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By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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During much of the first millennium AD, artistic production was prolific in the Mexican state of Veracruz, which runs long and narrow along the humid, low-lying Gulf Coast. Ceramic and stone objects of considerable artistic invention and technical mastery were produced.

Ceramic sculpture in particular grew in scale to include some of the largest and most detailed pieces ever to be fired in ancient Mexico. The ceramic works, which are frequently in human form, are found in caches as well as graves, and exhibit great stylistic variety. Among the style groups, which are named for the places where important finds have been made, are Remojadas, Nopiloa, and El Zapotal.

Works designated Remojadas come from central Veracruz and include many “smiling” figures – medium-size hollow figures of an engaging aspect remarkable within the general severity of Mexican imagery.

Nopiloa figures, often depicting women and children, appear somewhat to the south of the Remojadas area and are smaller, whiter, and more elaborately detailed. Some of these small- to medium-size Veracruz figures were made as either whistles or rattles, as were certain Maya ceramic figures of this period. The function of such sound-producing objects is not known.

El Zapotal, not far from Nopiloa, has given its name to monumental ceramic sculptures that sometimes represent identifiable deities.

The stone sculptures of central Veracruz made during the first centuries of the 1st millennium AD are among the most unusual to come from the New World. The sculptures include objects known as yugos (yokes), hachas, and palmas, all of which are thought to relate to the ritually significant ball game of ancient Mexico.

Since the game was played with a hard rubber ball, players had to wear large padded belts for protection. The stone yokes, which may be the actual belts rather than simply representations of them, were made in Mexico for more than a thousand years; their manufacture seems to have died out at about the end of the 1st millennium AD. Images of frogs were commonly used to decorate the yokes. The amphibian is splayed out to conform with the U-shape, its head, with large eyes and curled-under tongue, at the front of the sculpture; secondary decoration, often interlaced scrolls, may further embellish it.

The shape of hachas and palmas too may have originated in ballplayer equipment. Palmas are identified particularly with Veracruz, while hachas are of wider Mesoamerican distribution. Representations on hachas and palmas are less restricted than those on yokes, and a wide variety of images may appear on them. The palmas occasionally bear surprising images inventively integrated into the confines of the necessary shape.