This fragment is from a large, probably monumental fired clay figure, which, if complete, would have been a meter or more high. It is a head with a death expression, its eyes closed to slits and the mouth rigidly open in a broad oval. The eye ridges and nose are sharply defined. The paste is well mixed with sand temper and fully fired. Around the head is a zoomorphic helmet, its upper portion broken off. This headgear seemingly represents a curious mythological creature with a large button eye framed by a scroll that is defined with a fillet of clay.
The human face is placed in a maw that has features of both a bird beak and reptilian jaws. Rounded teeth are shown, suggesting that this may be a form of monster with avian-crocodilian attributes. Such hybrid beasts occur in Gulf Lowlands statuary at the end of the Late Classic period and throughout the Postclassic. As earth monsters they were thought to devour the dead at the entrance to the underworld.
This item has been ascribed to the Remojadas style of south-central Veracruz, which dates to the Terminal Preclassic and Early Classic periods (ca. 1–600 CE). Among other divergences from the norm for this style, however, there is no asphalt decoration on this figure, one of the style’s salient features. The modeled features, size, paste, and decorations suggest that it is not of that localized styling, nor is it likely to have been from that vicinity. Monumental statuary of these proportions and with these attributes is not currently known from Remojadas or the immediate district.
When this ceramic head was first described in the late 1940s to 1960s, it was fashionable to label practically all large ceramic figures from south-central Veracruz, regardless of origin, as being from Remojadas or executed in its style. It was not until the 1970s that the truly monumental ceramic sculptures of El Zapotal became widely known. That key site is situated about 70 km to the south. This item is much more closely related to the ceramic statuary from that district, both stylistically and structurally.
Although such figures can be found in various parts of the southern Gulf Lowlands, most of the sites with ceramic sculptures of this size and thematic context are on the northern side of the Río Papaloapan, and especially along the Río Blanco tributary. This low region, with few appropriate stones for carving, is crammed with sites of all sizes that often yield large numbers of ceramic figures. Part of this zone, known as the Mixtequilla, has an especially high density of sites and artifacts.
Many such exquisite sculptures were intentionally broken in antiquity when they were buried as offerings. Often large numbers of figures were interred at the same time. It is probable that ascension ceremonies of rulers, construction dedications, cyclical Venus celebrations, or victories of conquest motivated such multiple offerings.
This item is from an important monumental figure depicting a male with a monster helmet. It probably dates to the Terminal Classic. Many helmeted figures, often warriors, are known from the lower elevations of the south-central area of Veracruz. Deity impersonators, one of which is probably represented in PC.B..051, are also depicted. Sometimes the Maize God is shown sacrificed in the ballcourt with such an avian-monster helmet. The quality of the workmanship in this clay sculpture is above average, and the complete figure would have been striking indeed.
Anonymous 1958 A Collection of Pre-Columbian Fine Art. Natural History 67 (3):128-129. p. 128-129.
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. 103.
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. 238, cat. 32, pl. XXIV.
Christensen, Erwin Ottomar 1955 Primitive Art. Bonanza Books, New York. p. 244, fig. 198.
Purchased from Helmut de Terra, New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1952.
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1952-1962.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.