Expert opinion
Shaft Tombs

In pre-Hispanic Colima, funerary entombments and their derivations were largely influential. Underground mortuary architecture and specifically shaft tombs, were a distinctive feature of western Mexican culture. There was a large number of these tombs in the Colima region. They were commonly built among the groups who had settled mainly in the Ortices, Comala and Colima periods, located between the year 500 BC and the period 500-600 AD.

Their morphological characteristics consist of a half point or elliptical arch located underground. This curved shape matches the structural characteristics of the arch’s architecture and helps to distribute the vertical loads along the base. Access is through the middle of the shaft; a cylindrical tunnel which gives these peculiar graves their name. These tunnels sometimes vary by means of staircases made from tepetate (a kind of brittle, volcanic rock).

The symbolism of the shaft tombs is related to the idea of entering the earth, as a space which conceptualizes the underworld as a place of eternal sleep for the lifeless body. Each element was placed with a specific purpose, determined by the ceremonial formalities which are required for a living body to pass into death. Thanks to the tools found inside, such as polishers, hammers, axes or stones for grinding, we can get an idea of the way of life of the extinct individual, now laid in the tomb under the arch. 

During the Classic period in Colima (especially in the phase called Comala, dating between 200 and 400 AD) these mortuary structures held a wide variety of offerings.

Archeologists have managed to recover bone remains of the people, accompanied by skeletons of dogs, for whom these spaces were built. There were also representations of these animals in pottery, with a wide variety of shapes, postures and purposes, some accompanied with various belongings or modeled in pairs, but always emphasizing the virtues of their workmanship. The repeated presence of dogs is not only due to their functions as food and company for the ancient inhabitants; their purpose as guides is also emphasized. The polished vessels deserve a special mention. They are finished with a sienna color, as well as different reliefs and tones, and are sculpted or decorated with geometric and organic images. Among many other clay pieces, the collection is complemented by solid and hollow figurines which replicate anthropomorphic and zoomorphic subjects.

Meanwhile, other burials have been discovered which are more elongate. Vessels and pots were placed inside them, close to the skull of the individual and accompanied by various tools, such as sharp weapons made from obsidian.

Occasionally, some shaft tombs are found dating from the Late Classic and Early Postclassic periods (Colima phase, 400-700 AD and Armería phase, 700-900 AD). They include pieces with elaborate decoration and vessels which differ from the others due to their miniature scale, together with stones for grinding and decorations made of stone beads. Furthermore, there were objects which would have been used to produce musical sounds, such as whistles and ceramic ocarinas, together with percussion instruments made from bone.

Many traditions from each phase are amalgamated around the shaft tombs and funerary rituals. The ceramic sculpture found inside acts as an invaluable document which tells us the story of the type of clothes and accessories used through a language comprised of shapes modeled in ceramic. Working technologies clearly show us the ideas of gastronomy and confirm the ceremonial activities and traditions which the natives deemed necessary in the death ritual.

In its permanent exhibition rooms, the Regional Museum of Colima History exhibits a reproduction of a to-scale shaft tomb. The visitor can access its interior and, whilst standing on an elevated glass platform, can observe the range of ritual elements, vessels, cranial deformities, canine figures, shamans, ocarinas and flutes, as well as the bone remains of two individuals and the skeleton of a Mexican hairless dog, a companion in life and a guide in death.



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