Photos by Carrie Rosema

Hidden in Plain View

A budding UC Riverside archaeologist’s exhibition exposes an overlooked ancient Mesoamerican society.

By Tess Eyrich

Forget the hat and whip made famous by Indiana Jones. For a preteen Catharina E. Santasilia, her love of archaeology started with Daniel Day-Lewis.

It was the actor’s star-making performance in “The Last of the Mohicans” that inspired the Denmark-born Santasilia’s lifelong interest in indigenous peoples and the things they left behind.

“I’ve always been curious,” said 34-year-old Santasilia, who goes by “Cat,” and is an international doctoral student in UC Riverside’s Department of Anthropology. “But two things happened after I watched ‘The Last of the Mohicans.’ I, like many girls, fell in love with Daniel Day-Lewis, and I developed a fascination with the Americas, which is one of the reasons why I wanted so badly to come to the United States.”

Her fascination — cultivated over six summers in Belize studying ancient Maya sites — came to a head in 2015, in downtown Riverside, of all places. Tucked inside a storage room at the Riverside Metropolitan Museum, Santasilia made a discovery that would alter the course of her nascent archaeology career: a collection of nondescript boxes, bequeathed to the museum in 2003 by the descendants of a local archaeologist, which contained never-before-displayed remnants of a 3,000-year-old Mesoamerican society.

At long last, it was time for the story of Tlatilco to be told.

Striking Gold

But before the story — let alone a museum exhibition — could begin, Santasilia, who had only recently started working at the museum as a student volunteer, had to figure out exactly what she had unboxed.

Inside the boxes were a series of clay figurines and vessels. Many shared similarities with the baby-faced figurines associated with the Olmec, an early pre-Columbian civilization of Mesoamerica, who occupied land bordering the Gulf of Mexico roughly between 1500 and 400 B.C. Santasilia consulted her graduate advisor, Karl Taube, a UCR professor of anthropology and author of the 1993 book “Aztec and Maya Myths.”

As it turned out, the objects were something entirely different.

“Cat invited me in, and I immediately realized there was a huge collection of Tlatilco material at the museum that had never been published and was probably very rare and important,” Taube said. “It was like we were sitting on a gold mine.”

Before long, Santasilia opted to change her dissertation topic from the Maya to Tlatilco, a community that has attracted significantly less scholarly attention than its neighbors. Unlike the Maya or Aztecs, the people of Tlatilco — a word meaning, coincidentally, “where things are hidden” — didn’t leave behind pyramids or other major monuments, Santasilia said.

What they did leave were burial sites, the bulk of which were pillaged and later paved over to make way for urbanization. Located underneath present-day Mexico City, Tlatilco thrived between 1200 and 900 B.C., making it a peer of the Olmec civilization. Like the Olmec, the people of Tlatilco had structures — though theirs were presumably huts made from organic materials — and specialized crafts, as evidenced by their detailed, long-lasting ceramics.

“We don’t necessarily know what happened to Tlatilco,” Santasilia said. “Cultures rarely disappear; it’s more likely that over time, they move on.”

This hollow, Olmec-style figurine comes courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian, and reflects the baby-shaped artistic tradition seen in pieces found at the Mexican archaeological sites of Tlatilco and Las Bocas.

Tlatilco’s more than 500 burial sites were discovered beginning in the 1930s, looted by brick workers, and formally excavated starting in 1942 by renowned artist and archaeologist Miguel Covarrubias. In the early 1960s, nearly a decade before UNESCO drafted its standard-setting treaty to protect cultural property from illicit trade, a young archaeologist named Christopher Moser made a string of pilgrimages to Oaxaca, where he added to his growing Tlatilco collection by purchasing artifacts at local markets. Moser was later hired as the Riverside Metropolitan Museum’s anthropology curator and shifted his attention to basketry.

Moser’s family bequeathed his Tlatilco collection to the museum after his death, where Santasilia discovered it more than 10 years later.

On the Road

Santasilia envisioned an exhibition that would appeal to the Riverside community’s Latino population. She then set out in search of additional Tlatilco pieces to augment the future exhibition and provide archival research for her dissertation.

Over nearly two years, Santasilia crisscrossed the continent, visiting more than 15 museums in the United States and Mexico. A grant from the University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States supported the travel, providing access to the collections of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Art Gallery, Saint Louis Art Museum, and Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology, among others.

“There are Tlatilco collections in some of the most unthinkable places,” Santasilia said, noting Tlatilco pieces have been missed in many museums because they haven’t been properly labeled or inventoried. “Once I started digging in and got a bigger network, people would come to me and say, ‘Hey, we have some Tlatilco objects too.’ It’s become a strange obsession to locate them all.”

One of her biggest breakthroughs came during a trip to Washington, D.C., with Brenda Focht, senior curator at the Riverside Metropolitan Museum. While there, Santasilia connected with Ron Bishop, senior research archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Following their meeting, Bishop agreed to visit Riverside to conduct a type of nuclear analysis that would tell Santasilia much more about the artifacts.

The technique, known as instrumental neutron activation analysis, is rarely done on museum collections because it’s considered destructive. The process involves drilling a small hole into each artifact and removing a sample of clay. By comparing the composition of the clay sample to other compositions that have already been logged, anthropologists are better able to determine the provenance of artifacts, many of which are in collections with little information about where they came from or where they were produced.

Testing can also help researchers track how interactions between different communities — such as the Tlatilco and Olmec peoples — might have resulted in the sharing of cultural and artistic styles. Lending credence to Taube’s earlier visual assessment, Bishop and Santasilia’s analysis confirmed the Moser collection’s Olmec-style objects were, in fact, from Tlatilco, a finding that suggests the two groups communicated, and maybe even learned from one another.


All told, “Uncovering Ancient Mexico: The Mystery of Tlatilco” features 34 of the pieces found in the museum’s archives, plus 20 supplementary items borrowed from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Because the museum was shuttered for a three-year revamp beginning in 2017, its management approached the nearby Riverside Art Museum, which agreed to host the exhibition through Dec. 30, 2018. According to Robyn Peterson, director of the Riverside Metropolitan Museum, the exhibition has been a hit for both museums since its February opening.

“We have such a large Latino population here, but many of our local children have never been to a museum before — this was designed, in part, to draw them in.”
Brenda Focht, senior curator, Riverside Metropolitan Museum

“The exhibition’s opening was one of the best-attended openings the Riverside Art Museum has hosted, and certainly the best-attended opening associated with our museum in recent years,” Peterson said. “There’s very high interest in the Mesoamerican topic; our museum has hosted a number of exhibitions and programs in the past that have delved into different aspects of the ethnic heritage of this area, and this is another in a long line of that tradition.

In addition to the artifacts, guests encounter previously unpublished historical photographs, three-dimensional replicas, and two video collaborations. The show’s informational materials are offered in both English and Spanish, and kids can conduct their own archaeological “digs” in a sandpit, uncovering 3D-printed versions of some of the objects on display, which were created by Michele Potter, open research librarian at UCR’s Creat’R Lab, in collaboration with Santasilia.

Left: A Tlatilco collection featuring bottles, a stirrup spout vessel, and ceramic rattles. top right: The two faces seen in this Tlatilco figurine fragment potentially represent the doubling of corn, which occurs when two corn ears grow on one stalk. Corn was the most important crop for the people of Tlatilco. Bottom right: This Tlatilco figurine is classified as Type K, one of seven types of ceramic pieces that were identified by Miguel Covarrubias, and typically feature headdresses and 
 large, wide heads.

“The museum has a real commitment to helping members of our community learn more about their heritage,” Focht said. “We have such a large Latino population here, but many of our local children have never been to a museum before — this was designed, in part, to draw them in.”

As Santasilia approaches the completion of her dissertation, seeing the show come to fruition is bittersweet. She hopes to remain in the United States after leaving UCR, but she’s got one major item to cross off her bucket list: having her copy of Taube’s “Aztec and Maya Myths,” which she found at a bookstore in Ireland in 2004, signed by the author.

“When it was time to apply to graduate schools in the U.S., all I could think was, ‘I want to go wherever this Karl guy is.’”

Ten years later, Santasilia was accepted by UCR, with Taube as her advisor. She’s waiting until her diploma is in hand to have Taube sign the book.

“Cat has a real spark to her as far as her fascination with Mesoamerica,” Taube said. “It’s so valuable because I don’t want my students to work on only one site in an isolated area; I want them to look at Mesoamerica as a whole. Likewise, this collection is wonderfully important to Riverside because it’s a direct connection to Mexico at an extremely formative time.”