Mold-Impressed Tripod Vessel with Decapitation Scene

A.D. 400-700


Object Info

Object: vessel; ball game
Not currently on view
Object ID: 1980.237


The panels and feet are mold-impressed, while the space between, above, and below the panels has been covered in red slip and burnished.


Gift of Dr. M. Larry Ottis and Nancy B. Ottis

More Info


height: 7 5/8 in, 19.3675 cm; diameter: 5 3/8 in, 13.6525 cm


Mayer Center, Ancient American Art


Ancient American Art

Known Provenance

Gifted 16 December 1980 by Dr. and Mrs. Larry Ottis to the Denver Art Museum. Provenance research is on-going at the Denver Art Museum. Please e-mail, if you have questions, or if you have additional information to share with us.

Extended Info

Mold-Impressed Tripod Vessel with Decapitation Scene
About A.D. 400-700
Guatemala, Escuintla, Tiquisate
Earthenware with red slip
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Larry Ottis, 1980.237

This tripod cylinder is decorated with two mold-impressed panels depicting a decapitation scene. Comparing the costumes worn by the figures in these scenes against those worn by the figures on 1971.417 and 1984.616 demonstrates that this event took place at the conclusion of a ballgame competition. In each panel, two figures face one another dressed in ballgame gear. The left-hand figure wears what appears to be a bat-butterfly headdress, and both figures wear the wide, padded belt or "yoke" distinctive of ballplayers. The yoke worn by the left-hand figure is elaborated with a backward-facing mask of a human head. The yoke worn by the right-hand figure is elaborated with a serpent face. This may represent a so-called "hacha," a carved element worn at the front of ballgame yokes, though it may also simply represent the carved end of the yoke itself (see, for instance, 1991.500).

The left-hand figure stands with his feet spread apart, knees bent, and arms widespread. In his proper right hand, he holds a sacrificial knife. In his proper left hand, he holds a severed head by the hair. Blood pouring from the freshly-cut neck is rendered as a three-lobed moisture symbol. To the right, the decapitated victim is shown kneeling in defeat, arms hanging to either side. Six intertwining blood serpents gush out of the stump of his neck, emphasizing the gruesome spectacle of this event.

The ballgame was a highly ritualized sport replete with metaphorical allusions to solar and agricultural cycles. The rite of decapitation soaked the earth with fertilizing blood, ensuring that the crops would grow and the sun would rise. Here, the sacred nature of the event is alluded to in various ways. First, the ballplayer on the left is surrounded by precious symbols, as though he inhabits a jeweled environment. For instance, a bead flanked by two shells fills the space between his legs, while a large jade bead hovers above him to the left. Second, the figure sings out a scrolling offering of speech or song, marked with precious jewels. Even the face attached to his ballgame belt sings out a scroll, which drips with a bead assemblage. Jeweled speech scrolls are frequently encountered in Mesoamerican art, where they were used to depict the sacred nature of ritual speech as a precious offering.

For Jaina-style ballplayers, see 1986.615, 1986.617, 1986.621, 1986.622A-B, and 1985.635.

-Lucia R. Henderson, 2016

Exhibition History

  • "The 150th Year, Pre-Columbian Ballgame of Ancient America"-- Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, Leiden, 6/18/1988- 9/12/1988.
  • "Teotihuacan: Art from the City of the Gods"-- The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, M.H. deYoung Memorial Museum, San Francisco, 5/26/1993-11/1/1993
  • "The Ballgame"-- Denver Museum of Natural History, 3/17/1995-7/1995.