The sculpture that reveals the power roles of women in Mesoamerican society

The sculpture that reveals the power roles of women in Mesoamerican society
The sculpture that reveals the power roles of women in Mesoamerican society

The woman, carved from pale stone, sports a headdress, circular earrings, and the wide hip belt and knee pads of an ancient Mesoamerican athlete. Her expression is fierce and triumphant. Her right hand holds the severed head of a sacrificial victim by the hair.

The sculpture is the first life-size representation of a ritual ball player found in the Huasteca, a tropical region that encompasses parts of several states along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Like practically every other Mesoamerican society, its inhabitants played what is known today simply as “the ball game,” in the era prior to the Spanish conquest.

For the players, who bounced a dangerously heavy rubber ball against their hips, it was a form of communion with the gods, sometimes culminating in human sacrifice.

The ballplayer is among the most important artifacts in an exhibit, “Mesoamerican Huasteca Women: Goddesses, Warriors and Governors,” at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, which runs through July 21. This is the first time the piece, discovered by landowners about 50 years ago near Álamo, Veracruz, has been on display.

“Many people who study ancient Mesoamerica will be surprised to see this piece,” said Cesáreo Moreno, the museum’s chief curator.

“It is a totally atypical sculpture,” said David Antonio Morales, an archaeologist at the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Veracruz, who came across it in November while visiting private collections.

He contacted María Eugenia Maldonado, one of the few archaeologists specialized in the pre-Columbian past of the Huasteca. At first, she didn’t think the figure could be real.

It would be the first stone sculpture of a ball athlete found in the region, the first female player and the first on this scale holding a head. “It includes all elements in a single sculpture that have never been seen together before,” she said.

Another unique element: “Under the head of the decapitated person there is a glyph that is possibly the name of the person whose head was cut off,” Maldonado said.

It appears that the individual was known as Cuatro Muertes. “He is actually someone who existed,” Moreno said.

Maldonado said she hopes the 100 artifacts in the show will challenge what she calls “superficial” interpretations of women’s roles. For decades, archaeologists have described sculptures of men as individuals in positions of power, such as priests or rulers. They have tended to leave out sculptures of women as images of a fertility goddess.

Maldonado said he hopes this exhibit will promote knowledge about the Huasteca and foster a sense of pride in its indigenous inhabitants. “I think this should also help people see that someone else, even outside of Mexico, has an interest in their culture,” she added.

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