Tiny Roman Bust Shows Pre-Columbian Contact With Mexico

(Revision III)

A Report by Andrew Collins


'Did Roman explorers discover America 1,300 years ahead of Christopher Columbus' was the headline on page 25 of the DAILY MAIL for Thursday, 10 February 2000. On the same day THE EXPRESS ran a story on page 28 under the banner `Oldest Latin in America: Bust may prove Romans got there first'.

Both stories sought to highlight claims being made in the new issue of the magazine NEW SCIENTIST concerning the recent realisation that a small ceramic head found in 1933 at a site in the Toluca Valley, 72 kilometres west of Mexico City, is in fact Roman in origin.(1) A dating process known as thermoluminescence, which determines the age of ceramics, has found that the tiny bust is approximately 1800 years old. How it might have reached Mexico is the big mystery. The implication, however, is that the head, which shows a full-bearded individual in typical Latin style, was introduced to the New World prior to the age of Columbus.

David Kelley, an archaeologist at Canada's University of Calgary stated that the bust was found 'sealed under three floors. It is as close to archaeological certainty as you can get'.(2)

Such statements led anthropologist Roman Hristow, formerly of the Southern Methodist University, to conclude that the bust is firm evidence of transatlantic contact between the Old and New World as early as AD 200.(3) Having become interested in the Roman piece, he managed to track it down to a museum in Mexico City, where it had remained since its discovery.

It was the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany, who conducted the tests which determined the age of the bust. Afterwards art experts were more willing to accept that it was of Roman manufacture. Hristow who then checked original excavation reports and realised that the bust must have been buried at least nine years before the arrival in Mexico of Hernando Cortés in 1519.

Yet this realisation begs the real question of whether or not Roman explorers were making journeys to the Americas around AD 200.Betty Meggers, an anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, has stated that: `I see no reason why ancient contact is not possible'.(4) She herself has made an extensive study of the similarities between the prehistoric pottery of the Joman culture of Japan and the Valdivia culture of Ecuador. This she believes is evidence of transpacific contact with the Americas as early as 3000 BC.

In contrast, other archaeologists remain sceptical over the claims being made by scholars such as Hristow and Meggers. Andrew Selkirk, the editor of CURRENT ARCHAEOLOGY, is of the opinion that: `It is a big leap to claim that the Romans reached Mexico City when scientists are not certain whether they even reached the Canary Islands.

'You could imagine a ship being wrecked off Newfoundland and you could argue that it had been blown across the ocean, but to claim that a boat got as far as Mexico sounds a bit over the top'.

Indeed, Selkirk even went so far as to say: `It could have been dropped out of someone's pocket in the 1930s or [was] put there as a spoof. If you had three similar finds in three different places, then maybe that would be more credible'.(5)

On a slightly different tack, David Grove, an archaeologist with the University of Illinois, while accepting that the head is Roman, suggests that it could have been taken from a shipwreck during some later age. If this were so, it would remove any significance the bust might play in re-interpreting the history of Mexico.(6) He also points out that there is no significant evidence of the influence of Old World cultures on the development of Mesoamerican civilisations prior to the age of Columbus.(7)

Speaking in the wake of lingering rumours and stories of Roman wrecks awaiting investigation off the coasts of Central and South America, Simon Keay, a Roman expert at Southampton University, says that although evidence of Roman contact has been found as far east as India, there are no records of trading routes to the Americas.(8)

A Mystery of Two Heads

The idea of transoceanic contact between the ancient world and the Americas is a subject crucial to our understanding of how Plato came to write his account of an Atlantic island called Atlantis in around 350 BC. There is every reason to suppose that in order to construct the story he drew on vague maritime knowledge concerning what lay on the western Atlantic seaboard - information that most probably filtered into the Mediterranean world via Phoenicians from Spain and Carthaginian traders from North Africa.

Indeed, I feature the bust in the chapter of GATEWAY TO ATLANTIS entitled `Shipwrecks and Sailors'. After highlighting the discovery of North African amphorae disgorged from possible Roman wrecks in the so-called Bay of Jars outside of Rio de Janeiro during the 1980s, I introduce the evidence for Roman contact with Mexico. I cite the fired clay bricks used to construct various classical Maya sites in the Yucatán peninsular, in particular the great city of Comalcalco. The walls of its great palace show a remarkable similarity to fired clay structures of the Roman world, while maker's marks have been said to resemble characters from a south-east Asian script. This is territory dealt with in extraordinary detail by British transoceanic expert David Eccott and American archaeologist Neil Steede.

I go on to cite the tiny sculpted Roman head highlighted in the NEW SCIENTIST article and in subsequent national news stories in British papers such as THE DAILY MAIL and THE EXPRESS. The ceramic piece came originally from a site named Calixtlahuaca, located some 72 kilometres west of Mexico City. It was excavated in 1933 by archaeologist José Garcia Payón of Mexico's National Museum. According to the reports, it was found, along with various grave goods, in a truncated pyramid structure dating to the twelfth century and belonging to the Toltec culture which thrived during this era. This would then imply that the Roman bust could have been in Mexico for up to 1,000 years, not simply nine or ten years as has been claimed by anthropologist Roman Hristow. Initially it was thought that this fascinating artefact, which takes the form of a terracotta vessel several centimetres in height, is the one pictured in several books on transoceanic contact with a bushy beard and conical cap, like the Phrygian caps worn by the classical gods Perseus and Mithras.(9)

Yet the Roman bust that appeared originally in the NEW SCIENTIST article, and subsequently in THE EXPRESS, was an entirely different one without a hat and with much sharper features. After some initial confusion it has now been established that this picture had nothing whatsoever to do with the Calixtlahuaca head, and was used simply, and rather sloppily, to illustrate the news story.(10)


American Odyssey

So how might this priceless Roman artefact have come to be in Mexico in the first place? Austrian orientalist and anthropologist Dr Robert Heine-Geldern, a believer in transpacific contact in pre-Columbian times, was of the opinion in an article published in 1961 that the bust - which he describes as wearing a `Pylos', a knitted cap favoured among sailors from the Greek seaport of Pylos - had come across originally from Indo-China, where Roman artefacts have occasional been found.(11) In his view, it reached India via trade links with the Roman Empire, and then had been traded on to Indo-Chinese cultures in Southeast Asia who were themselves making transoceanic journeys during this age.(12) It was in this way that the head had reached Mexico, and not through direct Roman contact with the Americas.

I have no objection to the view that Roman explorers, or indeed traders, might have made transpacific journeys to Mexico as early as AD 200. However, we must also not ignore the clear evidence for transatlantic contact by Romans during this same epoch. We have the evidence of the amphorae and possible wrecks (yes, wrecks in plural) awaiting investigation off the coast of Brazil. There is another Roman wreck lying off the coast of Honduras in Central America. As early as 1976 it was disgorging amphorae which have been determined to be of Punic, i.e. North African, origin (See GATEWAY ATLANTIS).

There is also the case of the Roman coin hoard found washed up in a jar on a beach in north-east Venezuela. The age of the coins span an immensely-long period that stretches between the reign of Caesar Augustus (63 BC-AD 14) and a date of around AD 350. Since the hoard includes many duplicates, there seems very little likelihood that it could have been a discarded or buried collection of colonial origin, or that it might have been part of a national treasure trove on its way either to or from the New World. What seems more likely is that it is the wealth of a Roman trader lost overboard when his ship was wrecked sometime around AD 350. Remember, a vessel that follows the North Equatorial Current westwards from the Cape Verdes will be carried directly to the northern coast of Venezuela, almost precisely where the hoard was found. The coins are now in the possession of the Smithsonian Institution.(13)

In addition to this evidence there are numerous examples of Roman amphorae and coins having been found in New England, indicating that Roman vessels were also using the so-called Northwest Passage to reach North America via the Faeroes, Iceland, Greenland, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.

Lastly, the sheer fact that Dr Heine-Geldern cites the fact that the Calixtlahuaca head sports a cap found among the sailors of Pylos hints at a possible maritime connection between this object and its arrival in Mexico. Pylos, by the way, was a town of Messenia, located on the western coast of the Peloponnesus, opposite the island of Sphacteria in the Ionian Sea.

So when considering the possibility of Roman contact across the Pacific, one should also not forget the Atlantic trade routes that were inherited by the Romans most probably from the Berbers and Taureg peoples of North Africa after the fall of Carthage in 147 BC.

With respect to Simon Keay's statement in the DAILY MAIL to the effect that there is no evidence of trade routes to the Americas I need only to cite the words of Statius Sebosus, a Roman geographer quoted in the works of Caius Solinus and Pliny the Elder. He recorded that the islands of the Hesperides lay 40 days' sail beyond the Gorgades. Since it can be adequately demonstrated that the Gorgades, or the islands of the Gorgons, were the Cape Verde islands, located off the coast of Senegal in West Africa, and the Hesperides were located in the Far West, there is every reason to believe that Sebosus was alluding to a transatlantic journey time between Africa and the West Indies. The Hesperides were certainly taken to be the West Indies by Spanish explorers and chroniclers shortly after the discovery of the New World, and there is every reason to believe that they got it right.

Solinus and Pliny would seem to have preserved a knowledge of transatlantic contact either prior to or contemporary with Sebosus' lifetime (he is thought to have lived in c. 100 BC). If so, then who exactly was making these journeys? Was it the Romans, or could Sebosus have been recalling much earlier journeys made to and from the West Indies by Iberic Phoenicians and Carthaginians?

With respect to the statement made by David Grove of the University of Illinois to the effect that although the Calixtlahuaca bust is Roman it could have come from a Roman shipwreck, I can say only this. If it did come from a shipwreck then it is yet further evidence that Roman vessels reached as far as Mexico. However, I feel it is far more likely that goods for trade were brought to the American mainland by Roman explorers in the time period of its manufacture. I cannot accept that the Roman head was introduced to the site during excavations in the 1930s, or that it is part of some kind of elaborate hoax.

What seems most important is that some scholars are now openly accepting that an item of Roman manufacture has been found through professional excavations at an archaeological site of Mesoamerican origin that predates the time of the conquest. This is an incredible revelation and one which is as significant as the announcement in the 1960s that evidence of Viking occupation had been found at a site named l'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Previous to this time scholars have always considered that Roman artifacts found in the Americas were either dropped accidentally or planted deliberately in colonial times.

This news also helps strengthen my own theories regarding the manner in which Plato appears to have constructed his Atlantis story from maritime lore reaching the Mediterranean world via Iberic-Phoenician and Carthaginian traders. They, it seems, were making journeys in secret to the West Indies, which were known in Roman times as the Hesperides (after Sebosus and others), as well as the islands left above sea-level following the break up of the Atlantean landmass (after Marcellus and Proclus). I suggest that readers examine GATEWAY TO ATLANTIS for a more detailed account of the evidence for transatlantic journeys to the Americas in ancient times.

"Photo copyright Romeo H. Hristov"

Notes and references