A guaíza: The tiny sculpture of a face found by archaeologists at an indigenous Dominican Republic house

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Described by its finders as “enigmatic”, this sculpted face was buried by a house in the Dominican Republic, as archaeologist Alice Samson, from the University of Leicester, explains for Cuture24.org

“A guaíza is a small sculpture of a face. This one is made in shell. It’s creamy coloured and roughly the size of half a hard-boiled egg.

It has rounded cheeks, a sort of protruding forehead, wide, open eyes with incisions in the middle, a large, flat nose and an open mouth with gritted teeth. It’s very smooth and polished on the front. If you turn it over it’s also smoothed off but it’s slightly rougher – the back part, I imagine, wasn’t meant to be seen: it’s the face that you have to focus on.

This one is particularly close to our hearts because it was found during an archaeological excavation at a site in the eastern Dominican Republic, known in shorthand as El Cabo. It was excavated from an indigenous settlement from the late period house area of this site.

This guaíza came from very close to one of the houses: it was found outside on a small depression in the bedrock together with some of the most elaborate material culture we have from the site. For argument’s sake I would say it dates from 1200 to 1300, possibly later, but we haven’t actually dated it.

We know very little about the houses and households of native people in the Caribbean We have a few descriptions of them written by early Spanish chroniclers, although they were more interested in gold and pearls. A very important source of information about everyday life comes from archaeology. We spent many summers out on the site between about 2005 and 2008, excavating native households. It was one of the star finds.

A local actually excavated this guaíza. It was found with a few other quite special objects – elaborate pottery also covered in faces. It was probably not just casually thrown away with the rest of the household rubbish.

It ended up just outside the house, close to another very important object in Caribbean culture – a three-pointed stone which was very valuable to indigenous people as well. So maybe it was deliberately deposited. We have evidence that people did this on abandonment of houses. They would often dismantle the house, take the posts out of the holes and put personal items such as beads and pendants into the holes. You can think of it as a funeral ritual for the house.

It’s on show in an exhibition in the Dominican Republic which is on tour across museums. You can also find guaízas in the Museum of Dominican Man.”

  • Shores of Time, the portal for A History of the Caribbean in 100 Objects, is a podcast on the past and present cultures and societies of the Caribbean. Visit shoresoftime.com.

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