Hacha in the form of a Human Skull

Hacha in the form of a Human Skull

800–950 CE
Carved volcanic stone
Accession Number
Credit Line
Museum Purchase

Unknown artist, Escuintla region, Pacific coast, Guatemala. Hacha in the Form of a Human Skull, 800–950 CE. Carved volcanic stone, 8 ½ x 6 x 1 ½ inches. Denver Art Museum Collection: Museum purchase, 1971.413.

height: 8 1/2 in, 21.5900 cm; width: 6 in, 15.2400 cm; depth: 1 1/2 in, 3.8100 cm
Mayer Center, Arts of the Ancient Americas
Arts of the Ancient Americas
This object is currently on view

Hacha in the form of a Human Skull
About A.D. 800-950
Guatemala, Pacific Coast, Escuintla Region
Carved volcanic stone
Museum purchase, 1971.413

Translating as "axe" in Spanish, the term "hacha" is a misnomer. This term was originally coined because of the form of these objects, which are relatively flat and taper down to a narrow edge. Although it is clear that these objects never functioned as axes, their true function remains enigmatic. Scholars have suggested that stone hachas were once attached to stone yokes (eg. 1991.500), but how this might have been accomplished remains unclear, as stone yokes lack the notches that would be required to mount an hacha. It is possible that stone versions of hachas (as well as stone yokes and palmas) may be ceremonial versions or effigy sculptures of the lighter weight paraphernalia (made of perishable materials) that was actually used in the game. Hachas may also have served as the heads of ceremonial scepters or, hafted onto wooden poles, may have acted as the ballgame equivalent of battle standards, rather than being worn by ballplayers during play.

Yokes, hachas, and palmas appear to have originated in Southern Veracruz (see, for instance, 1985.395). During the Late Classic period, this tradition spread to Southern Mesoamerica, specifically to areas along the Pacific Coast of Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador, as well as inland, western Honduras. This example was likely carved in Guatemala, based on its similarity to analogous forms carved in this region. The identical carving on each side depicts a human skull, mouth agape, with a large perforation for the eye and a smaller perforation at the top of the cranium. It is possible that this latter perforation refers to the suspension hole that would have been required for real skulls to have been worn as parts of ceremonial costumes.

The ballgame was closely associated with decapitation. It is possible that rubber, at times, was wrapped around a defleshed skull in order to create a ball for play, although no examples of this have yet been found archaeologically. In Mesoamerican belief, the human head was considered powerfully regenerative. In the "Popol Vuh" (the 16th century account of the world's beginnings written by the Quiche Maya), a human skull impregnates a death god's daughter by spitting into her hand. Contemporary Highland Maya communities refer to dried maize kernels as "little skulls," and the ancient Maya commonly deposited severed heads in dedicatory caches of buildings as well as tombs, demonstrating the belief that the human head and skulls, like seeds, were capable of renewal, rebirth, and agricultural growth.

For another hacha from the South Coast, see 1982.189. For Jaina-style ballplayer figurines, see 1986.615, 1986.617, 1986.621, 1986.622A-B, and 1985.635. For ballgame scenes, see 1971.417, 1980.237, and 1984.616.

-Lucia R. Henderson, 2016

Known Provenance
Purchased 21 January 1971 by the Denver Art Museum. Provenance research is on-going at the Denver Art Museum. Please e-mail provenance@denverartmuseum.org, if you have questions, or if you have additional information to share with us.

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