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This sculpture is an excellent example of a distinctive type of bird palma, found predominantly in the north-central Gulf area and especially in the Tecolutla and Nautla River Valleys. Most known examples are less three-dimensional than this one; many do not have the “backboard” that is present here. Practically all do share a similar posture and a comparable treatment of the wings and talons.
Bird motifs are common in Classic Veracruz art and are associated with ball game ritualism, particularly with visions and sacrifices. One of the most explicit portrayals of a vision is from El Tajín’s South Ballcourt, where a large dancing avian figure participates in a major pre-game rite. Also at El Tajín’s Building of the Columns, where numerous sacrificial rites are depicted, birds, or bird skins, are shown in palma-like postures appended to skin containers carried as accoutrements in ball game–associated rituals. This category of palma may be stone renditions of these trophy birds.
It is also possible that composite mythological creatures are being depicted in such art, but in this class of palmas a specific bird is shown. Generally these birds are depicted with upraised talons and full extended fronts as if they have just gorged themselves, and some appear to have been gluttonous indeed, with long beaks curved downward for tearing flesh. The wings tend to be divided into primary and secondary feathers. The short crest on the head often has backward-curving front feathers with longer feathers sweeping directly back.
These birds have been called vultures or eagles, but the common king vulture, also a day sign in the ritual calendar, has a mostly bald head totally lacking a crest. There are several candidates among eagles, hawks, kites, and falcons. However, the head of the crested caracara (Polyborus plancus), commonly called quebrantahuesos (“bone breaker”) in the tropics, is most similar to that shown in these palmas. It has a black crest, a red face, and a white and black body. It is both a bird of prey and an avid eater of carrion.
Although not as numerous as vultures, these large, strong birds aggressively feed with them on carrion. They also hunt live prey, including snakes. Several will congregate about a kill or carcass and gorge themselves, apparently in order of dominance. This is a far more striking, assertive, and colorful bird than the vulture and so is more likely to have played a role in ball game ritual. Apart from its probable link in antiquity with both death and the consumption of the sacrificed, this large bird of prey may have been thought to have powers of prophecy. In the countryside of Veracruz today this surly bird is credited with being able to announce weather changes—including droughts, storms, and floods—with its long, rancorous calls. This belief may be a carry-over from the Pre-Columbian myth that certain birds were messengers of the under¬world gods, which included the rain deity.
Although these sculptures may have been transported considerable distances, even into Central America, they appear to originate in the El Tajín region in north-central Veracruz. The battering on the present example is likely to be ancient and is not atypical for such carvings, suggesting both use and transport mishaps. The Dumbarton Oaks carrion-bird palma embodies many of the salient qualities of this important class of sculptures.
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. 96.
Bliss, Robert Woods 1947 Indigenous Art of the Americas: Collection of Robert Woods Bliss. National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian institution, Washington, D.C., p. 21, 104-105, cat. 99.
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. 27, pl. XVIII.
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. 27, pl. XVIII.
Davies, Nigel 1983 The Ancient Kingdoms of Mexico. Pelican Books. Penguin Books, New York. fig. 12.
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. 68, fig. 10b.
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México 1957 Artes De México. 17. Artes de México, México, D.F., pl. 13.
"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 1962.
Purchased from Earl Stendahl, Los Angeles (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, 1941.
Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1941-1962.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.