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Video transcript

we're in the American Museum of Natural History staring at some of the most magnificent objects I've ever seen these are from ancient Veracruz they're known in a colloquial sense as yolks although they have nothing to do with oxen and tilling the field the yoke actually comes from this idea that they held down sacrificial victims which is absolutely not the case but they're so stunning people have always wanted to know what they meant in Veracruz there is no natural deposit of this green stone and so this would have had to be imported at enormous cost through treacherous terrain imagine how difficult it would have been to take a boulder of green stone this incredibly valuable material and imported into Veracruz these were only held by the most important political and religious leaders in classic Veracruz and in fact they were very proud of having these and when we find burials of Nobles it is not uncommon for them to be buried with a few objects and their yoke well look at the technical facility that went into carving this it is stunning you see if these broad muscular volumes and then this fine much flatter relief carving the very broad forms define the major motif which we believe is a frog or a toad with eyes a tongue the four legs and the hind legs and then endures first inside those forms are these incredibly delicate incisions as if someone's almost taking a brush it's really almost calligraphic and the classic Veracruz people inherit that monumental simple forms from the Olmec but this delicate calligraphic line is their own invention it is as if the broad forms are sculpture and then there's drawing within that and it's really drawn out by the fact that cinnabar was used that's the red to highlight those recessed lines many many objects had cinnabar rubbed into the light incisions to highlight the virtuosity certainly and cinnabar is a dangerous material it's mercury exactly so you have cinnabar used for two things in classic Veracruz one is rubbing into these lines to get the viewer to look at them and the other is they would coat bones of ancestors in cinnabar how did people in ancient Veracruz view the Frog or the toad why is that association important it's water especially the border between water and land any sort of swampy situation and there's a lot of that in Veracruz at frogs they are the beings that inhabit both land and water and water for many Mesoamerican peoples but for classic Veracruz definitely also had to do with the underworld and the land of the dead and where you went when you were buried so this idea that one can trespass across the boundaries between life and death and that's especially important when we think about this object in relationship to the ball game exactly the ball game itself was one of those places where the supernatural and our world could mean we're not talking about baseball or football or soccer as we think of it in the modern game these were ritual events we don't understand the rules or the purpose for which games were played we know that they weren't just for entertainment and we know that the ball game was enormously important because the significant real estate was given over two ball courts in the major cities in Mesoamerica and that's especially true in this area in Veracruz in this area even secondary cities smaller places all had their own court everyone played the game however objects like these were not used to play the game they were used in processions and in other very important rituals in these courts and so what these are are stone representations of a piece of the uniform that was worn by a ball player this was the belt and people had to wear these belts because in the actual ball game they had a solid rubber ball bouncing around the court if this hits you you would him urge inside and in fact we have Spanish accounts of people doing just that and dying modern balls a tennis ball this is a thin hollow ball it's quite light but Robert is heavy material and a large solid piece of rubber coming at you at high velocity is gonna hurt exactly and so they would build these wicker and leather contraptions that would allow them to hit the ball without the ball hitting there and so the ballplayer presumably would have to be quite skilled at making sure that could contort their body to hit the ball with that belt so we have this thing that looks like one of those belts but is used in very important rituals that only the wealthiest and most important political players in classic Veracruz would participate in the ball game is played everywhere and if the Spanish or any guide the elite would sponsor these ball games kind of like the bread and circuses in Rome people all over the Gulf Coast would come to these ball games it was the way to get everybody together and it was the way for the elite to act philanthropically to be the big people they wanted to be seen as great players as great athletes as great heroes and one of the ways they would do this is dress up like ball players but of course they didn't wear just any old ball game suit they would have green stones again they were not playing but they were performing they were processing for everyone in this highly charged environment and they were intercessing between the supernatural and the natural as the great heroes did in the past in Veracruz there were so many small kingdoms that in many ways to create spaces in which they could trade and debate and create alliances was difficult and one of the major ways they would do this is through the shared language of ballgame ritual and so you had people coming from everywhere inside and outside Veracruz playing these games trading with each other but we have to be careful because we don't really know how these games were played and we don't really know what the implications of winning or losing meant we don't have the details what we do have are hundreds of courts during the period of classic Veracruz we literally have hundreds of these yokes and when they're not preserved whole like this the Veracruz people's then would break them up and put them into their sacred building foundations ensuring that the power and the prestige of these things lived on in their cities one part of this that we haven't discussed which I find stunning are the two ends you could call the base of the arch and what we're seeing are two faces facing towards each other in profile is classic Mesoamerican faces they're classic youthful male faces these are the faces of the youthful heroes throughout Mesoamerica in fact in the Maya area they're the hero twins two young males who are the great ballplayers who defeat death