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The statue of this Huasteca female athlete, on display in Chicago, is helping researchers reimagine gender roles in ancient cultures.

The statue of this Huasteca female ballplayer, now on display in Chicago, is helping researchers reimagine gender roles in ancient cultures.

Huasteca female ballgame sculpture. Postclassic (900-1521 C.E.), stone, from Álamo Temapache, Veracruz. Courtesy of María Quintana de Pérez. Under the protection of Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 1AMA00415034. Photo courtesy of National Museum of Mexican Art. Photoillustration by Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

Archeology is buzzing about this rare relic of a female ballplayer at a Chicago museum

Cesáreo Moreno approaches a stone carved statue inside the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen and calls her a “superstar.” She’s wearing knee pads, jewelry and a headdress — and holding a severed head.

She is a ballplayer from the ancient Mesoamerican culture known as the Huasteca. And even though the work dates back to the postclassical period (900 -1521 C.E.), this is the first time the public has been able to see her since she was unearthed from a Mexican farm 50 years ago.

Moreno, the museum’s chief curator, says the piece has been in a private home until now, so her big public reveal in Chicago is generating buzz among researchers. A statue of a woman participating in an athletic ritual — still rare — helps reimagine gender roles in the ancient civilization, which was situated along the eastern gulf coast of modern-day Mexico.

“To have a female ballplayer and clearly representing her participation in the sacrificial ritual is astounding,” said Moreno, who is also the museum’s visual arts director, as he stands in the new exhibit “Ancient Huasteca Women – Goddesses, Warriors and Governors.” “Many archaeologists from across the U.S. are calling and wondering how long the exhibit is.” (It’s free and runs through July 21.)

Ancient artifacts of women are often interpreted as symbols of physical beauty or fertility. But this exhibit is part of a new wave of scholarship interrogating that notion. Ancient women also spiked balls and severed heads — and the public display of such an artifact arrives as women’s sports like the WNBA finally enjoy a long-overdue surge in fandom.

Despite its name, the ballgame “was not a sport, the way we know it,” Moreno explains, and the statue is not exactly proof the enthusiasm this year in U.S. women’s sports can be traced to athletes in ancient times. Rather, the ballgame was more of a sacred ritual found across Mesoamerican cultures that was meant to appease the gods, which — as evidenced by the piece in the exhibit — sometimes included human sacrifice.

“Certainly this size in stone with the sacrificial head, it’s a very, very unique and important piece,” Moreno says.

The exhibit was curated specifically for the Chicago museum by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in Mexico. Archeologists María Eugenia Maldonado and David Antonio Morales curated nearly 100 artifacts for the exhibit, many of which — like the ballplayer — have not previously been displayed. (Maldonado will lead a presentation at the museum Saturday in Spanish.) In addition to life-size sculptures, the exhibit also includes smaller figurines of women from the era and ancient jewelry, some of which appears remarkably contemporary.

Like the sports world, the art world is also reckoning with female representation. It’s a subject the Art Institute — which has some small ceramic ballplayer figurines in its collection, although they do not appear to be women — has also been considering.

“People might not be surprised to learn that many works of the ancient Americas emphasize male figures. While depictions of women often appear in primarily elite contexts or as mothers, reinforcing many of the same stereotypes about the roles of women that exist today,” Andrew Hamilton, associate curator of Arts of the Americas at the Art Institute, said in a written statement. “But that is exactly why specific artifacts that show more diverse roles of women in the ancient Americas are so important and play an outsize role in our galleries.”

Mary Weismantel, professor of anthropology at Northwestern University, said our understanding of women in ancient cultures has been shaped, in part, by the fact that archaeologists historically interpreted works as being men unless it was explicitly clear it was a woman.

“It was often assumed that a figure wearing a uniform or wearing a crown or sitting on a throne must be male,” Weismantel said. But as our society has changed, so have our assumptions. “There’s been a whole revolution in how we look at figures from the ancient past,” Weismantel said.

At the National Museum of Mexican Art, Moreno said the pieces in the exhibit are further proof that cultures like the Huasteca (pronounced wăs-Te-kah) made space for women as rulers, as players in the ballgame and as equals.

“It’s clear to many people who study ancient Mesoamerica that the indigenous civilizations in the Americas valued women in a way in which perhaps Western culture has not,” he said.

Just inside the entrance sits the statue that inspired the exhibit, known as the The Young Woman of Amajac, who stands with her hands held together at her waist and her mouth agape. Like the ballplayer, she wears a decorated headdress. Believed to be a governor or ruler of an ancient town, Moreno said the statue solidifies that women in the Huasteca “were oftentimes the ones who were sort of calling the shots.”

This relic, too, was unearthed by farmers. On New Year’s Day 2021, farmers in a remote part of the Mexican state of Veracruz decided to finally remove a rock from their orange orchard. When they dug it up, however, they saw the face of a young woman and “knew instantly that this was some special, ancient piece,” Moreno said.

Since being discovered just three years ago, The Young Woman has achieved rockstar status in Mexico. She traveled to Mexico City from the town she was discovered in — with the agreement that she would return there — and was cleaned and studied. A replica of the statue was even created and placed near a Mexico City traffic circle where a Christopher Columbus statue once stood.

Before Carlos Tortolero — the longtime president and CEO of the Pilsen museum — retired at the end of last year, he was anxious to bring an ancient Mexican exhibit back to Chicago. It was the perfect chance to bring The Young Woman of Amajac to town, but, Moreno said, it’s not likely the statue — beloved in the town where she was discovered — will travel much after this, making the exhibit a rare opportunity to see her in the states.

While a farmer discovering a precious ancient artifact in their field may feel ripped from the plot of a movie, Moreno said these significant discoveries in recent years are just proof that the Huasteca region has been overlooked and understudied by archeologists.

“The Huasteca has remained kind of in the shadows of the Maya, to be honest with you,” Moreno said.

He’s hopeful, in addition to recasting ancient women in a new light, that the exhibit on Huastecan women will inspire further research, scholarship — and appreciation.

If you go: Ancient Huasteca Women – Goddesses, Warriors and Governors” is on view until July 21 at the National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th St. Free.

Courtney Kueppers is an arts and culture reporter at WBEZ.

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