450 – 750 A.D.

  • Heigth : 12.1 cm
  • Length : 41.8 cm
  • Width : 39 cm

Gray-green diorite with a brown patina.

Ceremonial belt in the shape of a yoke, carved in a combination of low and high relief with numerous incised details.

The major iconographic theme expressed here is death and ancestor worship, all represented by three human skulls. These have deeply carved orbits, triangular bony nasal passages and buccal masks of slightly open mouths with full lips. The mouths lack any set of teeth, however it is possible that incrustations of shell material may have once been present.

Although the three skulls may look identical, there are subtle differences between them. Indeed, the central skull, at the curved end of the yoke, seems to project forward compared to the other two. These, on the other hand, appear to be recessed inside each of the yoke’s arms, the result of a carving technique in the round. Furthermore, the forehead of the central skull is much shallower and its top flatter than those of the others. The orbital cavities are also slightly different; those of the lateral skulls have an almond shape while those of the central skull are rounded. Although minor, these differences are not merely due to variations in the workmanship but show, instead, a deliberate intent.

On the top surface of the yoke, each skull is decorated with a headdress. At first, the three feathered headdresses may look identical. Each one is composed of a strap woven in a mat motif and topped by a series of stepped silhouettes. This strap holds together a rather large and tightly compressed set of curving feathers. However, the strap of the central skull headdress is much larger and the skull below it takes the shape of a heavy ridge accented behind with a shallow indentation. These details suggest that what we have considered all along to be the frontal face of a skull is actually the face of a mask. Stone masks of this type were once affixed to the head portion of funerary bundles. This would also explain the nature of the wide and flexible bands of material framing the mask. These, possibly made of textile and tied with a knot at either end of the headdress strap, are decorated with earflares, possibly of jade. They hang appropriately on either side of the death mask and keep the earflares located where they would normally be expected if the face had been a live one. Based on its composition and size, one should therefore view this elaborate feathered headdress as part of the decorative accoutrement of a funerary bundle, in addition to a death mask.

Zoomorphic heads often decorate the ends of yoke arms, as it is the case here. The identification of related animal species is somewhat problematic, as they seem to be the result of combined animal attributes, some of saurian origin. The supraorbital plate is usually large and pronounced while the upper jaw might be flexible in nature. Here it is coiled back inside the maw while on some other yokes, it is shown in an extended position. Overall, these heads have strong affinities with those depicted in vertical and horizontal friezes in Veracruz art, notably in friezes surrounding scenes on ballcourt panels and on the Pyramid of the Niches at the site of El Tajín, Veracruz. Other similarities with El Tajín art is the presence of scroll work on the vertical and horizontal surface of the yoke.

Finally, the head of a bird of prey, most likely a vulture, decorates each of the vertical extremities of both arms. This motif may be a calendar sign or a personal name based on a calendar sign. Here, the vulture head is associated with the number 5 (an horizontal bar) engraved under the bird’s head. It may represent the name of a person, of an ancestor or a significant date in a ritual connected with the funerary bundle depicted in the central section of the yoke.  

This ritual stone object is of particular interest for its rich aesthetic look and iconography, similar to the famous and unique yoke preserved in the Amparo Museum, in Puebla, Mexico. The mastery of its low and in-the-round carving is truly exceptional. This together with the beauty of the stone and its excellent state of preservation constitute a masterpiece of Mesoamerican art.

The Totonac culture, of which the name means « the people from the warm lowlands », developed in the region corresponding to the modern-day State of Veracruz, on the East Coast of Mexico. Its golden age is set between 450 and 750 A.D.

ProvenanceAncient European collection since 1967.