Click an image to view a larger version
This fine marble hacha with a notched form and scroll motif is most likely from the north-central Gulf Lowlands, or the adjacent upper south-central Gulf Lowlands, where marble sculptures are slightly more common and more stone sources are situated. In the former area, however, and particularly at lower elevations, this particular scroll pattern is more widespread.
The sculpture’s two sections consist of a zoomorphic head and a hat-like crest covered with scrolls. The figure has a markedly wrinkled face, eyes highlighted by a supraorbital scroll with partial double outline, and possibly there once were inlays in the sockets. The short snout is furrowed; the upper lip furls inward and upward, as when there is a gap between front and back teeth. The open mouth lacks clearly marked teeth or notches for inserting encrusted fangs, common on animal hachas.
A palate-like projection on the maxilla substitutes for delineated teeth. The slightly grooved, languid tongue extends down over the jaw, sometimes a sign of death, but it is not swollen, and the expression gives a sense of panting. Slack and lined cheeks might be specific attributes of the species of animal portrayed, but the indications suggest toothless old age or extreme emaciation.
The subject is probably not a bat, because it lacks common attributes of this animal in the Classic Veracruz style: elongated pointed ears, slit eyes, and an upturned nose. It also lacks the rabbit’s signature buckteeth and elongated pointed ears. Other possibilities include the tepezcuintle or paca (Agouti paca), tejon or coatimundi (Nasua sp.), and viejo del monte or badger (Taxidea sp.). In Mesoamerican myth, as in the Popul Vuh, tropical nocturnal animals aided the divine heroes in their life-or-death ball games with the malevolent lords of the night.
The appearance of such small sculptures can be changed substantially by incrustations of shell, obsidian, bone, asphalt, or pyrite, which were frequently used for this purpose. These insets could bestow a ferocious aspect on the countenance of a figure that otherwise would be unremarkable and nondescript.
It is hard to conclusively identify the animal represented here. It may be a hybrid with zoological and mythological attributes. Or it may be a specific deity. A canine form of one of the planet Venus deities is sometimes depicted as emaciated and aged. In later times this dog, occasionally depicted with a protruding tongue, was one of the avatars of Xolotl. This capricious and violent god was also connected with the ball game and the cult of Venus. The veneration of Venus with its cyclical celestial appearances and disappearances was important in the ball game cosmology of ancient Veracruz.
This elaborate zoomorphic hacha, like so many of the genre, represents the severed head of a real or mythological participant in the ritual ball game. In ball game rites, players may have worn masks imitating the deity participants who sometimes took animal forms. This ornate sculpture may be associated with a form of the descending god of Venus, also a patron of warfare, sacrifice, and the elite forms of the ball game.
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. 20, cat. 95.
Bliss, Robert Woods 1947 Indigenous Art of the Americas: Collection of Robert Woods Bliss. National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., p. 22, 106, cat. 103.
Bliss, Robert W. 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. 237, cat. 25, pl. XVII.
Bliss, Robert W. 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. 245, cat. 25, pl. XVII.
Christensen, Erwin Ottomar 1955 Primitive Art. Bonanza Books, New York. p. 202.
Kubler, George 1962 The Art and Architecture of Ancient America; the Mexican, Maya, and Andean Peoples. The Pelican History of Art, Z21. Penguin Books, Baltimore. p. 76, pl. 39b.
Proskouriakoff, Tatiana 1954 Varieties of Classic Central Veracruz Sculpture. Contributions to American Anthropology and History ; [V. 12] No. 58. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, D.C., p. 79, fig. 1, Hacha 1.
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México 1957 Artes De México. 17. Began with issue for Oct./Nov. 1953. vols. Artes de México, México, D.F., pl. 14.
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, April 1947 to July 1962.
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, before 1947.
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1940-1962.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.