One of Mesoamerica’s most celebrated stonework traditions, Huastec sculpture is distinguished by its comparative naturalism and lifelike depictions of the human body. Its origins date as far back as Early Classic period Veracruz (A.D. 250–600), to a group of Teenek Maya-speakers who continued to occupy the northern Gulf Coast until the time of the Spanish Conquest in the early sixteenth century. Proficient in an array of media, these artists concentrated most of their large-scale efforts on sculpting the rich deposits of sandstone along the Gulf shores, and which range in color from ruddy brown to yellow-orange and grey. Although initially embellished with bright pigments, today these sculptures bear only traces of their original polychrome.
Carved sometime between the tenth and twelfth centuries, this life-size female figure is now missing much of its right side and a portion of its left arm. Despite the damage, the figure retains many of the hallmarks of Huastec stone sculpture: full lips, a linear brow, well-modeled hands positioned on the abdomen, and large voids that effectively highlight areas of mass. Exhibiting a strong emphasis on the unadorned body, the gently inclined collarbone, exposed breasts and softly rounded belly stand in marked contrast to the more elaborately decorated statues of her contemporaries along the Gulf Coast. Her large headdress—crowned by a conical top and tombstone-shaped element on the back—lends an impressive volume to the work and, along with the figure’s large belly and breasts, presents a notable departure from the sometimes flat, slablike appearance of other Huastec figures.
Beginning in the fifteenth century, the Aztec Empire—under the rulership of Moctezuma I (r. 1440–1469)—defeated the Huastec people through a series of successful military campaigns. Along with the allegiance and tribute demanded of their conquered subjects, the Aztecs induced Huastec artists to embrace the more cosmopolitan style popular among artists in the imperial capital of Tenochtitlan. As a result, sculptures from across the Gulf Coast—such as the Standard Bearer (62.47) from south-central Veracruz—began to assume many of the same proportions, function, and subject matter as their counterparts in the Aztec capital. Along with its incorporation of Central Mexican deities, Huastec stone sculpture began to be carved more fully in the round and exhibit a monumentality previously limited to ceramic works from the same region. Nevertheless, it is difficult to establish a more reliable date for works such as the one seen here, as similar objects often lack reliable provenances and few reliable radiocarbon dates have yet been obtained.
This piece is currently on display in the Mexico and Central America Hall of the American Museum of Natural History.
William T. Gassaway, 2014-15 Sylvan C. Coleman and Pamela Coleman Fellow
Resources and Additional Reading
Diehl, Richard A. "Death Gods, Smiling Faces and Colossal Heads: Archaeology of the Mexican Gulf Lowlands." Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. http://www.famsi.org/research/diehl/section01a.html#intro.
Faust, Katherine A., and Kim N. Richter, eds. The Huasteca: Culture, History, and Interregional Exchange. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015.
Pool, Christopher A. "Current Research on the Gulf Coast of Mexico." Journal of Anthropological Research 14, no. 3 (September 2006), pp. 189–241.
Richter, Kim N. "Identity Politics: Huastec Sculpture and the Postclassic International Style and Symbol Set." PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2010.
Wilkerson, S. Jeffrey K. "Ethnogenesis of the Huastecs and Totonacs: Early Cultures of North-Central Veracruz and Santa Luisa, Mexico." PhD diss., Tulane University, 1972.