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The Mesoamerican Ballgame and a Classic Veracruz yoke

Yoke, c. 1 - 900 C.E., Classic Veracruz culture, greenstone, 11.5 x 38 x 41.5 cm (American Museum of Natural History) Speakers: Dr. Rex Koontz and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) - [Narrator 1] We're in the American Museum of Natural History staring at some of the most magnificent objects I've ever seen. These are from ancient Veracruz. They're known in a colloquial sense as yokes although they have nothing to do with oxen and tilling the field. - [Narrator 2] The yoke actually comes from this idea that they held down sacrificial victims which is absolutely not the case. But, they're so stunning, people have always wanted to know what they meant. - [Narrator 1] In Veracruz there is no natural deposit of this green stone and so this would have had to been imported at enormous cost through treacherous terrain. Imagine how difficult it would've been to take a boulder of greenstone, this incredibly valuable material, and import it into Veracruz. - [Narrator 2] These were only held by the most important political and religious leaders in classic Veracruz, and in fact they were very proud of having these. And when we find burials of nobles, it is not uncommon for them to be buried with a few objects and their yoke. - [Narrator 1] Well, look at the technical facility that went into carving this. It is stunning. You see these broad, muscular volumes and then this fine, much flatter relief carving. - [Narrator 2] The very broad forms define the major motif which we believe is a frog or a toad, with eyes, a tongue, the forelegs, and the hind legs. And then interspersed inside those forms are these incredibly delicate incisions, as if someone's almost taking a brush. It's really almost calligraphic. And the classic Veracruz people inherit that monumental simple forms from the Olmec. But this delicate, calligraphic line is their own invention. - [Narrator 1] It is as if the broad forms are sculpture and then there's drawing within that. And it's really drawn out by the fact that cinnabar was used, that's the red, to highlight those recessed lines. - [Narrator 2] Many, many objects had cinnabar rubbed into the light incisions to highlight the virtuosity, certainly. - [Narrator 2] And cinnabar is a dangerous material, it's mercury. - [Narrator] Exactly, so you have cinnabar used for two things in classic Veracruz. One is rubbing into these lines to get the viewer to look at them, and the other is, they would coat bones of ancestors in cinnabar. - [Narrator 2] How did people in ancient Veracruz view the frog or the toad? Why is that association important? - [Narrator 1] It's water. Especially the border between water and land. Any sort of swampy situation, and there's a lot of that in Veracruz. Frogs, they're the beings that inhabit both land and water. And water, for many Mesoamerican peoples, but for classic Veracruz definitely, also had to do with the underworld and the land of the dead and where you went when you were buried. - [Narrator 2] So this idea that one can trespass across the boundaries between life and death. And that's especially important when we think about this object in relation to the ball game. - [Narrator 1] Exactly. The ball game itself was one of those places where the supernatural and our world could meet. - [Narrator 2] We're not talking about baseball or football or soccer, as we think of it in the modern game. These were ritual events. We don't understand the rules or the purpose for which games were played. We know that they weren't just for entertainment. And we know that the ball game was enormously important because the significant real estate was given over to ball courts in the major cities in Mesoamerica. And that's especially true in this area, in Veracruz. - [Narrator 1] In this area, even secondary cities, smaller places, all had their own court. Everyone played the game. However, objects like these were not used to play the game. They were used in precessions and in other very important rituals in these courts. - [Narrator 2] And so what these are, are stone representations of a piece of the uniform that was worn by a ball player. This was the belt. - [Narrator 1] And people had to wear these belts because in the actual ball game, they had a solid rubber ball bouncing around the court. If this hit you, you would hemorrhage inside. And in fact we have Spanish accounts of people doing just that and dying. - [Narrator 2] Modern balls, a tennis ball, this is a thin, hollow ball. It's quite light. But rubber is heavy material and a large, solid piece of rubber coming at you at hight velocity is gonna hurt. - [Narrator 1] Exactly, and so they would build these wicker and leather contraptions that would allow them to hit the ball without the ball hitting their body. - [Narrator 2] And so the ball player, presumably, would have to be quite skilled at making sure they could contort their body to hit the ball with that belt. - [Narrator 1] So, we have this thing that looks like one of those belts, but is used in very important rituals that only the wealthiest and most important political players in classic Veracruz would participate in. The ball game is played everywhere and if the Spanish were any guide, the elite would sponsor these ball games. Kind of like the bread in circuses in Rome. People all over the gulf coast would come to these ball games. It was the way to get everybody together and it was the way for the elite to act philanthropically, to be the big people. They wanted to be seen as great players, as great athletes, as great heroes. And one of the ways they would do this is dress up like ball players. But, of course, they didn't wear just any old ball game suit. They would have green stones. Again, they were not playing, but they were performing, they were precessing for everyone in this highly charged environment. And, they were intercessing between the supernatural and the natural as the great heroes did in the past. In Veracruz, there were so many small kingdoms that in many ways, to create spaces in which they could trade, and debate, and create alliances, was difficult. And one of the major ways they would do this is through the shared language of ball game ritual. And so you had people coming from everywhere, inside and outside Veracruz, playing these games, trading with each other. - [Narrator 2] But we have to be careful because we don't really know how these games were played and we don't really know what the implications of winning or losing meant. - [Narrator 1] We don't have the details. What we do have are hundreds of courts during the period of classic Veracruz. We literally have hundreds of these yokes. And when they're not preserved whole like this, the Veracruz peoples then would break them up and put them into their sacred building foundations, ensuring that the power and the prestige of these things lived on in their cities. - [Narrator 2] The one part of this haven't discussed, which I find stunning, are the two ends. What you could call the base of the arch. And what we're seeing are two faces facing towards each other in profile. These classic Mesoamerican faces. They're classic, youthful male faces. These are the faces of the youthful heroes throughout Mesoamerica. In fact, in the Maya area, they're the hero twins. Two young males who are the great ball players who defeat death. (piano music)