Hacha (axe) of a Human Face wearing an Animal Helmet

Hacha (axe) of a Human Face wearing an Animal Helmet

800–900 CE
Veracruz Gulf Coast region El Tajín
Carved volcanic stone with red pigment.
Accession Number
Credit Line
Gift of Joyce and Ted Strauss

Unknown artist, Veracruz region, Gulf Coast, Mexico. Hacha (axe) of a Human Face wearing an Animal Helmet, 800–900 CE. Volcanic stone and red pigment, 7 ½ x 5 ⅜ x ¾ inches. Denver Art Museum Collection: Gift of Joyce and Ted Strauss, 1985.395.

height: 7 1/2 in, 19.0500 cm; width: 5 3/8 in, 13.6525 cm; depth: 3/4 in, 1.9050 cm
Mayer Center, Arts of the Ancient Americas
Arts of the Ancient Americas
This object is currently on view

Hacha of a Human Face wearing an Animal Helmet
About A.D. 800-900
Volcanic stone and red pigment
Gift of Joyce and Ted Strauss, 1985.395

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 (eg. 1953.106) appear to have originated in Southern Veracruz, where they were carved with tremendous skill over the course of centuries. This example demonstrates a full mastery over stone as a sculptural medium. It is carved, as all hachas are, on both sides. Although the face is simply rendered, subtle indications of volume (look, for instance, at the eye and brow) give it an expressive quality. He almost appears to smile. While this face has been left in the dark-gray color of the natural stone, his helmet has been rubbed with a dark red pigment (possibly hematite) to create lively contrast. The helmet represents the highly abstracted face of an unidentifiable animal (what scholars usually call a "zoomorph"). The eye is formed by a round perforation, while the mouth, curving below the individual's chin, provides the helmet's chinstrap. The scrolling way in which this helmet is shown identifies this object as having been carved in Veracruz. The notch and forward-sloping angle of the back edge are also common features of Veracruz hachas.

For more on the ballgame, see 1971.417 and 1984.616. For similar hachas from Southern Mesoamerica, see 1971.413 and 1982.189.

-Lucia R. Henderson, 2016

Known Provenance
Gifted 18 December 1985 by Joyce and Ted Strauss to 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.
Exhibition History
  • "The 150th Year, Pre-Columbian Ballgame of Ancient America"-- Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, Leiden, 6/18/1988- 9/12/1988.
  • "The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame"-- Mint Museum of Art, 9/22/2001-1/6/2002
  • Joslyn Art Museum, 6/8/2002
  • New Orleans Museum of Art, 2/16/2002-4/28/2002
  • The Newark Museum, 10/1/2002-12/29/2002.

Some images in our online collection are at thumbnail size, in accordance with AAMD guidelines, because they are protected by copyright. The Denver Art Museum respects the rights of artists or their representatives who retain the copyright to their work. Other images represent the best photography available and should be used as reference images only. Please complete the Image Rights Request form if you want to request a high resolution image.