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This diminutive bird sculpture belongs to an unusual variety of palma of unconfirmed geographic distribution that is likely to have originated in or about the north-central Gulf Lowlands in the Late Classic period. Very small palmas were of a handy size for transport and occur on the Gulf coastal plain in limited numbers. Several in similar format, but with distinct motifs, have been found in the adjacent northern part of the state of Puebla. This particular specimen is executed in hard dark stone, an unusual medium for palmas. It is reportedly from near the city of Puebla in the Central Highlands of Mexico, some 200 km inland from the Gulf Coast.
Of miniature size and squat appearance, the sculpture is executed in a variant of the Classic Veracruz style that abbreviates and compresses many elements. The head of a crested carnivorous bird rests on a standard palma base. The open beak, with a nostril bulb at its base, is largely straight with a pronounced elongation and hook on its upper half. The smallish eyes are round indentations, possibly for inlays, at the corner of stylized scrolls. The ridge between the scroll-brows is wrinkled or feathered. Ears are depicted well back of puffy cheeks in an anthropomorphic mode.
Around the neck is a square stone necklace atop what may be pendants or a cape-like garment. The whole abuts what is probably a representation of a backboard with a segmented, almost niche-like design that ends in squared scrolls. This element is, in turn, fringed with two opposing groups of feathers that approximate raised wings. The posterior surface is arched forward and plain. The bottom is gently curved. Most of the hard stone is polished and pockmarked from natural impurities. There is some battering, apparently ancient.
The figure appears to be that of a bird impersonator in one of the pre–ball game rituals. This avian figure has a crest of four stubby feathers that rise upward and slightly to the front. Short flanking feathers surround the crest plumes. The bird is probably an eagle and quite possibly the black hawk-eagle (Spizaetus tyrannus), a large, impressive bird of prey with a distinctive erect crest of short black and white feathers. It resides in both lowlands forests and lower elevation cloud forests. It was probably associated with a specific deity thought to participate in ball game rituals and most probably with pre-game vision sessions. This rite, with musical accompaniment and a dancing eagle, is shown at El Tajín’s South Ballcourt.
There too, the impersonator raises his wings. This bird posture, as when landing, appears to be the inspiration for the notched form of the palma back. The bifurcate format is common in palmas, and not just those with bird motifs. At times the back is sufficiently split that the wings appear as totally separate. Such rendering may be a tradition of considerable time depth in the genre.
Tropical birds and their impersonators are integral parts of ancient Gulf Lowlands ritualism. This unusual small sculpture is an excellent example of how major palma themes can be compressed and reduced to their essential elements. It also demonstrates one of the extreme variations of the Classic Veracruz artistic expression.
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. 98.
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, cat. 100.
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. 238, cat. 31, pl. XXIII.
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. 246, cat. 31, pl. XXIII.
National Geographic Maps 1997 Antigua Mesoamérica. National Geographic Magazine, Spanish December 1997:supplement map. verso.
National Geographic Maps 2002 Antigua Mesoamérica/Los Mesoamericanos, Map Supplement. Explora y Navega (children's magazine). verso.
National Geographic Maps 2003 Das Alte Mesoamerika, Supplement Map. In National Geographic Spezial, Deutschland. vol. März 2003. verso.
Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 1940 An Exhibition of Pre-Columbian Art. January 15 through February 10, Arranged by the Peabody Museum and the William Hayes Fogg Art Museum. Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., cat. 43.
Ries, Maurice Ruddell (ED.) 1942 Ancient American Art, 500 B.C.-A.D. 1500; the Catalog of an Exhibit of the Art of the Pre-European Americas, April-June 1942, Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, C.A., cat. 221.
Sotheby 1937 Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Indian and South American Antiquities, Native Art. Sotheby, London. cat. 182, pl. IV.
"An Exhibition of Pre-Columbian Art", Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA, 1/15 - 3/2/1940.
"Ancient American Art", Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA, April - June 1942; M. H. De Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, CA, July - August 1942; Portland Museum of Art, Portland, OR, September - October 1942.
"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, April 1947 to July 1954; January 1956 to July 1962.
Formerly in the Mrs. Jean Holland Collection.
Purchased from Sotheby's, London (auction house), by Robert Woods Bliss, June 9 1937.
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1937-1962.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.