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

| 10 April 2016 | Updated: 08 April 2016

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

A photo of a small sculpted face found on the Caribbean dominican republic by archaeologists
© Courtesy Shores of Time / Erick van Driel
“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.

A photo of a small sculpted face found on the Caribbean dominican republic by archaeologists
© Courtesy Shores of Time
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.

A photo of a small sculpted face found on the Caribbean dominican republic by archaeologists
© Courtesy Shores of Time
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.

A photo of a small sculpted face found on the Caribbean dominican republic by archaeologists
© Courtesy Shores of Time
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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Three museums to find Caribbean history in

Wilberforce House Museum, Hull
The Plantation Life galleries explore what life was like for enslaved Africans when they were sold to work on plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas. It looks at working conditions, health, punishment and death rates as well as how plantation workers rebelled and resisted slavery in multiple ways.

Tate Modern, London
Wifredo Lam’s work lies between East and West, Surrealism and tradition, Africa and the Caribbean, Europe and America. Lam’s career covers academic training in 1920’s Madrid, an encounter with Cubism and Surrealism in Paris, collaboration with André Breton and others in Marseille in 1940–1, and his engagement with Caribbean intellectuals in Martinique, Haiti and Cuba during and after the Second World War. Until January 18 2017.

New Art Exchange, Nottingham
This Hyson Green gallery is the UK's largest visual arts space outside London dedicated to African, African Caribbean and Asian art.
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all of these famous artist once lived , met and traded artistic and literary ideas with one another, and to my knowledge no one has ever discovered or spoke of this secret group of avant guard artists, that were living in my home town where art has always played a tremendously huge part in our community. in complete secrecy. as i have photographic proof, and positivly id 7 artist as i stated in my previous comment. i live in the united states , is the craziest part.
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