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Video transcript

- [Voiceover] We're in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, and we're looking at some of the most extraordinary little clay figurines that were from a village in this area in the Valley of Mexico, about 3,000 years ago. - [Voiceover] The name of the town was Tlatilco and it had hundreds of burials where you find these amazing figurines. - [Voiceover] The figurines have extraordinary variety but they give us an insight into what was important to people 3,000 years ago. What they made and then had themselves buried with. - [Voiceover] What we're seeing at Tlatilco is one of the earliest developments of a wide array of objects that display this very advanced visual expression. And so right now we're standing in front of a series of figurines of individuals with two faces or two heads. - [Voiceover] The double-headed figures come in a whole variety. There's one at Princeton University that I'm particularly in love with. Because it has bifurcated face with two noses, two mouths, but only three eyes. - [Voiceover] And it's a very representative type of Tlatilco female figurine, where you have the narrow waist, the broad hips, traces of paint on the face, on the incised hair. - [Voiceover] Now this is clay and it would've been incised with a sharp instrument to create, for instance, the lines of the hair, and pinched to created forms like the nose. - [Voiceover] You typically see red, yellow or black pigment, and then decorations where you had roller stamps, where you could roll designs over the various surfaces. - [Voiceover] Some of the figures that we're seeing here don't actually have a combined double face, but have two heads. - [Voiceover] One of the figurines that we're looking at right now you have a single body, so only two legs, two arms, two breasts, but then two individual heads. And we see a variety of these here, that are relating to this idea of duality. - [Voiceover] We really don't know what this means, because we don't have a written record to go with this. We've got the objects themselves. - [Voiceover] And this is a great example of where the visual archaeological record is one of the main ways in which we're able to know about this culture. - [Voiceover] I'm really taken by this small, clay object that is a single, mask-like form, but is bifurcated, that is, divided right down the middle. - [Voiceover] On the left, you see the face alive, and on the right side, a skeletonized face. So basically, the de-fleshed, dead face. - [Voiceover] So duality can have lots of different meanings. I think in the 21st century, when we use that term we're often thinking about a kind of East-Asian notion of duality, of the yin and the yang. But here in Mexico, what do we know about duality in later cultures, where we do have a better record? - [Voiceover] Well, if we're kind of making broad generalizations around this idea of duality. The idea of life and death paired together might relate to the cycle of life. It's through death that life is able to continue. - [Voiceover] So we usually think about life and then death. And you're saying that people in Mesoamerica thought also about death and then life? - [Voiceover] Exactly, that there is this concept that you see consistently about the cycle of life, and this idea of regeneration and rebirth. - [Voiceover] As I look at this mask, and it's too small to be worn, it would actually fit comfortably in the palm of my hand, the right side is terrifying. It is this skull with that wide, open eye. And it's almost as if we see the grinning of the teeth. But on the left side, it's also unnerving because it is almost a kind of animal-like face. And the tongue is sticking out below the teeth. - [Voiceover] The lip has been pulled open as if it is this grimace, which to us reads as threatening or a little terrifying. - [Voiceover] And it's important to remember that this was found in a burial. We don't know if it was originally intended for a burial but that's where it ended up. - [Voiceover] What we find in most in most of these Tlatilco figurines are scenes of daily life and very humorous or charming figurines. - [Voiceover] There is that small infant in what looks to be a crib, a woman who seems to be kissing a small dog, and another that cradles the dog. - [Voiceover] Now these are some of my favorites. Here we see not only people in daily life but people engaged in types of activities that are truly more intimate. That you don't see as frequently throughout Mesoamerican art. - [Voiceover] It's interesting what you're saying because there's so much that carries from the early cultures to the later cultures, but that's not true here. - [Voiceover] We know that in some ways Tlatilco is contemporary with Olmec civilization. Which is considered the mother culture of Mesoamerica. Tlatilco is not necessarily influencing, at least, as far as we know right now, later cultures in the same way that say, the Olmec are. - [Voiceover] And then there are those amazing animal vessels. They're so plump and playful. - [Voiceover] So some of my favorite include the head of a fish, or a duck. - [Voiceover] These were settled people? - [Voiceover] I mean at this point, they're living more sedentary lives here, say in the village of Tlatilco, and so they're able to create ceramics. More seen here are animals and plants that people are using for food, as much as they are to replicate, in ceramics, this amazing variety of the natural environment that they see before them.