November/December 2010
Avi Davis

Creatures of Other Mould

On The Dubious Clay Menagerie of Waldemar Julsrud

Discussed: Amateur Archaeology, Bakeries, Dinosaurs with Duck Faces, Extraterrestrials, Atlantis, Thermoluminescence Sampling, Flash Gordon,Creationists, King Kong, Mexican Comic Books, Perry Mason, Edenic Choices, Plate Tectonics, Dinosaur Statues

The Museo Waldemar Julsrud squatted on the edge of town. Looking past it, you could see the end of the road and beyond that the green hills of Guanajuato State. Charles Hapgood must not have spent much time in central Mexico back in the 1960s, when he wrote that this area was arid and eroded—any spot that’s brown in the spring heat is sure to be green in the rains of summer. The museum looked to be an exception. Its stucco walls were the color of weathered bone, and its blue lettering, which could have been copied from the cover of an old Arthur C. Clarke paperback, was faded and spotty. The place might have been five years old or fifty. One thing was for certain, it didn’t seem inclined to reveal any secrets about the age of the weird figures housed inside—a collection of strange clay statuettes whose authenticity had been debated for half a century by pseudoscientists, amateur archaeologists, and investigators of the paranormal. I looked at my two traveling companions, Luis and Oliver.

“Here it is,” I said to them. “The home of Waldemar Julsrud’s lost world in clay.” Their faces gave no indications of their thoughts. I had invited Oliver to take part in this investigation because of his logistical skills and diplomatic connections; Luis, for his psychological training and knowledge of pre-Columbian art. Also because they spoke Spanish.

“Vamos?” I said.

We stepped inside.

“These are all fake?” Oliver asked, bending over one of the glass cases. The small cases that ringed the few cramped exhibit rooms of the museum stood at waist height. Apparently, comfortable viewing of their contents was impossible. Inside were the baffling clay pieces to which Waldemar Julsrud had devoted twenty years of his life.

“I don’t think they all are,” I said, speaking in a low voice. The place was nearly empty, but the museum’s sole attendant, a saggy, middle-aged man, had been trailing us suspiciously since we paid our ten-peso admission.

The clay figurines in the first case looked genuine. Luis pointed out the trademark style of the Chupícuaro Indians, who occupied the Acámbaro area as early as 400 B.C.E.: Stylized human figures, only about five inches tall, they had flat bodies, rounded feet, and oversize heads, like gingerbread men. They were ornamented with diagonal scoring and fine braids. Their eyes resembled narrow, slanting coffee beans. They had a mischievous look to them.

We’d know the fakes when we saw them, I decided. There were a few more cases of Chupícuaro bowls, pipes, and pitchers—elegant, functional pieces with geometric designs and a unified style. Then there was a strange and sudden development. First came figurines of women with conical breasts and Medusa-like hair. Then there were men with bat ears, and men with hammer heads. There were what looked like little clay-colored men from Mars. There were giant apes who howled at the viewer. In the next room there were clay renderings of sarcophagi, some of them three feet long, that bore an uncanny resemblance to the ones in the Egyptian wing of the Met. Next to these were Minoan-style human figures covered in thin parallel lines, with arms shaped liked bird wings. There were horses and camels. I tried to follow the explanations in Spanish on the typed index cards inside the cases: something about antediluvian animals, the possible influence of extraterrestrials, and the ancient, unidentified cultura Waldemar.

Then we arrived at the last and largest room. Here was what we had really come for: the dinosaur statues. A few hundred must have been in that one room. Most of the clay figurines were just a few inches tall, but some measured three feet. There were dinosaurs with crested backs, dinosaurs with ridged backs, dinosaurs with spiked backs, dinosaurs with wings, dinosaurs with two legs, dinosaurs with three legs, dinosaurs on their hind legs, dinosaurs with dog faces, dinosaurs with duck faces, dinosaurs with gargoyle faces. Flat dinosaurs, round dinosaurs, dimpled dinosaurs. There were dinosaurs eating humans. There were dinosaurs standing alongside humans. There were dinosaurs with humans mounted on their backs, and dinosaurs being caressed by humans. The collection was overwhelming. And this was only a fraction of the vast assembly that Waldemar Julsrud had discovered here in this little central Mexican town nearly seventy years ago. But most of the pieces were crude, even childlike. There was no style, no system to them.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Avi Davis thanks Mr. M.W. and Ms. A.A. for their assistance with this project. His last piece for the Believer appeared in 2010’s Best American Travel Writing. More from him can be found on the blog Shreds and Clippings.

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