600 AD to 900 AD
14.9″ (37.8cm) high x 6.5″ (16.5cm) wide
This striking piece of stone sculpture is a palma, a stone copy of a piece of apparel worn by athletes when playing the famous Mesoamerican ball game. The actual palmas would have been made from leather or similar; it is likely that pieces such as this were awarded to good players. The palma has been carved to resemble a giant costume enveloping the stocky body of an aristocratic warrior. The top 1/3 of the piece is carved in the likeness of a fan, bounded horizontally by a hatched textile band. The lower 2/3 of the piece comprise smooth polished stone decorated with curvilinear glyph-like motifs. In the centre of the piece is a complex oval aperture designed to resemble the mouth of a feline, with large, dagger-like teeth protruding down over the shoulders of the human figure. He is standing on a “shelf” that projects perpendicular to the long axis of the piece. His raiment seems to suggest that he occupies a prestigious social position, with ornate clothing and jewellery on head, torso, wrists and ankles. The face is calm and impassive, with narrow eyes, an inverted T- bar nose and straight, parallel lips.
The piece dates from the latter end of the first millennium AD, to a dynamic time in Eastern Mexican political and social regimes. The Classic Veracruz cultures were small, tightly-packed city states, all governed by hereditary rulers, who sat at the top of highly stratified social structures. Economically, it was based upon slash and burn agricultural techniques, supplemented by exploitation of marine resources, as well as hunting. The culture was fuelled by long- distance trade networks that ran throughout Mesoamerica, as evidenced by the spread of luxury items and exotic goods. In this they strongly resemble the Olmecs, who preceded them and to whom they owed a considerable cultural and artistic debt.
Religion was based upon the Olmec “earth monster”, as well as a death god who has been likened to Mictlantecuhtli, a deity worshipped by their cultural neighbour, the Aztecs. Like the Aztecs, they were obsessed with death, sacrifice and the Mesoamerican ballgame, another cultural bequest from the Olmecs. There are accounts stating that the losing team was sacrificed as an offering to the gods; other chroniclers suggest that it might have been used as a substitute for warfare. As a result their iconography is somewhat sanguineous – with decapitations, blood-letting and bound prisoners common themes – surrounded by extensive and convoluted banded scrolls that can be seen both on monumental architecture and on mobiliary art. It is in this category that the current piece falls, as part of the extensive cultural paraphernalia surrounding the ballgame. A defining characteristic of the Classic Veracruz culture is the presence of stone ballgame gear: yokes, hachas, and palmas. Yokes are U-shaped stones worn about the waist of a ballplayer, while the hachas and palmas sit upon the yoke. These were probably worn ceremonially by the victors; the actual pieces were probably made of wood and leather. Interestingly, while hachas and yokes are found throughout the range, the palmas seem peculiar to what is today northern Veracruz.
The symbolism of the current piece is elusive, although certain elements can be isolated. The form of the piece – as a feline’s mouth – suggests a therianthropic theme that runs through most Mesoamerican cultures, and especially the Olmecs. The person depicted was probably a high-ranking chief, official or perhaps a victor at a high-stake ballgame. The solemnity of the figure, accentuated by the dark colouring of the stone, makes for a strong sculptural impact that is heightened by the Olmec-inspired carving methods (especially in the rendering of the figure). This is a beautifully executed piece of ancient Mesoamerican art.Login to view price