure 1. . Frontal and lateral view of the terracotta head found near the village of Las Balsas, Guerrero. American Museum of Natural History, New York (No. 30.0/6532). Photo Romeo H. Hristov, 1997.

Vaillant (1931) published the head in an extensive article in which he also discussed several Mesoamerican and Old World representations of bearded personages. Despite the lack of reliable chronology as well as of close stylistic parallels between Las Balsas' head and the Mesoamerican effigies, the author suggested that the piece must be pre-Columbian, and probably belongs to one of those groups whose names have escaped tradition and who may have broken the civilization of the Maya or founded the high development of Zapotec or Toltec arts.' (Vaillant 1931: 252). A few decades later the Mesoamerican origin of the artefact was re-affirmed by another eminent archaeologist, Alfonso Caso, notwithstanding its strong resemblances to a Merovingian (fifth to seventh century) figurine from Ratisbon, Germany (Caso 1964: Figure 8). On the other hand the art historian Alexander von Wuthenau argued for a Phoenician origin for the artefact, pointing out to what he considered 'quite obvious' similarities between Las Balsas' head and an outlandish, grotesque deity, namely the god Bes... of whom terracotta images appear practically at all Phoenician sites bordering the Mediterranean.' (Wuthenau 1970: 55). This difference in opinions made the find one of the central points in the well-known polemic concerning the possible pre-Columbian transoceanic voyages to the New World that took place at the 35th International Congress of Americanists in Mexico City (1962). It is worth mentioning as well that during the following years the supposed Phoenician origin of the piece was cited in several popular books on the afore mentioned topic (Irwin 1963: 175-188, Bailey 1973: 52-53, Sudhoff 1992: 77-79, among others).

In view of this controversy, in 1997 about 150 mg of powder drilled from the back of the head was submitted for thermoluminescent age testing at Oxford Authentication Ltd. in Oxford, UK. The results of the test indicate that the earliest possible manufacture period of the piece is the middle of the nineteenth century, thus invalidating both hypotheses regarding the object's cultural background and its chronology (sample N97b73).

Rather than being an exception Las Balsas' head is only one of a number of confusing finds that at some point during the last few decades have been considered as possible evidence of pre-Columbian transoceanic voyages. For example, Andrews IV and Boggs (1967) discussed a hippopotamus tusk with carved representation of a reptile ingesting a naked woman, found 'under almost six feet of undisturbed soil' near the city of Colón, El Salvador. The material of the piece is clearly of African origin, and its stratigraphic position suggested that it might have been deposited before the sixteenth century. However, a meticulous examination of the site and research in collections of African folk art have proved that the object was manufactured and lost during the nineteenth century. Furthermore, six cases of counterfeit ancient coins, five of which were discovered in circumstances that made at least plausible the assumption of pre-Columbian importation, were summarised in Epstein (1980: 9-10), and Buttrey (1980: 12) added to this a reference of a Roman coin being planted as a joke during an excavation for a water-pipe. This list of examples, although incomplete, is sufficient to emphasise 'the danger of relying only upon stylistic comparison, without stratigraphic data and objects found in situ' (Caso 1964: 61; emphasis in original) in the hypotheses for and against pre-Columbian transoceanic contacts, as well in any other area of archaeological research.

Figure 2 (Click to view)

Figure 2. Map showing the location of the village of Las Balsas in Guerrero, Mexico.

The authors are grateful to the ISPART-Brigham Young University, Mr. Lloyd Cotsen and the Cotsen Family Foundation, the National Council of Science and Technology of Mexico (CONACyT) and the New England Antiquity Research Association (NEARA) for their financial support. Charles Spencer and the American Museum of Natural History in New York authorised the photography and the thermoluminescent age testing of Las Balsas' head, Javier López and John Gallner assisted us with the digital editing of the photograph and the map, and Stephen Jett and John Sorenson helped edit the text.


  • ANDREWS IV, W.E. & S.H. BOGGS. 1967. An African Art Object in Apparently Early Archaeological Context in El Salvador: A Caveat to the Diffusionist. Ethnos 1-4: 18-25.
  • BAILEY, J. 1973. The God-Kings & the Titans. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
  • BUTTREY, T. 1980. Comment on Jeremiah F. Epstein's 'Pre-Columbian Old World Coins in America: An Examination of the Evidence'. Current Anthropology. 21 (1): 12-13.
  • CASO, A. 1964. Relations between the Old and the New Worlds: A Note on Methodology, Actas y Memorias del XXXV Congreso Internacional de Americanistas (México, D.F., 1962), 1: 55-71. México: Editorial Libros de México S. A. de C. V.
  • EPSTEIN, J. F. 1980. Pre-Columbian Old World Coins in America: An Examination of the Evidence. Current Anthropology 21 (1): 1-12.
  • IRVIN, C. 1963. Fair Gods and Stone Faces. New York: St. Martin Press.
  • SUDHOFF, H. 1992. Lo siento, Colón. México: Editorial Diana.
  • VAILLANT, G. C. 1931. A beaded mystery. Natural History Magazine. 31: 243-252.
  • WUTHENAU, A. VON. 1970. The Art of Terracotta Pottery in South and Central America. New York: Crown Publishers.

Romeo H. Hristov: Foundation for Research of Ancient Maritime Explorations (FRAME), 8711 South View Road, Austin, TX 78737, USA.
Santiago Genovés T.: Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas-UNAM, Ciudad Universitaria s/n, Delegación Coyoacán 04510, México, D.F., Mexico.

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