Jaina-style Figurine of a Female Ballplayer

Jaina-style Figurine of a Female Ballplayer

600–900 CE
Campeche Jaina Island
Ceramic with pigment applied after firing
Accession Number
Credit Line
Gift of Mr. William I. Lee

Unknown Maya artist, Possibly Jaina Island, Campeche region, Mexico. Jaina-Style Figurine of a Female Ballplayer, 600–900 CE. Ceramic with pigment applied after firing, 8 x 3 ⅞ x 2 ⅞ inches. Denver Art Museum Collection: Gift of William I. Lee, 1985.635.

height: 8 in, 20.3200 cm; width: 3 7/8 in, 9.8425 cm; depth: 2 7/8 in, 7.3025 cm
Mayer Center, Arts of the Ancient Americas
Arts of the Ancient Americas
This object is currently on view

Jaina-style Figurine of a Female Ballplayer
About A.D. 600-900
Mexico, Campeche region, possibly Jaina Island
Earthenware with traces of paint
Gift of William I. Lee, 1985.635

This Jaina-style figurine is extremely unusual, as it depicts a female ballplayer. Although figurines of female ballplayers are common in Postclassic Huastec art, this may be one of the only known figurines of a female ballplayer from the ancient Maya world.

Although her face is indistinguishable from faces of male figurines (compare, for instance, to the seated male figurine 1985.640), the clear depiction of small breasts and nipples clearly identify her as a woman. She also wears the ankle-length skirt characteristic of women, instead of the knee-length kilt and loincloth flap worn by men. Her hair, cut to reveal a high forehead, is arranged in an elaborate coiffure, tied at the back and decorated at the front with three round, tasseled ornaments. Her necklace is nearly identical to that worn by another female figurine in the DAM's collection (1969.333), though here it lacks a second strand.

Around her waist is a u-shaped belt scholars refer to as a "yoke," which identifies her clearly as a ballplayer (see 1991.500 for a stone yoke from Veracruz). The same element of ballplaying gear is slung over the shoulder of another figurine in the DAM's collection (1986.617). This thick, padded belt protected players' torsos and internal organs from injuries related to the heavy rubber ball used in the ballgame. The element (now broken) that decorates the front of this yoke may have been what scholars call an "hacha," a narrow, axe-shaped element (see 1971.413, 1982.189, and 1985.395 for examples of stone hachas).

The ballgame in the ancient Maya world was a highly ritualized athletic contest replete with solar and agricultural metaphors. Associated with human sacrifice by decapitation and undertaken in order to ensure the continuation of cosmic cycles (including the rising of the sun and the growth of agricultural crops), this game is most frequently depicted as a male sport in Maya art. The reasons behind this representation of a female player remain enigmatic. It is possible the figurine represents a female participant in the rituals surrounding the ballgame rather than an actual ballplayer, or it may provide important evidence that women did participate in the ballgame at times. Regardless, the rarity of the subject indicates this figurine is deeply significant and deserves further, focused study.

For more on the details of the ancient Maya ballgame and to see ballplayers in action, please refer to 1971.417, 1980.237, and 1984.616.

-Lucia R. Henderson, 2016

Known Provenance
Gifted 27 December 1985 by Mr. William I. Lee 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.

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.