Stone yokes are the archetypal Classic Veracruz art objects. Highly varied in their decorative motifs, they are among the most eccentric portable sculptures of ancient Mesoamerica. Yoke PC.B.035 has both a long collection history and many uncommon attributes. It is an exceptional example of the genre. It is made of diorite porphyry, a much harder material than the green stone commonly used for polished Classic yokes. Once the general U-form had been fashioned by chiseling and pecking with a still harder rock or bone, the elaborate depiction on the exterior surface was achieved by various techniques, such as drilling. Reed drill holes are still visible on the object’s front and in some of the ornamental spools on top. Sawing was used around the feather headdress, leaving some residual crests of stone. Interior and bottom, both undecorated, are pecked only. Decorated surfaces are highly polished.
The left branch of the yoke shows discoloration and fracture from fire. Such pyrogenic alteration is compatible with the sculpture being exposed in an active slash-and-burn cornfield (milpa) or in the burnt debris from cleared rainforest. The right branch is broken and mended near the principal figure’s headdress. This is a common fracture point for yokes when dropped or when excessive pressure has been applied to an end. There are some instances where yokes may have been purposely broken—“ritually killed”—in this manner prior to interment as offerings. Minor chipping occurs along the exterior bottom, but in spite of breakage and battering over a millennium or more, the overall condition of the sculpture is very good.
With their curving and receding sides, U-shaped yokes have few flat surfaces and thus when they are densely carved there is no single perspective from which the sculpted image can be seen in its entirety. The carved representation follows an anatomical portrayal and layout common to many yokes and demonstrates conventions frequently found in the sculptures of the El Tajín region in the north-central Gulf Lowlands.
When the disparate surfaces are joined, the image is of a personage dressed in a plumed animal helmet anchored with a chinstrap. The muzzle of the zoomorph spreads above the teeth and is backed by a mounting frame, which supports bunched feathers at its top. Behind the snout are two horizontal lance-shaped spaces, centrally incised, perhaps eyes or ears. They lack the defined supraorbital arch or swirl that customarily characterizes eyes in Classic Veracruz art. Ears, considered diagnostic features in the depiction of some mythological animals, such as bats, are sometimes shown in this pointed shape.
The beast is not a feline or a coyote, which normally displays prominent fangs. However, curved elements just within the lips may be small canines, and between them are what appear to be teeth, noticeably larger in size and broader at their crowns. Some bats, including the hairy-legged vampire (Diphylla ecaudata Spix), have upper incisors that are larger than their canines, and they have fan-shaped teeth in front. Some bats have five incisors, as may be shown here. Regardless of the mammal being represented, it appears as a pelt stretched on an elaborate tablet-like head covering. Skin-helmets became especially popular in depictions of rulers in the upper Gulf Lowlands during the subsequent Postclassic period.
The circular drill holes may represent dental incrustations, or possibly these elements are not part of the dentition, but rather a band of stone disks across the forehead, a common accoutrement of rain deities and rulers in the greater El Tajín region. Attached to each side of the frame is a scroll that may represent an ear or a plume. The headdress is large and has diverse elements.
The human head wears composite ear spools; spangles may be distended slit lobes. Semicircular disks may also have been suspended directly beneath the spools. A perforated disk necklace is incomplete; apparently the original design did not fit in the space allotted to it. This truncation suggests that, as in other forms of ball game sculptures, the original design was developed for the initial size of the unadorned object, without anticipating stone loss as carving progressed.
This phenomenon is known from some other yokes, but is far more common on palmas. In fact, almost all of the exterior portrayal on this yoke—except perhaps the end-heads, which seem adapted to the available space—lacks the bottom centimeter or so. Unless the entire yoke was trimmed because of disfiguring fractures, it is likely that the lower portion of the sculpture was carved after the top was completed.
The central human face, with full lips and blank eyes, is mask-like. The visage may be the superimposed countenance of a deity, a not uncommon practice in statuary of the northern Gulf, especially in the Huasteca north of El Tajín. The outstretched arms are adorned with composite wristlets. The hands clasp curved bands with floral-like attachments at either terminus. Although resembling scepters, these are similar to flowered staffs (oztopilli) or snake-like lightning bolts (coatopilli) grasped by rain gods as fertility symbols, particularly in codices from the end of the Pre-Columbian era. Numerous yokes in the El Tajín region show these objects, sometimes simply portrayed as snakes. At El Tajín, rain, wind, and moon deities clutch similar rods with a single floral decoration, as do royal impersonators of gods participating in pulque rites.
The upraised-arm posture is associated with elite sacrificial rites and deity imitators in sculptures depicting rulers from the Pyramid of the Niches and the South Ballcourt at El Tajín. It is also a standard stance in the popular Gulf Lowlands pulque cult. Above and slightly behind the PC.B.035 figure’s forearms are small globular objects; they appear to be tiny symbolic jars (ollas). A similar vessel, albeit more in proportion to human scale, is depicted repeatedly in the panels of the South Ballcourt, with scenes emphasizing the ball game, sacrifice, and pulque rites. In the climactic north-central panel, the gods or their impersonators are grouped around a pulque vat in an underworld temple; the protagonist who dramatically requests pulque holds the jar by the forearm.
On PC.B.035, the rest of the human figure appears toward the ends of the yoke in a squatting posture, not unlike an opening face-off position in sumo wrestling or lacrosse. The upper legs are massive, with huge thighs at right angles to lower legs, adorned with decorative knotted protectors that cover the knee and upper calf. These protectors are part of the gear used by ball game players. Elaborate sandals on the feet are secured by an upturned knot with twin ribbons, also common at El Tajín. The ridge descending from the top of the thigh behind the attached end-heads is probably the edge of the dual sash of the breechcloth (maxlatl).
At the ends of the yoke, representing the waist of the figure, are two trophy heads. Both have composite ear spools with suspended semicircular pendants. Their headgear is apparently held in place by a braided rope running beneath the chin. They wear zoomorphic headdresses, perhaps again depicting bats. In this case each zoomorph has a stubby snout and possibly a nose projection, called a “leaf,” seen on some fruit-, nectar-, and insect-eating bats.
The heads appear to be attached to an embellished bar that runs the length of the inside edge of the yoke. This double-headed bar, decorated with bent diagonal scrolls and an occasional spool with squared corners, is a symbol of a liquid-filled vat and consistent with pulque ritualism. The band running from the upper legs and waist along the length of the yoke behind the figure’s headdress may represent the hide band that was used to bind the buttocks in the ball game or a stronger—perhaps wood-based—protector.
Several attributes of this yoke are consistent with the beginning of the Late Classic period. The squared spools of the decoration, pendant disks, and upraised hands with symbolic rods are all found in the sanctuary sculptures of the Pyramid of the Niches at El Tajín, where an ancestral ruler is shown performing a series of distinct rituals, including pulque rites. Construction of the building probably began ca. 600–700 CE. Deities bearing rods and pulque symbolism are also found in the South Ballcourt, built in the Late Classic.
Bats are depicted in the sanctuary corpus of the Pyramid of the Niches and are explicitly placed in a pulque vat shown in a panel of the North Ballcourt, an important structure perhaps close to the Pyramid of the Niches in date. The bat (tzinacantli in Nahuatl) is associated with night, darkness, thunderstorms, the evening star (Venus), and decapitation. All are themes of the ball game ritual and the underworld, including the origin point of pulque in the realm of the Rain God. Bats are associated with the five-part Venus cycle and the mythological confrontation of the ball-playing hero twins with the gods of the underworld in the legends recounted in the Popul Vuh. They are also motifs on palmas.
The closest examples of related sculptures with known provenience are from the Tecolutla River Valley, at the edge of which El Tajín is situated, and the Nautla River Valley just to the south. A yoke carved in somewhat similar hard green stone, from a satellite community of the large Santa Luisa site, is in the Museo de Antropología in Xalapa (Veracruz, Mexico). Not as elaborately decorated, it has a number of similar attributes and dress. The probable region of origin of the Dumbarton Oaks yoke is in the catchment of the Tecolutla or the nearby Nautla and Cazones Rivers, all in the heart of the north-central Gulf Lowlands and the core of the climax area for the mature Classic Veracruz style.
This yoke’s unusual elements include the highly polished hard stone, drilling scars, figure proportions, uncommon iconographic attributes, and the major design truncation. These features, in conjunction with concerns about the acumen of its original collector in the late nineteenth century, have elicited doubts about its authenticity. By 1900, it was in Mexico City in the Chavero Collection, which is thought to have contained a number of subtly executed fakes.
It should be pointed out, however, that the closest association for the thematic material contained in the carving is to be found in specific sculptures at El Tajín, most of which were not unearthed until at least 30–50 years after the initial collection date of PC.B.035. Furthermore, at the end of the nineteenth century there were few highly embellished yokes that could inspire such a striking portrayal. Most of the upper Gulf Lowlands were still covered in rainforest, and the corpus of yokes in collections did not greatly expand until clearing operations, part of the emerging road network and expanding oil industry of the mid-twentieth century. Unless PC.B.035 is a carefully crafted and iconographically faithful copy of a now-lost and presumably damaged original or a composite of various originals still unknown a century later, it is probable that the challenges of carving the complicated theme in uncommonly hard stone led to some of the curious aspects of this yoke.
The esoteric symbolism of the Classic Veracruz portable sculptures was a product of the complex ritualism and multifaceted mythology associated with the evolution of the ball game cult over many centuries. The image on the yoke probably depicts a specific moment in a post–ball game sacrificial ritual when a ruler evokes the abundance of pulque from the powerful underworld deities—especially the Rain God. Such rites, most likely scheduled in accordance with the Venus calendar, are narrated in great detail in the ballcourts and sculptures at El Tajín. The headdresses of both the central figure and the trophy heads on the yoke ends are suggestive of bat forms, implying the impersonation of one of the significant zoomorphic participants in the underworld ball-court rites.
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Formerly in the collection of Alfredo Chavero , Mexico, ca. 1900.
Formerly in the Hearst Collection
Purchased from Parish-Watson & Co. by Ernest Brummer, New York (dealer), March 1, 1939.
Purchased from Ernest Brummer, New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, June 17, 1947.
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1947-1962.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.