Turkey Palma


Not on view

A number of blank palmas are known, but most are covered in imagery ranging from abstract swirls to full human and animal forms, often reflecting the ballgame’s themes of sacrifice, death and rebirth. In this example, these themes are suggested by the unusual motif of a dead turkey. Bird heads are a common motif on hachas (see MMA 1979.206.369 and 1979.206.1061) but the image seen on this palma is otherwise unknown.

The upended turkey hangs down loosely, the legs awkwardly bent, as if the body had been hung for display. Its long tail feathers point upward, creating the palm frond shape that gives this type of ballgame regalia its name. The head and snood (the thin, fleshy red cord that hangs above the beak of the male turkey) curl upward, touching the bird’s breast; the turkey’s caruncles, flesh bumps on the head, are indicated by rows of spheres.

The feathers that cover a turkey’s body and wings vary in length, pattern, and colors that range from pure white and black to brilliant iridescence. Each distinct feather of the body, wings, and tail are reflected here in different patterns of incising. The long tail feathers that form the upper portion of the sculpture are separated by incised lines and separate into individual feathers at the top. At the base of the tail, the shorter feathers of the corona overlap, edged in a double line. The spaces between beak and breast, and the upper and lower legs create negative space and lighten the form. The curled claws and slightly open beak increase the figure’s realism and further counteract the heaviness of the slumped body.

The long, fleshy snood protruding from the forehead identifies this turkey as male. The snood falls limply over the beak except in times of courtship display it becomes engorged and erect. Rendered here as a thick coil extending upward from the body of a dead bird, the snood suggests the common ballgame theme of death and life.

A stone palma such as this one could not have been worn in the active playing of the game. Its notched base would have allowed it to sit on the yoke set on the player’s hips (see MMA 1978.412.15), but there is no obvious form of attachment. The heavy stone would have impeded the wearer’s movements and surely have fallen off in the heat of the game. Most scholars believe that those worn in actual play were made of wood or some other light material. It is also possible that palmas and other items of ballgame regalia, such as yokes, hachas, and elaborate headdresses, were utilized only in the rituals occurring before or after the game.

Patricia Joan Sarro, 2017

Resources and additional reading

Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas from The Museum of Primitive Art

Ceremonial Sculpture of Veracruz. New York: Long Island University, 1987.

Earley, Caitlin C. "The Mesoamerican Ballgame." In The Hilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mball/hd_mball.htm (June 2017)

Hellmuth, Nicholas. The Escuintla Hoards. FLAAR Progress reports 1:2/1975.

Koontz, Rex. Lightning Gods and Feathered Serpents: The Public Sculpture of El Tajín. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009.

Leyenaar, Ted J.J. Ulama, Jeu de Balle des Olmeques aux Azteques - Ballgame, from the Olmecs to the Aztecs. Lausanne: Musée Olympique, 1997.

Newton, Douglas. Masterpieces of Primitive Art: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.
Newton, Douglas, Julie Jones, and Kate Ezra. The Pacific Islands, Africa, and the Americas. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987.

Scott, John F. "Dressed to Kill: Stone Regalia of the Mesoamerican Ballgame". In The Sport of Life and Death, The Mesoamerican Ballgame, E. Michael Whittington, ed, pp. 50–63. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001.

Shook, Edwin M. and Elayne Marquis. Secrets in Stone: Yokes, Hachas and Palmas from Southern Mesoamerica. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1996.

Wilkerson, S. Jeffrey K. "And Then They Were Sacrificed". In The Mesoamerican Ballgame. Vernon L. Scarborough and David R. Wilcox, eds, pp. 45–72. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991.

Turkey Palma, Stone, Veracruz

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