The Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca Head: Evidence for Ancient Roman Transatlantic Voyages, a Viking Souvenir, or a Hoax?
A mysterious terracotta artifact known as the Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca head was discovered in Mexico, but it looks exactly like well-known Roman artifacts. How did this enigmatic object arrive in Toluca Valley?
The head was found in a burial that dates to around the time Columbus arrived in the Americas. It is impossible to calculate if the grave was made just before the end of the pre-Columbian period or at the beginning of the post-Columbian era. Researchers suggest the grave is from between 1476 and 1510 AD, but the head discovered amongst the grave goods is a mystery.
It looks nothing like other artifacts from the site or the era. In fact, it looks like well-known artwork from the Roman Empire. However, the head was discovered in the Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca area of the Toluca Valley, which is located about 65 kilometers (40 miles) north-west of Mexico City.
Discovering the 'Roman' Head
The artifact was unearthed during excavations in 1933. The work was led by an archaeologist named Jose Garcia Payon. His team discovered a grave and a grave offering under a pyramid. The structure had three intact floors, under which the offering was found. Among goods like turquoise, jet, rock crystal, gold, copper, bones, shells, and pieces of pottery, the terracotta head stood out. The artifact was so shocking that Payon decided to not publish anything about it until 1960. He was probably aware that many researchers would think his discovery a cheap hoax. Jose Garcia Payon’s eventual release of information about the strange head led to a fevered debate.
Photo of Jose Garcia Payon. Source: ( INAH)
In 2001, Romeo H. Hristov (of the University of New Mexico) and Santiago Genoves T. (of the National Autonomous University of Mexico) published the first results of their research. The two specialists were fascinated with the unusual artifact and tried to solve the mystery of the terracotta head. They said the identification of the head as a Roman artifact was confirmed by Bernard Andreae, a director emeritus of the German Institute of Archaeology in Rome, Italy. The head was dated to the 2nd or 3rd century AD, but its style shows the 2nd century is more likely. Similar-looking heads suggest that the artifact came from the period of the Severan emperors, who ruled between 193 and 235 AD.
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Busts of Severan Emperors. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Although it all sounds very interesting, one must wonder about the state of the site where the artifact was discovered. Yet there is no information available about possible disturbances to the historical context of the site.
Summarizing the problem of the head, Romeo H. Hristov and Santiago Genovés T. presented a paper in 2001 which concludes:
“There are also some data of various kinds and levels of credibility that suggest the existence of a few sporadic, most probably accidental, transoceanic voyages before Columbus, which apparently had very limited -if any- cultural and biological impact. The find of an apparently Roman head in Tecaxic-Calixtlahuaca, Mexico, seems to support the occurrence of one such voyage across the middle Atlantic, possibly somewhere in the first centuries of the Christian era.
On the other hand, notwithstanding that the Canary Islands were discovered around 1334 A.D., the highly probable contacts between the ancient Mediterranean world and the Canaries were confirmed for first time only a decade and half ago. In 1987 a Roman trade post dated between the first century B.C. and the third century A.D. was discovered in the Lanzarote island (Atoche Peña et al. 1995), and the continuing archaeological research has proved in 2006 that not only the Romans but also the Punic seafarers reached the archipelago no later than the fourth century B.C. (Atoche Peña et al. 2009). The implications of these discoveries in the discussion of the possible Pre-Columbian Trans-Atlantic contacts are obvious, and it is not entirely unreasonable to expect in the near future that systematical archaeological studies in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and Brazil may provide more -and more conclusive- data related to some isolated cases of trans-Atlantic voyages before 1492.”
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Map of the Canary Islands. ( Public Domain )
Although their statement sounds reasonable, a thermoluminescence test done in 1995 showed that the terracotta head may have been made in the 9th century BC. Those results don’t clear up the mystery of the figurine at all. Additionally, many researchers believe that the appearance of the Roman head is a hoax or a trick created by one of the archaeologists, Hugo Moedano, who might have explained his joke to Garcia Payon. It is possible Jose Garcia Payon had never planned to publish anything about it because it wasn't a part of the “real” discovery.