This small, rare, and delicately carved plaque is one of the finest Gulf Lowlands items in the Pre-Columbian Collection at Dumbarton Oaks. The depicted scene is incised with certain background portions scraped away or crosshatched. The scrollwork is ornate and likely of Early Classic date. Made of dark slate, such sculptures have traditionally been considered to be the backing for pyrite mirrors.
As with most of the known examples, this one has a single figure incised at its center. A long-haired man is on one knee with his arms extended. The wrists are wrapped. His body attire, the knee wrappings and shortened breechcloth, strongly suggest a ball game player. The posture is reminiscent of the position used to return a low ball in the ritual game, or a pose of veneration from an associated rite. A stone bead necklace around his throat indicates high status, as does his composite ear spool, often shown on rulers and gods. The eye has a supraorbital plate or scroll, common in Classic Veracruz art.
The head has two identifying attributes: the first is long hair tied in a knot, which is frequently worn by the Rain God. In front of the face is not a speech symbol, as sometimes has been indicated. Rather, the upper lip is extended with an additional tooth and a fang protruding downward, before the lip moves upward in a bifurcate scroll. This compound second attribute is also associated with the Rain God or his impersonators.
A plant-like staff is in front of the figure, and he may be reaching for it. The Rain God is often shown holding vegetative, scrolled, serpentine, or twisted insignia as if they were scepters. The bird perched on the upper leaf and peering at the figure is possibly a keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus), but could be a stocky parrot (Amazona sp.) or, less likely, one of the nightjars (Caprimulgidae) rendered with an elongated beak. Sometimes the Rain God is shown with a bird scepter. The staff here may be embellished with corn leaves, which are present in some Classic Veracruz scenes of ball game sacrifice.
Accompanying scrollwork further clarifies the ball game context. Two elaborate scroll sequences extend upward from beneath the figure’s feet, very probably representing twin ballcourt serpents. They intertwine below and perhaps above the figure. Looping lines of scrolls that extend over the double bands surrounding the plaque as a border provide a dynamic perspective.
At El Tajín, narrative scenes of later date than this plaque show what are almost certainly pulque-induced visions. In these large sculptures, from the circular coils of such snakes emerge images of the underworld gods or past rulers. Some of these depictions are placed in a ballcourt. Such apparitions appear to be related to ascension ceremonies in which the sanctions of certain predecessors and gods are sought from their abode in the afterlife.
So few plaques have been encountered that it is difficult to understand their thematic variation and purpose. Nevertheless, it is likely that mirror backs reproduced an aspect of such vision scenes. In the case of this plaque, the figure may be an ancestral ruler in the guise of the Rain God, or perhaps it is the evoked deity himself on an underworld ballcourt. Probably it was carved as part of rites associated with ruler ascension, confirmation of lin-eage, or right of governance. Perhaps, too, pyrite or hematite mirrors were considered windows on the underworld or its denizens. Inevitably such trea¬sured accoutrements of status would be buried with the honored individual for his trip to the hereafter.
It should be noted that the diameter of this plaque, as well as that of the other known examples, is very close to the width of the hole in standard ball game markers (tlaxmalacatl in Nahuatl) shown in the El Tajín sculptures as well as in actual stone rings from central and eastern Mexico. Additionally, these plaques directly approximate the diameter of the ball used in two surviving forms of the game, one using the forearm, the other a mallet. Such sculptures may have symbolized the mystical powers of prophecy and vision, derived from the gods and divine ancestral rulers, by means of the central element of the ritual itself: the ball.
The object’s back has drilled indentations, possibly to anchor an adhesive for still another surface, presumably pyrite or other reflective material. Thus the object’s ritual use may have required access to both its sides. Yet the use of these plaques as mirror backs has not been clearly demonstrated. However, a sculptural depiction from El Tajín shows a ball game figure holding in front of him, like a scepter on the end of a short staff, a scroll-ornamented object of similar proportions, suggesting a symbol of prerogative. Other possible uses are implied by multiple perforations on opposite edges of this and other plaques, generally along the horizontal center axis of the depiction. These suggest that it was tied to something, perhaps a frame or even a garment. Sculptural scenes at El Tajín suggest still other possibilities. Some Rain God and bird impersonators wear belts that always run from the left shoulder to the right side and bear an ovoid mirror or plaque, clearly a divine accoutrement of rank and station. Regardless of how initially employed, like so many of the ritual objects of the ball game cult, these items ultimately became funerary offerings.
The plaque was reportedly from the Misantla region in the central mountains of Veracruz, but it is almost certainly from a part of the Gulf Lowlands that was traditionally reached through Misantla. Covarrubias indicated that two plaques were found close to the town of Vega de Alatorre. His illustration of one of them shows a carving in very similar style, though slightly stiffer, with many comparable elements. Plaque PC.B.050 is likely to be the other plaque; together they may well illustrate distinct moments in a single mythological sequence. Quite near Vega de Alatorre are notable sites, such as Las Higueras, Aparicio, Tacahuite, and El Diamante. The last two have Early Classic occupation. Nearby Aparicio, from which has come large-scale Classic Veracruz sculpture, is seemingly largely of Late Classic date but may have an earlier component. This superb and eccentric sculpture is likely to have come from this area, most likely Tacahuite.
Purportedly there are slate sources in the mountains between the Gulf beaches and Misantla, and this general region is a possible source for the handful of other known plaques in this medium and format. Although few in number, they were spread widely and have been found at Kaminaljuyu in Guatemala and in Highland Central Mexico. They must have been much valued in commerce or, more likely, for specific ritual purposes.
The Dumbarton Oaks plaque depicts a symbol-laden scene that may be from a particular vision sequence charged with mythological import. A deity or its impersonator, with Rain God attributes, is shown in a reverential act in or near a ballcourt. The baroque rendering is carefully crafted and fully within the fluorescent Classic Veracruz style. Although its purpose is unknown, this exquisite sculpture is one of the rarest stone carvings from ancient Veracruz and one of the most exceptional objects in the Bliss Collection.
1958. Arts 33 (1):16. p. 16.
Benson, Elizabeth P. 1963 Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., p. 21, cat. 102.
Bliss, Robert Woods 1957 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. Text and Critical Analyses by S. K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler and William F. Foshag. Phaidon, New York. p. 232, 235-236, cat. 20-A, pl. XI.
Bliss, Robert Woods 1959 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. 2nd ed. Text and Critical Analyses by S. K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler and William F. Foshag. Phaidon, London. p. 240, 243-244, cat. 20-A, pl. XI.
Cook de Leonard, Carmen 1959 La Escultura. In Esplendor Del México Antiguo, Jorge R. Acosta [et al.], ed. vol. 2, Centro de Investigaciones Antropológicas de México., general editor, México. p. 554, cat. 35.
Covarrubias, Miguel 1957 Indian Art of Mexico and Central America. 1st ed. Knopf, New York. p. 185-187, pl. XLIV.
Disselhoff, Hans Dietrich and Sigvald Linné 1960 The Art of Ancient America: Civilizations of Central and South America. Art of the World, Non-European Cultures; the Historical, Sociological and Religious Backgrounds. Crown Publishers, New York. p. 61, fig. 32 (drawing).
Willey, Gordon Randolph 1966 An Introduction to American Archaeology. Prentice-Hall Anthropology Series. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., p. 142.
Young-Sanchez, Margaret 1990 Veneration of the Dead: Religious Ritual on a Pre-Columbian Mirror-Back. The bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 77 (9):326-351. p. 340, fig. 24.
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, October 25, 1955.
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1955-1962.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.