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This unusual sculpture is an excellent example of the small polished hachas in hard stone that are most frequently encountered in the south-central Gulf region. It is made of metadiorite, whose green color was preferred for jewelry, small carvings, and yokes. The hacha may date from the end of the Early Classic period or the initial Late Classic. It is part of a small but significant corpus of fine sculptures that are centered on the upper Origaba Valley and result from a direct transplant of lowland ball game rituals to higher elevations (1,700 m and above).
Precise dating for hachas in this area is very difficult. There is a paucity of reliable chronological contexts for the motifs. Additionally, the variants of the Classic Veracruz style are not generally consistent throughout the south-central region. Moreover, artistic attributes in this district were distinctively applied. For example, this item’s scroll type is, in the north-central Gulf Lowlands, normally found on certain palmas but not on hachas. Nor is this sculpture a standard hacha with respect to shape. There is no pronounced notch on the lower back, but only a hint of an indentation by the occipital extension of the upper portion of the form. The carving sits on a small base and inclines backward in a dynamic pose.
The figure depicted is a severed human head with distorted features and wearing a zoomorphic helmet. The face has a brooding brow and deep, half-open eyes that almost certainly once held inlays, such as shell or bone. Beneath the eyes a deep incised line may mark the sagging lower eyelid or the edge of a buccal mask.
Directly below the pudgy nose with flaring nostrils is a horizontal ring that appears to be set into the skull at the level where the upper lip should be. The lower jaw is absent, and the tongue hangs straight down with incised lines along its edges. From the area of the missing mandible, two pronounced scrolls in double outline sweep back onto the cheeks; they probably represent blood.
Covering the forehead with its upper beak is a stylized macaw-head helmet. Its eyes were probably once inlaid; surface discoloration there is consistent with a stain from pyrite. Behind the eyes, outlined on their upper sides with a double arc, are three feathers. Scrolls at the lower back of the helmet at the point of articulation of the absent lower beak resemble scrolls on the face.
This hacha appears to represent a form of ritual disfigurement and decapitation analogous to those in the north-central Gulf Lowlands but with some regional peculiarities. The helmet bears, with stylistic variance, the same macaw motif found on other hachas, as well as that worn by figures in ball game rites at El Tajín. However, the ring, missing mandible, and hanging tongue are suggestive of a grisly ritual perhaps more specific to the southern reaches of the Gulf Lowlands.
Dismemberment of the face is likely to have been a presacrificial act, as was evisceration at El Tajín. Such gruesome actions, particularly in the case of captured warriors or rulers, were probably far more common than was previously thought. Sacrifice in ancient Veracruz was not necessarily meant to be a swift trip to the afterlife.
The polished surface, elaborate scrollwork, and probable inlays suggest great care and effort was lavished on this object by the commissioned artisan(s). This diminutive but extremely fine stone sculpture is likely to have commemorated not only an explicit rite but also the protracted ritual death of a specific individual.
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. 97.
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. 237, cat. 27-A, pl. XIX.
Bliss, Robert Woods 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. 27-A, pl. XIX.
"Carved in Stone: Hardstone Objects from the Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss," Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC, 7/15/2010 - 1/15/2011.
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1956.
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1956-1962.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.