The Spanish laid out their colonial towns according to the most advanced principles of the day. While in the English colonies a street might follow a cow path or Indian trail, the towns of New Spain were laid out in a regular grid of right-angled streets centered on the main square, the zocalo, around which were sited the establishments of public order. On one side of the square was the church and across from it the municipal offices. One a third side were shops and on the fourth side a ramada, a shelter where travelers could leave their animals and gear safe from harm and available to inspection by the authorities.
Nowadays the ramadas are gone, replaced by another block of shops and hotels, and on a balcony of one of these, overlooking the Zocalo in Oaxaca, I was introduced to Carlito and his friends. Carlito and his friends were artists. They also dealt in ancient artifacts, a pairing of professions which I was to learn was not accidental.
Thinking me a rich Yankee buyer, I at first had the impression of being circled by sharks, but, once I made clear that I wasn’t buying anything except more rounds of beer, Carlito and his friends relaxed and started telling me stories of their chosen calling.
There are some good pieces out there, I was told. Farmers dig stuff up all the time in their fields. The actual area of Monte Alban extends maybe fifteen or twenty kilometers further out than the archæologists have surveyed. It is illegal to dig for artifacts but all around the countryside you find that farmers have dug large holes in their fields, which they say are for swimming pools. Given the difficulty of getting mortgages it is not unusual for building projects like these to take years to complete, and farmers often re-locate their “swimming pools” to different parts of their property, trying to find just the right location.
But the things that farmers find are usually small, broken pieces, and the few nice items are sent to Mexico City where you can get better prices, so the stuff on the local market -- the sort of things that the fragmenteros offer to tourists up on Monte Alban -- are not that good. And this is where Carlito and his friends come in. They are artists. They make old things.
Growing up amidst ancient pottery it was only natural to copy what they saw, at first for their own amusement and then later for sale to tourists. Initially, they sold their work as reproductions but soon realized that tourists couldn’t tell the difference and would pay a great deal more for what they thought to be authentic ancient pieces than they would for equally well-made reproductions. Well, what do you expect a young man to do? Carlito and his friends now work full time producing ancient Indian pottery, and were proud of their work.
Franco, my expert on all things Oaxacaeño, had told me earlier that an artist copying the work of another era is a tricky matter, for the copyist will be unconsciously tempted to put his own modern touch on the work, and this can be spotted by a trained eye. The abstract coils of a headdress are a good place to make an error and there is nothing quite so disconcerting as an ancient figure with a modern hairdo.
And as it happens, the artist need not work from scratch. A common feature of ancient Zapotec and Mixtec pottery is the molded clay mask used as an appliqué to a pottery vessel. These were originally made from molds and some of these molds have survived to be reused. But even without such a happy accident, latex molds can be taken from existing pieces to produce masks perfect in every detail and which are sold by the fragmenteros on Monte Alban. Franco pointed out that since the authentic masks had been applied to a vessel that a real piece would have a part of the vessel adhering to it, and not just some vague lump of clay. Franco considered Carlito and his friends amateurs.