Cultures & Traditions

Classic Veracruz

The state of Veracruz forms an arc along Mexico's Gulf coast some 500 miles long and 30 to 100 miles wide. Basically tropical and often mountainous, this region was a geographical and cultural link between Teotihuacán in the highlands of central Mexico and cities in the Maya Lowlands to the southeast. It was also part of the principal sea-level route that led north along the Gulf to what is now the southeastern United States. There are hundreds of known pre-Columbian sites in this area, yet few of them have been formally excavated. Olmec centers from the Formative period are located in the southern part of the state, while the Postclassic flowering of the Huastec culture occurred in the northern region. It was the central area, however, that produced the art and architecture that are distinctively Veracruz in style.

During the Classic period, south-central Veracruz was the source of a lively ceramic tradition that depicted costumed figures on scaffolds, warriors in military regalia, youthful figures with smiling faces, and deities. Excavations at El Zapotal recovered near-life-size ceramic sculptures: a seated skeletal image of the Lord of Death, called Mictlantecuhtli, and thirteen female figures representing the Cihuateteo, women who died in childbirth. In this region, the ball game inspired the creation of portable stone effigies of actual objects that were used to play it—U-shaped stone belts or waist protectors (yokes), axe-form stones (hachas), and palmate stones (palmas). The carved decoration on these pieces often includes a pattern of interlocking scrolls that is the hallmark of the Classic Veracruz style.

The city of El Tajín, which flourished between 600 and 1100 CE, dominated the art of the north-central area. Its innovative architectural style is distinguished by the use of niches, waterproofing through the use of application of asphalt, and the construction of archlike ceilings using a cement shell. The city's primary buildings were stuccoed and painted in one or more colors depending on the time period and the function. Eleven ball courts have been discovered so far at El Tajín, underscoring the importance of the ball game at this site.

Although the Mesoamerican ball game had many different forms, it was consistently played with a solid natural rubber ball hit with the hips. The game was generally considered more a ritual than a sport. Gods, too, were thought to play it, and thus it represented an appropriate means of contacting the supernatural. Men, usually of elite status played the game, but the gods determined the outcome. At El Tajín, the ruler Thirteen Rabbit used the ball game to celebrate his conquests and reaffirm his sovereignty. The series of six relief sculptures in the South Ball Court recorded the ceremonies, sacrifices, and response of the gods that authorized his kingship.

Excerpt from

Gallery text [Veracruz], A. H. Meadows Galleries.

Web Resources

Khan Academy
Watch a video about the Mesoamerican Ballgame and a Classic Veracruz yoke, with Dr. Rex Koontz and Dr. Steven Zucker.