Definitely not a standard hacha, this grotesque sculpture is unusual in several respects. The central motif is a distorted face conventionally identified as dios tuerto (the “one-eyed god”). Of great antiquity, this theme occurs on very few Gulf Lowlands yokes (ball game apparatus) and on the much smaller miniatures called yuguitos (“little yokes”), as well as on numerous ceramic figurines of central and eastern Mexico. This example, however, takes the customary features of such a misshapen head to extremes and even embellishes them.
A tuerto depiction is dualistic: half of the face is normal, half is contorted or deformed, often with one missing eye and a protruding tongue. The “normal” side of this sculpture has a vacant squinting eye, unless it once had an inlay. From the eye descends an odd curving tear line. Out of the mouth, with exposed upper teeth, a large incised scroll emerges from beneath a life-like tongue. Above the eye a tight scroll curl, often a sign of blood, springs from a flap of thick skin.
The contorted side has a huge bulbous eye, as if horribly bloated from blows or literally squeezed out of the skull. The eye and nose are covered with partially wrinkled or scarred skin adorned, perhaps tattooed, with two designs: a curious fish with his head at a right angle to his body, and a conch shell.
The atypically depicted ears on both sides are realistic, protruding, unadorned, and perforated for attaching accoutrements. The upper lip is not bipartite, as often occurs in many dualistic portrayals, but flairs out with greater thickness and a slight down slant on the normal side of the face. The upper portion of the hacha has a groove down its centerline and a strap-like projection onto the forehead that appears to anchor it to the skin flap. This portion of the sculpture, normally flattened, sits atop the face like a Jacobin cap. The head appears to represent a sacrificed individual wearing the skin mask of an old man over one side of his face and the forehead.
Although certainly bizarre, with many atypical attributes, this hacha may reflect the decapitation of players who impersonate the mythological personages of the underworld ballcourt. The battered, tortured nature of the countenance is in keeping with the torment inflicted on prisoners and legendary underworld deities of the ball game. One of the latter was probably considered a tuerto.
Stylistically, the figure does not conform to norms of known Classic Veracruz sculptures for the north Gulf area, where andesite and basalt are the typical media for hachas. Perhaps it was inspired by a marginal style in the central mountains of Veracruz or the upper zone of the south Gulf area. With the exception of one ear, few of the sculpture’s delicate appendages or exposed surfaces have been chipped. Most nicks are along the top of the carving.
In spite of the features that fit the tuerto theme, the known hacha variation, and the medium itself, the preponderance of exaggerated features in the presentation suggests that this peculiar sculpture should only be accepted as authentic with reservations.
Future analysis, as well as new finds, may resolve the discrepancies and fully validate the rendering.
Arnold, Philip J. and Christopher A. Pool (EDS.) 2008 Classic Period Cultural Currents in Southern and Central Veracruz. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C..
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. 19, cat. 93.
Von Winning, Hasso and Alfred Stendahl 1968 Pre-Columbian Art of Mexico and Central America. Harry N. Abrams, Inc, New York. p. 215, pl. 299-300.
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, September 1960 to April 1962.
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1960
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1960-1962.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.