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Anthropology faculty share their favorite artifacts

Date: 9/27/2017

Tom Killion is an associate professor in the anthropology department. He tells about his favorite artifact in the Gordon Grosscup Museum of Anthropology.

What is the artifact?

A Mesoamerican Ball Game Hacha. A hacha (axe) is a part of the ceremonial gear for players of El Juego de Pelota (The Ball Game, also known as the "game of life and death," you know, the one where the losers are decapitated). A balsa (light wood) version of this piece would be inserted in a padded belt and worn behind, as a decorative part of the player's uniform. The stone version, like the one illustrated, would be placed in a player's grave. 

Where is the artifact from?

It's from Veracruz, Mexico and is about 1200 years old (A.D. 700-900). Many such objects are found in Museums in Mexico and around the world (like the Gordon Grosscup Museum of Anthropology at Wayne State) and represent indigenous American ideas about religion, politics and sports. 

Why is this artifact important?  

It's part of an ancient ritual that has both religious and every day meaning. The ball game was part of a central myth commemorating the origin of the world, a competition between humans and the gods, that was reenacted as a kind of public performance and sporting event on a regular basis in the center of ancient Mesoamerican cities like Chichen Itza and Teotihuacan. So it gives us an idea about how religion and competitive sporting events blended together in the past. Perhaps not so different from today! 

Why is this your favorite artifact? 

I like the way the piece is so well preserved and how the symbolism is both provocative and still a bit enigmatic. I guess we have cases of gods emerging from other deities' foreheads in ancient western civilization but a snake emerging from a jaguar's head is a pretty exotic twist on that old myth, you must agree!    

Can you tell us anything else about the artifact? 

The jaguar head has a serpent emerging from its forehead, both very powerful animals that have strong symbolic and mythological meaning to ancient Mexicans, like the Aztecs, the Maya and the Olmec.