Buy It Now
Jun, Fri 19, 2020 | 01:51:40
|Seller||ancientgifts (4783) 100.0%|
eBay seller from Jun 1999
Location: Lummi Island, Washington
accept payments with PayPal
|Shipping||See shipping cost, Ships to Worldwide|
|Guarantee||eBay Money Back Guarantee|
|Condition||NEW and without blemish. See detailed condition description below.|
|Publisher||Washington National Gallery of Art - Harry N. Abrams|
|Format||Oversized hardcover with dustjacket|
|Title||Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico|
|California Prop 65 Warning||California wishes you to know that the book is not intended for human consumption.|
|Size||13 x 9¾ x 1 inch; 4¼ pounds|
This product has been viewed 8,625 times, since it was first published 445 days ago. It's visited an average of 19 times a day. ATTENTION! There is only 1 unit, Hurry and don't let it slip away!
"Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico" by Elizabeth P. Benson and Beatriz de la Fuente.
NOTE: We have 75,000 books in our library, almost 10,000 different titles. Odds are we have other copies of this same title in varying conditions, some less expensive, some better condition. We might also have different editions as well (some paperback, some hardcover, oftentimes international editions). If you don’t see what you want, please contact us and ask. We’re happy to send you a summary of the differing conditions and prices we may have for the same title.
DESCRIPTION: Hardcover with dustjacket. Publisher: Washington National Gallery of Art - Harry N. Abrams (1996). Pages: 288. Size: 13 x 9¾ x 1 inch; 4¼ pounds. Summary: Olmec art and culture flourished nearly 3000 years ago in what is now southern Mexico. No written documents survive, but the exceptional beauty and technical brilliance of the sculpture and its seminal importance to other Mesoamerican cultures are evident in the remarkable objects examined in this book, which serves as the catalogue for an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Photographs illustrate 120 pieces, including 17 monumental sculptures from Mexican museums or archaeological sites, among them the 13-ton Colossal Head from San Lorenzo and the dynamic "Wrestler" from the National Anthropological Museum, Mexico City. Also featured is an array of small-scale objects, such as a cache of stone figurines recently excavated at La Venta, votive axes and other implements of human sacrifice, a jade jaguar mask, and a serpentine shaman transformation figure.
Contributions by Olmec specialists reflect recent Mesoamerican scholarship and represent a wide range of interpretative approaches to the subject. They discuss not only the artworks, but also the many recent finds that provide insights into Mexico's most ancient culture, as well as its cultural history, cosmology and daily life.
CONDITION: NEW. HUGE new hardcover w/dustjacket in mylar sleeve. Washington National Gallery of Art - Harry N. Abrams (1996) 288 pages. Unblemished and pristine in every respect. Pages are clean, crisp, unmarked, unmutilated, tightly bound, unambiguously unread. From the outside the book is clean, the dustjacket unblemished and in a mylar sleeve, the full cloth covers pristine and unworn. Satisfaction unconditionally guaranteed. In stock, ready to ship. No disappointments, no excuses. PROMPT SHIPPING! HEAVILY PADDED, DAMAGE-FREE PACKAGING! #8998a.
PLEASE SEE DESCRIPTIONS AND IMAGES BELOW FOR DETAILED REVIEWS AND FOR PAGES OF PICTURES FROM INSIDE OF BOOK.
PLEASE SEE PUBLISHER, PROFESSIONAL, AND READER REVIEWS BELOW.
REVIEW: Olmec art and culture flourished nearly 3000 years ago in what is now southern Mexico. No written documents survive, but the exceptional beauty and technical brilliance of the sculpture and its seminal importance to other Mesoamerican cultures are evident in the remarkable objects examined in this book, which serves as the catalogue for an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
REVIEW: Highlights the art and culture of the Olmec, an ancient Mexican civilization, and its rediscovery in the 20th century. Includes footage of archeological excavations of Olmec sites at San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Chalcatzingo.
REVIEW: Fourteen Olmec specialists discuss not only the works of art but also the many recent finds, that provide insights into Mexico's most ancient culture, as well as its cultural history, cosmology, and daily life. Color photos. Quarto. To accompany an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, June 30 to Oct. 20, 1996. Includes bibliographical references and index.
REVIEW: This exceptional book features specially commissioned photographs illustrating 120 magnificent pieces, including 17 monumental sculptures. Also featured is an extraordinary array of small-scale objects, including a unique cache of stone figurines recently excavated at La Venta, votive axes and other implements of human sacrifice, a jade jaguar mask, and a serpentine shaman transformation figure. Contributions by Olmec specialists reflect the latest scholarship and represent a wide range of interpretive approaches. Bibliography, chronology. 308 illustrations, including 130 in full color. 400 pages.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
History of Olmec Investigations by Elizabeth P. Benson.
The Olmec World by Richard A. Diehl.
Daily Life in Olmec Times by Mari Carmen Serra Puche.
Homocentrism in Olmec Monumental Art by Beatriz de la Fuente.
In Search of the Olmec Cosmos: Reconstructing the World View of Mexico's First Civilization by Peter David Joralemon.
Reconstructing Olmec Life at San Lorenzo by Ann Cyphers.
La Venta: An Olmec Capital by Rebecca Gonzalez Lauck.
The Basin of Mexico: A Multimillennial Development Toward Cultural Complexity by Christine Niederberger.
Olmec Horizon Guerrero by Christine Niederberger.
Archaeological Contexts of Olmec Art Outside of the Gulf Coast by David C. Grove.
Portable Carvings in the Olmec Style by Anatole Pohorilenko.
Collections of Olmec Objects Outside Mexico by Elizabeth P. Benson.
The Olmec Collections of the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City by Marcia Castro-Leal.
Olmec Collections in the Museums of Tabasco: A Century of Protecting a Millennial Civilization (1896-1996) by Rebecca Gonzalez Lauck and Felipe Solis Olguin.
REVIEW: The Olmec art style, characterized by powerful, multi-ton basalt sculptures of figures and portrait heads in full-round and relief; smaller, finely cut and polished jade and serpentine figurines, masks, celts and ornaments; and fine ceramic representations of animal and human figures as well as pottery, flourished mainly in the Gulf Coast region of Mexico between 1200 and 600 B.C. One hundred and twenty of these extraordinary objects - all decorated with incised motifs constituting a symbolic language suggesting religion, cosmic beliefs and political statements - are well reproduced in this book, which doubles as the catalogue for an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art.
For many years the Gulf Coast Olmec were considered the mother culture of Mesoamerica, transmitting their style and beliefs through widespread trade and conquest and setting the pattern for the architectural complexes, social organization, religion and artistic expression of the great, later civilizations of the Maya, Teotihuacan and Aztec. But it has never been clear whether the Olmec style represented an Olmec people, and recent archeological investigations, described in several essays here, cast doubt on this theory.
Instead the eivdence now suggests that a significant number of regional sites offer a coherent set of early Mesoamerican architectural vestiges and Olmec style elements, and that there were multiple active partners in the elaboration of a common system of Mesoamerican beliefs and practices. However, casual readers will have to grapple with academic prose to extract the considerable information in this compilation of often repetitive essays. The authors are curators of pre-Columbian material. Illustrations. [Publisher's Weekly].
REVIEW: This beautiful book is the catalog of an exhibition of Olmec art that opened in 1996 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Anyone who ever traveled through Mexico and visited its archaeological sites will recognize the seminal imagery of Olmec sculpture and objects. Their significance to Mexico's most ancient culture, which prospered 3,000 years ago, is examined in detail. There are texts by 14 specialists, and all of the photographs were commissioned to illustrate the 120 pieces, which include monumental sculptures and smaller figurines excavated from archaeological sites, and axes and other objects related to human sacrifice. Since no written documents survive, these objects and works of art provide the sole insight into the mysteries of this culture's history, cosmology, and daily life. [Amazon].
REVIEW: Archaeologists have traced the major civilizations of Mexico back to the Olmecs, who lived in the southeast in the first and second millennia B.C. This is a catalog of one of the first entirely Olmec exhibitions, organized jointly with Mexico's Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes. Essays by several well-known U.S. and Mexican authors reflect modern attempts to understand what Olmec art meant to its creators, while color plates show artifacts from major Mexican museums. Because of its different focus, this book is an excellent companion to Jill Guthrie's The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership (Abrams, 1996), which accompanied an exhibit at Princeton's art museum. Objects from the Princeton exhibit were mainly from private collections, and treatment of art objects in Guthrie's book is by subject areas, whereas this book takes a more geographical approach and includes articles on specific museum collections and on the daily life of the people. [Library Journal].
REVIEW: "Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico" is a hypnotic display of pre-Columbian sculpture at the National Gallery of Art in Washington (and in a published cataogue of the same name). The exhibition of 120 works, many of them textbook masterpieces on loan from Mexican collections, is installed in the museum's concourse galleries, which wind underneath the east wing. The choice of location was a practical one. The sculpture that opens the show, a 10-ton, 7-foot-high carved stone head of an Olmec ruler, is the single largest object ever installed in the museum, and only a basement floor, reinforced with steel rods for the occasion, could support it.
Most of the objects on view, from a massive basalt altar to a pair of thumb-size jade hummingbirds, are religious in nature. For their makers, divine power lay at the center of the earth, from which life-giving rain emerged and to which their deified leaders returned after death. The National Gallery's dramatic shadow-and-light installation might even be taken as a visual metaphor for the still-murky state of scientific knowledge about the Olmec, who lived in western and central Mexico some 3,000 years ago and were the first Mesoamerican people known to have created a body of permanent images.
But were the Olmec a "people", ethnologically speaking? Or does Olmec more accurately describe an artistic style that enjoyed a long, productive life throughout much of Central America? (The name itself, derived from a word for rubber, was in use at the time of the Spanish conquest, but its application to archeological finds has always been inexact.) Over questions as fundamental as these, scholarly opinion remains divided. After all, the Olmec, whoever they were, made answers hard to come by. They left no written records. Their social and spiritual beliefs, embodied in spectacular ritual implements, are a matter of guesswork. And the identities of the subjects commemorated in colossal stone portrait heads and exquisite jade masks have passed into dust.
All of which renders exhibitions like this one invaluable. Another was "The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership", a larger show of small objects organized at Princeton University last winter. (The Washington show, which runs through Oct. 20, is organized by the National Gallery with the Consejo Nacional Para la Cultura y las Artes.) Accompanied by catalogues with up-to-date information, these exhibitions turn a dazzling searchlight on an under-studied field and on an art that is, in ideological complexity and beauty, second to none. That art was produced by a people whose ice-age ancestors had crossed the Bering Strait from Asia and moved down through North America to present-day Mexico.
After thousands of years, the Olmec culture emerged: a hierarchical society with kings, priests and shamans at its head and an art that served as a template for the great Mayan and the Aztec styles that followed. For all its influence, though, Olmec work has utterly distinctive features, beginning with its conception of its central theme, the human body. The signature Olmec images for modern viewers, for example, are clay figurines of chubby, naked ''babies.'' They usually sit upright, stubby legs spread as if to maintain balance. Their outsize bald heads are elongated and flattened, a sign of physical beauty achieved through the practice of binding skulls in infancy.
The facial features are unmistakable: almond-shape eyes, fleshy cheeks and sensuous, full lips, often drawn downward as if in a pettish scowl. With their puffy and swollen eyes, these mostly male figures often look as if they had just been roused from a deep, dream-haunted sleep. The meaning of the figures is a mystery, but their features recur everywhere in Olmec art, not only on figurines, but on the adult faces of the two monumental stone heads included in the show, and on the evocative seated figure in the justly famed sculpture known as "The Lord of Las Limas", named after the site of its discovery.
At a glance, the image might be taken for a beseeching woman carrying a sleeping or dead child in her lap, and it was worshiped as a Madonna by the Christian Indians who found it. In fact, the larger figure is male, possibly a priest in the act of ritually offering up an infantile being with a human body and a jaguar's head. This composite creature, referred to as a "were-jaguar", bridged earthly and divine realms and carried immense supernatural power. Shamans sought to assume its form both through the ritual use of hallucinogenic drugs and through the practice of physically strenuous yogalike forms of meditation.
A ceramic "acrobat" on display, his body contorted so that his feet touch his head, may well in fact illustrate just such a discipline in action. And an extraordinary group of figures gathered in a single vitrine trace the shaman's transformation from human to human-animal to divine in a mesmerizing, visionary sequence. Animals themselves are depicted in both secular and religious objects. A tiny blackware ceramic pot in the shape of a fish, found in a grave, and another of an incense burner in form of a duck, are evidence of the detailed and observant response of Olmec artists to the natural world.
That response can be unsettling. The huge stone portrait heads, for example, are grimly expressive rather than comely. And a small carved figure of an aged, emaciated woman clutching her pregnant belly is a fevered, disturbing idea of nature, in the form of a mother goddess simultaneously dying and giving birth. Yet in the hands of virtuoso Olmec artists, sculptural naturalism can also assume a truly glamorous, otherworldly beauty. It is hard to imagine, for example, beings more different from the grotesquely conceived old woman than those depicted in the life-size jade masks, a dozen of which are installed about midpoint in the show.
They were apparently intended to be worn ceremonially by the living and by the dead, and some were kept as heirlooms (examples have been found in the ruins of Aztec temples). In almost every case, breathtakingly refined modeling is used to create deeply felt portraits of individuals, some looking sternly obdurate, but others gently smiling with vivacious, if tentative, joy. The vivacity and humanity of Olmec art is nowhere more dynamic than in the show's concluding image, the famous figure known as "The Wrestler", which is on loan from the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City.
With his seated body twisted forward, his arms raised as if fighting a strong current, his bearded face resolute but calm, he merges the ideal and the real in human form as surely as any sculpture produced by Greek artists centuries later. And in "Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico", his powerful front-runner pose seems especially apposite. It is as if he were pushing centuries of shadows aside and bringing to light the vibrant, foundational, ancient culture of what we so paradoxically call the New World. [New York Times].
REVIEW: "Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico" is an extraordinary exhibition. More than 1,500 years before the Maya flourished in Central America, 25 centuries before the Aztecs conquered large swaths of Mexico, the mysterious Olmec people were building the first great culture of Mesoamerica. Starting in 1200 B.C. in the steamy jungles of Mexico's southern Gulf Coast, the Olmec's influence spread as far as modern Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, Costa Rica and El Salvador. They built large settlements, established elaborate trade routes and developed religious iconography and rituals, including ceremonial ball games, blood-letting and human sacrifice, that were adapted by all the Mesoamerican civilizations to follow.
And then, about 300 B.C., their civilization vanished. No one knows why. But they left behind some of the finest artworks ever produced in ancient America, the most spectacular of which will be on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington starting next week. Titled "Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico," the exhibition is the first comprehensive survey of Olmec artifacts, ranging from palm-size jade carvings to a 10-ton, monumental stone head. For the next four months, visitors will be able to see treasures that have never before been permitted to leave Mexico. "It's amazing," says one of the show's curators, Peter David Joralemon of Pre-Columbian Art Research Associates in New York City. "The only major Olmec objects left in Mexico are the ones that are too fragile to travel."
For historians the artworks are much more than gorgeous museum pieces. If the Olmec ever had a written language, all traces of it have disappeared. Even their bones are gone, rotted long ago in the humid rain forest. Virtually everything that scholars know about them is based on the remains of cities and on comparisons between their artifacts and imagery and those of later civilizations. It isn't surprising, therefore, that while the experts have plenty of theories about the Olmec's origins, social structure and religion, few of these ideas are universally accepted.
What scholars do know is that the ancestors of the Olmec, like those of all Native Americans, were Asian hunter-gatherers who crossed into the Americas at least 12,000 years ago, at the end of the most recent ice age. Bits of ancient garbage and the remains of mud buildings hint that by about 2000 B.C., some of their descendants had settled in what is now the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco, living in small fishing villages along the region's rivers. By then, says Richard Diehl, an Olmec expert at the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa, "we know that they had adapted to the environment and probably supplemented their diet with cultivated plants, such as maize and beans. And we know they became more and more dependent on agriculture, perhaps because the population was increasing."
But archaeologists don't know what transformed a society of farmers into the class-based social structure of the Olmec, with their leaders and commoners, bosses and laborers, artisans and priests. Diehl theorizes that it was population pressure and that as the pre-Olmec villages grew, they naturally stratified. "A new elite class probably asserted its leadership through charisma, control of trade networks and control of people, all of which led to the evolution of a complex society and, eventually, the art style we call Olmec."
It's a plausible scenario, at least. But whatever the reason, Olmec society was in full flower by 1200 B.C., at a place known as San Lorenzo, on a fertile plain overlooking the Chiquito River. Like all the known Olmec sites, San Lorenzo is much less impressive than the Mayan cities that dot the Yucatan peninsula to the east. One reason: it supported only a few thousand people, rather than 100,000 or more. The major buildings and plazas were little more than earthen mounds covered with grass, lacking any sort of masonry facade and probably topped with pole-and-thatch houses.
The sites were also built on a fairly modest scale: the Great Pyramid at La Venta, a site that arose around 800 B.C., is just 100 ft. high, about half the size of the tallest Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza. Still, each Olmec site was laid out according to a preconceived plan, a fact that reflects both the people's religious beliefs and a fairly sophisticated knowledge of engineering. All the mounds at La Venta, for example, are oriented precisely 8� west of north. San Lorenzo shows clear evidence of class structure, according to Ann Cyphers, an Olmec scholar at Mexico's National Autonomous University, with more elaborate housing for the upper classes and simpler accommodations for the middle class and the poor.
There were also, observes Cyphers, workshops for producing artifacts, and irrigation and drainage systems. "All these things show a society of great complexity," she says. That complexity, however, may not have extended to Olmec politics. Rather than a single, unified state, says one school of archaeological thought, the Olmec were little more than a glorified collection of chiefdoms. Indeed, Diehl prefers the term Olman instead of Olmec to avoid implying that there was a single linguistic or political entity. "There just isn't any evidence for this," he insists. "There were probably a number of different populations, forming groups that rose and fell over time and shifted alliances. I don't think there was any political integration." No one knows whether the major cities--San Lorenzo, La Venta and Tres Zapotes--traded with one another, or even co-existed.
Art historians and archaeologists agree, however, that the Olmec produced the earliest sophisticated art in Mesoamerica and that their distinctive style provided a model for the Maya, Aztec and other later civilizations in the region. According to Joralemon, small-scale Olmec objects made prior to 900 B.C. tend to be ceramic, whereas later pieces were often fashioned of jade and serpentine, rare materials that required great skill to carve. The vast majority of Olmec artifacts are sculptures--figurines, decorated stone stelae, votive axes, altars and the like--some of which were polished to a mirror-like shine.
Human figures from the earliest period tend to wear simple, understated costumes, while later ones are more embellished. The purpose of the objects changed as well. The ceramics were simply sculptures, while the jade pieces were often intended for rulers to wear. Explains Joralemon: "They were clearly a display of personal wealth, an indication of status and prestige"-- evidence, he suggests, that the society may have been growing increasingly stratified.
Recurring images in Olmec art--dragons, birds, dwarfs, hunchbacks and, most important, the "were-jaguar" (part human, part jaguar)--indicate a belief in the supernatural and in shamanism. Olmec-style human figures typically have squarish facial features with full lips, a flat nose, pronounced jowls and slanting eyes reminiscent (at least to early travelers in the region) of African or Chinese peoples. Archaeologists have found household objects as well, but they tend to be broken. As a result, laments Joralemon, "we know relatively little about the common Olmec."
The most famous Olmec artifacts are 17 colossal stone heads, presumed to have been carved between 1200 B.C. and 900 B.C. Cut from blocks of volcanic basalt, the heads, which range in height from 5 ft. to 11 ft. and weigh as much as 20 tons, are generally thought to be portraits of rulers. Archaeologists still have not determined how the Olmec transported the basalt from quarries to various settlements as far as 80 miles away--and, in San Lorenzo, hoisted it to the top of a plateau some 150 ft. high. "It must have been an incredible engineering effort," Joralemon says. "These people didn't have beasts of burden, and they didn't have wheels. We don't know if they floated the blocks on rafts or traveled over land."
There is still hope that archaeologists can solve this mystery, as well as dozens of other unanswered questions about the Olmec. Most of the sites have barely been studied, and with good reason. Annual floods smother the land with thick layers of silt that dry into impenetrable clay. What's more, says Diehl, "about 80% of the entire Olmec territory in southern Mexico has been converted in the past 20 years from jungle to cow pastures and sugar-cane fields. There's so much vegetation on the surface that you can't just pick up pottery. Generally, you can't even see the ground." Beyond that, the hot, humid climate makes the work extremely unpleasant.
Still, in the past five or 10 years researchers have managed to uncover a number of key sites, including the monument-strewn ruins of Teopantecuanitlan in the Mexican state of Guerrero, and the sacred shrine at El Manati, whose murky springs yielded the first examples of wooden Olmec statuary and the earliest known evidence of child sacrifice in Mesoamerica. Heat and hardship notwithstanding, the prospect of understanding the still shrouded origins of Mesoamerican civilization--and the haunting beauty of the items on display at the National Gallery--makes it all seem worthwhile. [Time Magazine].
REVIEW: Behind the Masks of the Olmec. They weigh tons and are twice the height of most mortals. They radiate strength, confidence and stability. Yet their fleshy, rounded features and slightly crossed eyes belie any sense of menace implied by their scale. Masterfully carved, these colossal stone heads are serene but altogether human as they squint past us into infinity, inscrutable as the civilization they represent. There are two such heads in "Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico," the most spectacular exhibition of Olmec art ever assembled in the United States, opening today at the National Gallery East Building.
And while these stone heads are the weightiest objects in this remarkable exhibition, there are 120 smaller sculptures -- including human figures in clay and stone, and jade portrait masks -- that are equally spellbinding. These smaller objects also underscore our perception of the Olmec as a relatively peaceful and humanistic society very different from the warlike Aztec culture, which is far better known than the Olmec and followed it by 25 centuries. In this respect, the show is a revelation, since Olmec culture is still little understood and was virtually unknown until the 1940s, when the first serious archaeological digs began.
Since then, 16 colossal heads and countless other objects have been recovered from the Gulf Coast jungles and rivers around San Lorenzo in Veracruz and La Venta in the state of Tabasco. They have been identified as portraits of various Olmec rulers who, between 1200 and 300 B.C., established the first high civilization -- and the first sophisticated art tradition -- in this hemisphere. The Olmec built the first hierarchical societies and cities in the Americas, the first pyramids and the first aqueducts, too -- all 800 years before the Parthenon was built in Greece.
For years, when some of these small Olmec sculptures made their way via looters to the art market, they were a total bafflement, mistakenly called Mayan, Aztec or, in the case of many of the jade carvings, Chinese or Japanese (the last two are somewhat understandable, given the sculptures' distinctly Asian features). Today, however, the Olmecs are celebrated as the mother culture of Mexico, the one that established artistic, political and religious patterns for all subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations.
Because no evidence of a written Olmec language has yet been found, it is primarily through the study of the objects in this exhibition -- along with other archaeological findings -- that scholars have gained access into the life and beliefs of the Olmecs. Curiously, the Olmecs appear to have been the only pre-Columbian culture that produced actual portraits. There are two kinds of reality represented by the ceramics and stone and jade figures and masks in this show: the observed reality and the imagined. But there is much that falls in between, which this exhibition does an exceptional job of explaining.
Each work is remarkable in its own way. But one that is bound to grab your attention is the fat, chubby-cheeked baby with splayed legs that sits in a glass wall case among the ceramic figures. Made of clay and once covered with a white glaze polished to a sheen, this baby has an open mouth, crossed eyes and typical Olmec cranial deformation (made by tightly wrapping the infant's head). The cross-sightedness is also typical and was apparently induced by hanging a bead before a baby's eyes. Both deformations were apparently seen as signs of beauty and elegance; they are distinguishing characteristics of many Olmec figures.
There are many of these babies. But what do they represent? Ask one scholar, and he'll tell you they may be related to dynastic or lineage rituals, or infant cults. Ask another and he'll say it may merely capture the moment in which a baby sits up for the first time. The fact is, nobody knows. And while it took a large team of U.S. and Mexican scholars to put this show together and write various chapters (and opinions) in the catalogue, none of them pretends to have all the answers.
A ceramic vessel that is an endearing, naturalistic rendering of a duck is an easier matter, as is another container shaped like a jumping fish. But what are we to make of the smiling bald philosopher with the sagging flesh, sitting cross-legged on the floor? He has the Olmec cranial deformation -- which establishes the figure as Olmec. But he also has Mongolian eyes, as do several other ceramic figures. Is this a portrait of a living man? Or could it be a funerary piece, perhaps an evocation of an ancestor from the Asian homeland, whence came all Native Americans over the land bridge of the Bering Strait during the Ice Age, sometime before 10,000 B.C.?
Many of these smaller objects, unfortunately, were long ago separated from the sites where they were found by looters, who carelessly demolished important clues. There is one acrobat-contortionist here who was found in a grave in the Mexican highlands, probably to provide amusement to the deceased in the afterlife. He was accompanied by paraphernalia used to prepare hallucinogenic mushrooms, often used by shamans to reach an altered state. Could this have been the grave of a shaman?
As Olmec society advanced and grew prosperous, objects in jade, jadeite and serpentine proliferated. Eventually, the precious green stones had to be imported from the nearest source, which was in Guatemala, part of a large Olmec trade network. The jade portrait masks in this exhibition -- some with the eyes cut through and eyelids carefully defined -- are among the most beautiful and expressive carvings in all of pre-Columbian art.
Six masks were found in a hoard of jade in 1969 in Veracruz's muddy Rio Pesquero. Some had turned white, probably during cremation ceremonies. They are all the more remarkable for having been carved without benefit of metal tools; the Olmec used stone and obsidian to cut, and jade or quartz dust to polish the surface to a high gloss. Because of the value of the stones, and the mastery of the craftsmen involved, it is assumed that these masks were commissioned for Olmec rulers or other high dignitaries.
Stone and jade were also used to create highly inventive depictions of the supernatural, including the animal-spirits that ruled the Olmec world: eagles, alligators, sharks and the godlike were-jaguars (as in werewolf -- half man, half beast). One of the most telling groups of pieces here is in a glass case filled with a series of "transformation figures." Each shows a shaman -- a human intermediary -- in a different stage of transforming himself into a were-jaguar with the help of the parathyroid gland of a giant toad, which yielded a psychoactive drug.
Shown together here, the grouping offers a stop-action view of a transformation ritual in progress. The first depicts a human figure kneeling, as if in meditation. We then see in successive pieces the shaman's head, then his hands and feet, then his whole body transformed into a jaguar standing on its hind legs. There is also rather benign evidence of blood rituals in the form of jade perforators, some poetically disguised as hummingbirds with long pointed beaks. They were used to puncture earlobes, fingers and foreskins to let blood in various shamanic rituals. The Olmec believed that if they fed blood to the earth spirits, the spirits would feed them.
There is evidence, too, of child sacrifice, though by this point in this wonderful show, you don't want to believe it. It's subtle. One highly expressive stone carving depicts a Madonna-like figure with a dead child over its lap. The sacrifice, apparently, has already transformed the dead child into a supernatural were-jaguar. Known as the "Las Limas Monument," this green stone carving -- nearly two feet high -- was found by some young boys who took it home, where it was set up with candles and flowers as an altar to the Virgin and Child. It isn't hard to see why. In every way, this is as poignant a portrayal of the sacrificed, supernatural child as any Renaissance Pieta showing the Virgin and crucified Christ.
The exhibition ends on a curious note, with a late Olmec carving in basalt that is the most mysterious object here. Surely the most naturalistic carving in all of Olmec art, it has been called "The Wrestler" for obvious reasons. Superbly carved, it depicts a wholly naturalistic figure with beard and mustache (possibly false) seated on the ground, twisting his torso. The musculature of his shoulders is subtle but perfect, the movement dynamic and convincing. He even has love handles above his waist, and seems all but alive. The only problem: There is no precedent for athletic figures in Olmec art.
One expert suggests that this could be another depiction of shaman in the midst of a transformation into a were-jaguar, for he wears a beard, which shamans often did (usually a fake, since Native Americans had little facial hair). Or perhaps it was the reverse: Carved near the end of the Olmec era, when the population and cities had grown and troubles began to engulf the culture, the piece may depict a shaman who saw the future and was trying to get back to an earlier, better time. For now, this mystery -- and countless others posed by this show -- will continue to puzzle and dazzle visitors through Oct. 20. There is no other venue.
Organized in collaboration with the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History, this international loan exhibition includes Olmec treasures from museums all over Mexico. The selection was made by a team of scholars whose various views are expressed in 14 essays in the fully illustrated catalogue. Along with the catalogue of another recent show at Princeton University that featured smaller Olmec works from private collections, it becomes a definitive work on Olmec art. At least for the moment. Given the accelerating pace of archaeological research since the '80s -- another colossal head was unearthed only last year -- our understanding of the Olmecs could quickly change. The big push now is toward finding some form of Olmec writing, which, if such a thing exists and survives, would give us the Mesoamerican equivalent of the Rosetta stone.[Washington Post].
REVIEW: A very extensive and powerful work: highly recommended! If you're interested in the art styles of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and specifically of the Olmec civilization of ancient Mexico, this is the book for you. Nothing is left out and the research is very good. It will give the reader a broad knowledge of Olmec art, its predecessors and influences, and how it spread all across Mesoamerica. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in ancient civilzations and their cultural expressions. This book clearly demonstrates the power and intensity of Olmec art!
REVIEW: Everything I expected and more! This is a beautiful, coffee table quality, book. Not only is it an impressive volume in itself, but the coverage of the subject was also impressive. I had read up on the subject on the net but wanted to get a better look at he actual Olmec sculptures. This book has page after page of large, clear photos of Olmec art, many of the statues and artifacts photographed from more than one angle so you can visualize them in the round. The text is interesting and helpful giving more details and background.
REVIEW: The Olmec, a complex society that arose in the lowlands of Mexico's Gulf Coast about 1200 B.C. have often been called Mesoamerica's first civilization. As such, the Olmec, best known for their enigmatic giant stone heads, figuratively stand at the head of the array of later Mesoamerican civilizations--Toltec, Maya, Aztec, and others. Archaeologists have, since the nineteenth century, identified "cultures" or "people" or "folk" in the past based on recurring groupings of artifact types, building methods, funerary rituals, and artistic styles.
This is convenient for discussing finds, especially in terms of geographical distribution or changes over the course of time. But in using this approach, there is a risk of identifying pots with people--that the appearance of a particular type of pot or tool or burial custom in an area means that people from elsewhere have brought that with them. The "movement" of pots can equally be explained as from trade, from the spread of manufacturing techniques, and the like, as from the movement of people.
In the case of the Olmec, the lowland people need to be kept distinct from the artistic style and iconography package that also goes by the name Olmec. That package includes pottery vessels with thick, excised designs, and hollow "baby" figurines with distinct Olmec features. Such items have been found at sites throughout Mesoamerica. Today, archaeologists can use neutron activation analysis (NAA) to fingerprint the source of pottery, and that's what Jeffrey Blomster of George Washington University, Hector Neff of Cal State-Long Beach, and Michael D. Glasock of University of Missouri did in a project recently reported in the journal Science.
They wanted to determine, if possible, if Olmec-style pottery all came from one area, from many areas equally, or some combination. This required a large number of samples from many sites, which the team was able to assemble through the generous cooperation of colleagues at Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico's federal archaeological agency, and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. In all, over 1,000 ceramic artifacts were tested along with another 275 samples from clay sources throughout the region.
Analysis of an example of Conejo Orange-on-White pottery from Etlatongo revealed that the this vessel was produced with clay from the Olmec site of San Lorenzo, Veracruz. Anal;ysis of an Olmec-style design on a vessel that analysis shows was made locally at Etlatongo. Analysis revealed that a grayware bowl with an Olmec-style design was manufactured by the Olmec at San Lorenzo and exported to Etlatongo, where it was discovered.
What they found was that white-ware and vessels with Olmec-style iconography made at San Lorenzo and other large Gulf Coast centers occurs at sites throughout Mesoamerica. Interestingly, nobody at non-Olmec centers was exporting their Olmec-style pottery; they received the genuine stuff and copied it but that's all. For example, at Etlatongo, a site in the mountains northwest of the Oaxaca Valley, they received pottery from Olmec centers and local Mixtec potters copied it, but they didn't bring in copies of Olmec-style ceramics that were being made in the nearby Oaxaca Valley.
This suggests to Blomster and his co-authors that the Olmec packaged and exported their beliefs throughout the region in the form of specialized ceramic designs and forms, which quickly became hallmarks of elite status in various regions of ancient Mexico. Blomster, who excavates at Etlatongo and is author of "Etlatongo: Social Complexity, Interaction and Village Life in the Mixteca Alta, Mexico", spoke about these findings.
"Many of us--myself included--just accepted without the kind of robust data we should have had that places like Oaxaca exported their versions of the Olmec style to other parts of Mesoamerica," he says. "And of course, our research debunks that. Perhaps if we sampled thousands more sherds from San Lorenzo, we would find a pot that came from outside the Gulf Coast, but it would be fairly insignificant in light of the pattern we report in our Science article."
The means and reasons for the movement of Olmec-style objects, and what motivated the local copying of them, are not certain. "This probably varies for each region," says Blomster. "Also, we have to be careful not to put the possibilities into mutually exclusive categories. We have to acknowledge that the exporters (the Olmec) and the receivers may have had very different interests in the system. I think we have to move beyond a purely economic model; for the Olmec, this involved more than simply acquiring raw materials from other regions in Mesoamerica. The fact that it involves ceramic vessels which display iconography, representing an underlying ideology and religion synthesized by the Gulf Coast Olmec, suggests that something much deeper is at stake than simply maintaining exchange relationships."
Although the new study points to importance of the Olmec in the development of Mesoamerican civilizations, it does not mean that the Olmec "created" them. "We know that throughout Mesoamerica, the Olmec interacted with groups who had already achieved some kind of socio-political complexity," says Blomster. "These groups, such as those in Oaxaca, were probably already at the chiefdom level. We believe while the Olmec were more socio-politically complex--as the Red Palace discovered by Ann Cyphers at San Lorenzo indicates--we simply cannot say they somehow created these cultures. Impact, yes; created, no." [Archaeological Institute of America].
REVIEW: On a sweltering day in 1862 at the foot of the Tuxtla Mountains in the Mexican state of Veracruz, a farmworker was clearing a cornfield when he hit something hard and smooth lodged in the earth. He thought it was the rounded base of an iron cauldron buried upside down, and, it being the 1860s, he reported the find to the owner of the hacienda where he worked. The farmworker’s boss told him to dig up the cauldron immediately and bring it to him. As the farmworker labored to uncover the object, he realized he had found not a large iron bowl, but a gargantuan stone sculpture with a pair of glaring eyes, a broad nose, and a downturned mouth.
What had appeared to be the base of a cauldron was actually the top of a helmet worn by the glowering figure. What the farmworker had unearthed was a colossal Olmec head, one of the first clues to the existence of that ancient culture. Over the next century and a half, archaeologists would uncover many more of these heads along the Mexican Gulf Coast and discover the ancient cities where they were carved. The site of that first fateful discovery became known as Tres Zapotes, after a type of fruit tree common in the area. Along with the sites of San Lorenzo and La Venta, Tres Zapotes was one of the great capitals of the Olmec culture, which emerged by 1200 B.C. as one of the first societies in Mesoamerica organized into a complex social and political hierarchy.
The key to the Olmecs’ rise appears to have been a strong, centralized monarchy. The colossal heads, each one depicting a particular individual, are likely portraits of the Olmec kings who ruled from ornate palaces at San Lorenzo and La Venta. Even though Tres Zapotes yielded the earliest evidence for Olmec kingship, 20 years of survey and excavations there suggest that, at its height, the city adopted a very different form of government, one in which power was shared among multiple factions. Further, while other Olmec capitals lasted between 300 and 500 years, Tres Zapotes managed to survive for nearly two millennia.
The city, therefore, may have weathered intense cultural and political shifts not by doubling down on traditional Olmec monarchy, but by distributing power among several groups that learned to work together. According to University of Kentucky archaeologist Christopher Pool, who has spent his career excavating the city, that cooperative rule may have helped Tres Zapotes endure for centuries after the rest of Olmec society collapsed. When Pool arrived at Tres Zapotes in 1996, he was the first archaeologist in over 40 years to take a serious interest in the site.
Tres Zapotes had been recognized as an important Olmec center since shortly after the discovery of the colossal head, and in the decades to follow it had yielded a plethora of intricate figurines and stone monuments, including another colossal head. But important details of the site’s history remained unknown, including its size and how long it had been occupied. Pool set out to map the full extent of the ancient city, survey the ceramics he found scattered across the ground, and excavate the most compelling areas.
Battling dense fields of sugarcane, swarms of mosquitoes, and the occasional poisonous snake, Pool painstakingly reconstructed the layout of Tres Zapotes and how it had changed over time, and began to be able to compare it to the other great Olmec capitals. Between 1000 and 400 B.C., in a period called the Middle Formative, Tres Zapotes was a minor regional center covering around 200 acres. At the time, La Venta and its all-powerful king dominated the Olmec heartland. Like its predecessor San Lorenzo, which flourished between 1200 and 900 B.C., La Venta was organized around a single dominant plaza featuring administrative buildings, elaborate monuments, and elite residences.
The kings whose likenesses are memorialized by the colossal heads lived in palaces that brimmed with precious exotic goods, such as greenstone imported from Guatemala and polished iron-ore mirrors from Oaxaca and Chiapas. Their subjects, meanwhile, lived in modest households arrayed around the central plaza. The concentration of wealth and power in the center of the city, as well as art that glorified individual rulers, suggests that “the Olmecs had a cult of the ruler,” says Barbara Stark, an archaeologist at Arizona State University who works on the Gulf Coast of Mexico.
During La Venta’s height, Tres Zapotes operated under a similar model. As the nineteenth-century farmworker was the first to discover, it too had rulers represented by colossal stone heads. Despite being a relatively small city, it was also organized around a dominant central plaza. Elite burials discovered by Pool were filled with grave goods such as ceramic goblets and jade beads fashioned into jewelry. Another burial Pool uncovered contained no objects at all, hinting at possible social or class differences within the city’s population at that time. While Pool doubts that Tres Zapotes was under La Venta’s direct control during the Middle Formative period, it was clearly part of the same cultural and political tradition.
Around 400 B.C., La Venta abruptly collapsed. Archaeologists still aren’t sure why, but they have found evidence that traders stopped bringing luxury goods into the city. “A lot of [the Olmec rulers’] authority was supported by great displays of exotic wealth,” Pool says. When access to those goods was cut off, the resulting loss of status could have destabilized the monarchy’s control. Evidence shows that the city was quickly abandoned, and, absent any mass graves or other signs of violence, it seems that people likely poured out of the once-grand capital, looking for a new place to call home.
Researchers believe that it’s possible many of them moved to Tres Zapotes, 60 miles to the west. The city quickly expanded, covering 1,200 acres by the beginning of the Late Formative, shortly after 400 B.C. As he mapped the site’s growth, Pool discovered that the newly dominant Tres Zapotes didn’t look much like its predecessors, San Lorenzo and La Venta. They had both been organized around one outsized and opulent central plaza. In Tres Zapotes, however, Pool identified four separate plazas evenly spaced throughout the city, each about half a mile apart and ranging from about four to nine acres in size.
“No one of these plaza groups is dramatically larger than the others,” Pool says. He also discovered that their layouts are nearly identical. Each has a temple pyramid on its west side, a long platform along its north edge, and a low platform set on an east-west line through its middle. According to John Clark, an archaeologist at Brigham Young University who studies the Formative period, “The site pattern is completely different from anything else I know for an Olmec site.” It’s so different, in fact, that archaeologists have dubbed the Late Formative culture at Tres Zapotes “epi-Olmec.”
Pool wondered if the seat of power in Tres Zapotes had moved from plaza to plaza over time, perhaps as the various groups jockeyed for control. But when he radiocarbon dated material from middens behind each plaza’s long mound, he discovered that they had all been occupied at the same time, from about 400 B.C. to A.D. 1. The ceramics Pool recovered from the different plazas were similar in style and technique, providing more evidence that they were occupied simultaneously—and that no one group dominated the others. Pool realized he wasn’t looking at signs of political conflict. He was looking at signs of political cooperation. “There was a change in political organization from one that was very centralized, very focused on the ruler,” he says, “to one that shared power among several factions.”
Pool is careful to point out that Tres Zapotes wasn’t a democracy as we think of it today. “I’m not saying that everybody in this society was getting together and agreeing on things,” he says. “It may have been more like an oligarchy.” But there are signs that Tres Zapotes may have been more equitable than traditional Olmec capitals. For instance, the elites in the plazas and the commoners who lived outside of them all used similar styles of pottery. “Everyone pretty much has the same range of stuff,” says Pool. He has discovered that, unlike at La Venta and San Lorenzo, the leaders of Tres Zapotes didn’t import exotic goods, and so weren’t reliant on trade networks.
Craft workshops attached to the plazas show that the people at Tres Zapotes made ceramics and obsidian tools locally. “All that,” says Pool, “suggests a more flattened kind of sociopolitical hierarchy than you see elsewhere.” With the declining importance of the nobility and other kinds of elites, you get more economic equality,” says Richard Blanton, an anthropologist at Purdue University who was among the first to propose that such societies may have existed in Mesoamerica. Cooperative governments also tend to produce different kinds of art than monarchies, Blanton says.
Rather than monuments and tombs that glorify individual rulers, polities with shared power tend to separate the idea of authority from any particular person. That’s what Pool sees at Tres Zapotes. The most elaborate monument he’s found from the Late Formative period shows a ruler emerging out of the cleft brow of a monster to connect the underworld, the earth, and the sky. “This reasonably represents the ruler as the axis mundi, or the central axis of the earth,” says Pool. This is a common theme in Olmec iconography. But unlike earlier Olmec art, including the colossal heads, the carving is not naturalistic and doesn’t seem to represent a particular ruler.
“The focus seems to be less on the person than it does on the office,” Pool says. At Tres Zapotes, the idea of rulership, rather than an actual monarch, was what mattered. Pool can’t say exactly why the people of Tres Zapotes first decided to experiment with a shared power model. Perhaps the collapse of trade routes doomed the monarchy at La Venta and undermined that form of authority. Or maybe the mass migration into the city that researchers have posited required that the factions cooperate to build a new, stable home.
But whatever the cause, Pool says, this unprecedented level of cooperation in an Olmec city helped it outlast every other outpost of its culture. “What Tres Zapotes has shown is that even though there were Olmec centers that collapsed, Olmec culture also evolved,” Pool says. Archaeologists today may define this change as epi-Olmec, but for the people living through it, the transition was smooth and continuous. “The Olmec culture didn’t just vanish overnight,” Clark agrees. At Tres Zapotes, he says, “They’re hanging on and modifying it and trying to save it.”
Even as Tres Zapotes tried out a new form of government, it made room for symbols of the past: Two colossal heads, as well as other pieces of older, more authoritarian Olmec art, occupied prominent places in plazas throughout the city’s height. “There are aspects of their culture that [the epi-Olmecs] are trying to hold onto,” Pool says. The older heads “are essentially royal ancestors that provide a legitimate claim to authority”, even though that authority was now shared among several different groups.
This system of cooperative government worked for a long time—about 700 years. “But eventually,” Pool says, “it just falls apart.” Between A.D. 1 and 300, shared power slowly gave way to individual rule again. The once-standardized plazas were built over with new architectural styles and layouts, each taking on a discrete form and asserting its individuality rather than projecting harmony and cooperation. Carved stone monuments dating to around the first century A.D. found just outside Tres Zapotes show a standing figure with another person sitting in front of him, a resurgence of the artistic themes of individual ruler and subject.
Over the next several centuries, Tres Zapotes slowly declined and the Gulf Coast’s cultural center of gravity shifted toward sites in central Veracruz. Meanwhile, the monarchy-obsessed Maya rose to dominate lands farther south. After 2,000 years of adaptation and survival, Tres Zapotes slowly faded into obscurity and was eventually abandoned. Pool still doesn’t know why the city gave up on its experiment in shared governance. He does speculate that it’s possible that Tres Zapotes’ power model splintered as its regional dominance declined.
Pool is sure, however, that the transition wasn’t sudden, as with San Lorenzo or La Venta. According to Pool, when the end came for Tres Zapotes, it was “a soft landing.” The surprising thing is not that Tres Zapotes’ era of shared power came to an end, says Blanton. It’s that it survived for as long as it did. “It is very difficult to build and sustain these more cooperative kinds of polities,” he says. “Autocracy is always an alternative.” Tres Zapotes may have ended as it began: with a king. But for nearly 700 years in between, it tried something different. Monarchy gave way to cooperation, wealth became more evenly distributed, and an entire culture, for a time, redefined what government and leadership could mean. [Archaeological Institute of America].
REVIEW: The Olmecs were the first major civilization in Mexico following a progressive development in Soconusco. They lived in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, in the present-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco. It has been speculated that Olmec derive in part from neighboring Mokaya and/or Mixe–Zoque. The population of the Olmecs flourished during Mesoamerica's formative period, dating roughly from as early as 1500 B.C. to about 400 B.C. Pre-Olmec cultures had flourished in the area since about 2500 B.C., but by 1600–1500 B.C., early Olmec culture had emerged, centered on the San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán site near the coast in southeast Veracruz.
They were the first Mesoamerican civilization, and laid many of the foundations for the civilizations that followed. Among other "firsts", the Olmec appeared to practice ritual bloodletting and played the Mesoamerican ballgame, hallmarks of nearly all subsequent Mesoamerican societies. The aspect of the Olmecs most familiar now is their artwork, particularly the aptly named "colossal heads". The Olmec civilization was first defined through artifacts which collectors purchased on the pre-Columbian art market in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Olmec artworks are considered among ancient America's most striking.
The Olmec heartland is the area in the Gulf lowlands where it expanded after early development in Soconusco. This area is characterized by swampy lowlands punctuated by low hills, ridges, and volcanoes. The Tuxtlas Mountains rise sharply in the north, along the Gulf of Mexico's Bay of Campeche. Here the Olmec constructed permanent city-temple complexes at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, La Venta, Tres Zapotes, and Laguna de los Cerros. In this region, the first Mesoamerican civilization emerged and reigned from circa 1400–400 B.C.
The beginnings of Olmec civilization have traditionally been placed between 1400 and 1200 B.C. Past finds of Olmec remains ritually deposited at El Manati shrine (near San Lorenzo) moved this back to "at least" 1600–1500 B.C. It seems that the Olmec had their roots in early farming cultures of Tabasco, which began between 5100 B.C. and 4600 B.C. These shared the same basic food crops and technologies of the later Olmec civilization. What is today called Olmec first appeared fully within the city of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, where distinctive Olmec features occurred around 1400 B.C.
The rise of civilization was assisted by the local ecology of well-watered alluvial soil, as well as by the transportation network provided by the Coatzacoalcos River basin. This environment may be compared to that of other ancient centers of civilization: the Nile, Indus, and Yellow River valleys, and Mesopotamia. This highly productive environment encouraged a densely concentrated population, which in turn triggered the rise of an elite class. The elite class created the demand for the production of the symbolic and sophisticated luxury artifacts that define Olmec culture.
Many of these luxury artifacts were made from materials such as jade, obsidian, and magnetite, which came from distant locations and suggest that early Olmec elites had access to an extensive trading network in Mesoamerica. The source of the most valued jade Motagua River valley in eastern Guatemala, and Olmec obsidian has been traced to sources in the Guatemala highlands, such as El Chayal and San Martín Jilotepeque, or in Puebla, distances ranging from 200 to 400 km (120–250 miles) away, respectively. The state of Guerrero, and in particular its early Mezcala culture, seem to have played an important role in the early history of Olmec culture. Olmec-style artifacts tend to appear earlier in some parts of Guerrero than in the Veracruz-Tabasco area.
In particular, the relevant objects from the Amuco-Abelino site in Guerrero reveal dates as early as 1530 B.C. The city of Teopantecuanitlan in Guerrero is also relevant in this regard. The first Olmec center, San Lorenzo, was all but abandoned around 900 B.C. at about the same time that La Venta rose to prominence. A wholesale destruction of many San Lorenzo monuments also occurred circa 950 B.C., which may indicate an internal uprising or, less likely, an invasion. The latest thinking, however, is that environmental changes may have been responsible for this shift in Olmec centers, with certain important rivers changing course.
In any case, following the decline of San Lorenzo, La Venta became the most prominent Olmec center, lasting from 900 B.C. until its abandonment around 400 B.C. La Venta sustained the Olmec cultural traditions, but with spectacular displays of power and wealth. The Great Pyramid was the largest Mesoamerican structure of its time. Even today, after 2500 years of erosion, it rises 34 m (112 ft) above the naturally flat landscape. Buried deep within La Venta lay opulent, labor-intensive "offerings" – 1000 tons of smooth serpentine blocks, large mosaic pavements, and at least 48 separate deposits of polished jade celts, pottery, figurines, and hematite mirrors.
Scholars have yet to determine the cause of the eventual extinction of the Olmec culture. Between 400 and 350 B.C., the population in the eastern half of the Olmec heartland dropped precipitously, and the area was sparsely inhabited until the 19th century. According to archaeologists, this depopulation was probably the result of "very serious environmental changes that rendered the region unsuited for large groups of farmers", in particular changes to the riverine environment that the Olmec depended upon for agriculture, hunting and gathering, and transportation. These changes may have been triggered by tectonic upheavals or subsidence, or the silting up of rivers due to agricultural practices.
One theory for the considerable population drop during the Terminal Formative period is suggested by Santley and colleagues (Santley et al. 1997) who propose relocation of settlements due to volcanism, instead of extinction. Volcanic eruptions during the Early, Late and Terminal Formative periods would have blanketed the lands and forced the Olmec to move their settlements. Whatever the cause, within a few hundred years of the abandonment of the last Olmec cities, successor cultures became firmly established. The Tres Zapotes site, on the western edge of the Olmec heartland, continued to be occupied well past 400 B.C., but without the hallmarks of the Olmec culture. This post-Olmec culture, often labeled Epi-Olmec, has features similar to those found at Izapa, some 550 km (330 miles) to the southeast.
The Olmec culture was first defined as an art style, and this continues to be the hallmark of the culture. Wrought in a large number of media – jade, clay, basalt, and greenstone among others – much Olmec art, such as The Wrestler, is surprisingly naturalistic. Other art expresses fantastic anthropomorphic creatures, often highly stylized, using an iconography reflective of a religious meaning. Common motifs include downturned mouths and a cleft head, both of which are seen in representations of were-jaguars. In addition to making human and human-like subjects, Olmec artisans were adept at animal portrayals, for example, fish and bird vessels.
While Olmec figurines are found abundantly in sites throughout the Formative Period, the stone monuments such as the colossal heads are the most recognizable feature of Olmec culture. These monuments can be divided into four classes: Colossal heads (which can be up to 3 m (10 ft) tall); Rectangular "altars" (more likely thrones); Free-standing in-the-round sculpture, such as the twins from El Azuzul or San Martin Pajapan Monument 1; and Stelae, such as La Venta Monument. The stelae form was generally introduced later than the colossal heads, altars, or free-standing sculptures. Over time, the stelae changed from simple representation of figures, such as Monument 19 or La Venta Stela 1, toward representations of historical events, particularly acts legitimizing rulers.
This trend would culminate in post-Olmec monuments such as La Mojarra Stela 1, which combines images of rulers with script and calendar dates. The most recognized aspect of the Olmec civilization are the enormous helmeted heads. As no known pre-Columbian text explains them, these impressive monuments have been the subject of much speculation. Once theorized to be ballplayers, it is now generally accepted that these heads are portraits of rulers, perhaps dressed as ballplayers. Infused with individuality, no two heads are alike and the helmet-like headdresses are adorned with distinctive elements, suggesting personal or group symbols. Seventeen colossal heads have been unearthed to date.
The heads range in size from the Rancho La Cobata head, at 3.4 m (11 ft) high, to the pair at Tres Zapotes, at 1.47 m (4 ft 10 in). Scholars calculate that the largest heads weigh between 25 and 55 tonnes (28 and 61 short tons). The heads were carved from single blocks or boulders of volcanic basalt, found in the Tuxtlas Mountains. The Tres Zapotes heads, for example, were sculpted from basalt found at the summit of Cerro el Vigía, at the western end of the Tuxtlas. The San Lorenzo and La Venta heads, on the other hand, were probably carved from the basalt of Cerro Cintepec, on the southeastern side, perhaps at the nearby Llano del Jicaro workshop, and dragged or floated to their final destination dozens of miles away. It has been estimated that moving a colossal head required the efforts of 1,500 people for three to four months.
Some of the heads, and many other monuments, have been variously mutilated, buried and disinterred, reset in new locations and/or reburied. Some monuments, and at least two heads, were recycled or recarved, but it is not known whether this was simply due to the scarcity of stone or whether these actions had ritual or other connotations. Scholars believe that some mutilation had significance beyond mere destruction, but some scholars still do not rule out internal conflicts or, less likely, invasion as a factor. The flat-faced, thick-lipped heads have caused some debate due to their resemblance to some African facial characteristics. Based on this comparison, some writers have said that the Olmecs were Africans who had emigrated to the New World.
But, the vast majority of archaeologists and other Mesoamerican scholars reject claims of pre-Columbian contacts with Africa. Explanations for the facial features of the colossal heads include the possibility that the heads were carved in this manner due to the shallow space allowed on the basalt boulders. Others note that in addition to the broad noses and thick lips, the eyes of the heads often show the epicanthic fold, and that all these characteristics can still be found in modern Mesoamerican Indians. For instance, in the 1940s the artist/art historian Miguel Covarrubias published a series of photos of Olmec artworks and of the faces of modern Mexican Indians with very similar facial characteristics.
The African origin hypothesis assumes that Olmec carving was intended to be a representation of the inhabitants, an assumption that is hard to justify given the full corpus of representation in Olmec carving. Ivan van Sertima claimed that the seven braids on the Tres Zapotes head was an Ethiopian hair style but he offered no evidence that this was an Ethiopian hair style at the appropriate time. The Egyptologist Frank Yurco has said that the Olmec braids do not resemble contemporary Egyptian or Nubian braids. Richard Diehl wrote "There can be no doubt that the heads depict the American Indian physical type still seen on the streets of Soteapan, Acayucan, and other towns in the region."
Another type of artifact is much smaller; hardstone carvings in jade of a face in a mask form. Curators and scholars refer to "Olmec-style" face masks but, to date, no example has been recovered in an archaeologically controlled Olmec context. They have been recovered from sites of other cultures, including one deliberately deposited in the ceremonial precinct of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City). The mask would presumably have been about 2,000 years old when the Aztec buried it, suggesting such masks were valued and collected as were Roman antiquities in Europe. Olmec-style artifacts, designs, figurines, monuments and iconography have been found in the archaeological records of sites hundreds of kilometres outside the Olmec heartland.
These sites include Tlatilco and Tlapacoya, major centers of the Tlatilco culture in the Valley of Mexico, where artifacts include hollow baby-face motif figurines and Olmec designs on ceramics. Chalcatzingo, in Valley of Morelos, central Mexico, which features Olmec-style monumental art and rock art with Olmec-style figures. Also, in 2007, archaeologists unearthed Zazacatla, an Olmec-influenced city in Morelos. Located about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Mexico City, Zazacatla covered about one square mile (2.6 km2) between 800 and 500 B.C.
In Western Mexico, Teopantecuanitlan, in Guerrero, which features Olmec-style monumental art as well as city plans with distinctive Olmec features. Also, the Juxtlahuaca and Oxtotitlan cave paintings feature Olmec designs and motifs. In Southern Mexico and Guatemala, Olmec influence is also seen at several sites in the Southern Maya area. In Guatemala, sites showing probable Olmec influence include San Bartolo, Takalik Abaj and La Democracia.
Many theories have been advanced to account for the occurrence of Olmec influence far outside the heartland, including long-range trade by Olmec merchants, Olmec colonization of other regions, Olmec artisans travelling to other cities, conscious imitation of Olmec artistic styles by developing towns – some even suggest the prospect of Olmec military domination or that the Olmec iconography was actually developed outside the heartland. The generally accepted, but by no means unanimous, interpretation is that the Olmec-style artifacts, in all sizes, became associated with elite status and were adopted by non-Olmec Formative Period chieftains in an effort to bolster their status.
In addition to their influence with contemporaneous Mesoamerican cultures, as the first civilization in Mesoamerica, the Olmecs are credited, or speculatively credited, with many "firsts", including the bloodletting and perhaps human sacrifice, writing and epigraphy, and the invention of popcorn, zero and the Mesoamerican calendar, and the Mesoamerican ballgame, as well as perhaps the compass. Some researchers, including artist and art historian Miguel Covarrubias, even postulate that the Olmecs formulated the forerunners of many of the later Mesoamerican deities.
Although the archaeological record does not include explicit representation of Olmec bloodletting, researchers have found other evidence that the Olmec ritually practiced it. For example, numerous natural and ceramic stingray spikes and maguey thorns have been found at Olmec sites, and certain artifacts have been identified as bloodletters. The argument that the Olmec instituted human sacrifice is significantly more speculative. No Olmec or Olmec-influenced sacrificial artifacts have yet been discovered; no Olmec or Olmec-influenced artwork unambiguously shows sacrificial victims (as do the danzante figures of Monte Albán) or scenes of human sacrifice (such as can be seen in the famous ballcourt mural from El Tajin).
At the El Manatí site, disarticulated skulls and femurs, as well as the complete skeletons of newborn or unborn children, have been discovered amidst the other offerings, leading to speculation concerning infant sacrifice. Scholars have not determined how the infants met their deaths. Some authors have associated infant sacrifice with Olmec ritual art showing limp were-jaguar babies, most famously in La Venta's Altar 5 or Las Limas figure. Any definitive answer requires further findings. The Olmec may have been the first civilization in the Western Hemisphere to develop a writing system. Symbols found in 2002 and 2006 date from 650 B.C. and 900 B.C. respectively, preceding the oldest Zapotec writing found so far, which dates from about 500 B.C.
The 2002 find at the San Andrés site shows a bird, speech scrolls, and glyphs that are similar to the later Mayan hieroglyphs. Known as the Cascajal Block, and dated between 1100 B.C. and 900 B.C., the 2006 find from a site near San Lorenzo shows a set of 62 symbols, 28 of which are unique, carved on a serpentine block. A large number of prominent archaeologists have hailed this find as the "earliest pre-Columbian writing". Others are skeptical because of the stone's singularity, the fact that it had been removed from any archaeological context, and because it bears no apparent resemblance to any other Mesoamerican writing system. There are also well-documented later hieroglyphs known as "Epi-Olmec", and while there are some who believe that Epi-Olmec may represent a transitional script between an earlier Olmec writing system and Mayan writing, the matter remains unsettled.
The Long Count calendar used by many subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations, as well as the concept of zero, may have been devised by the Olmecs. Because the six artifacts with the earliest Long Count calendar dates were all discovered outside the immediate Maya homeland, it is likely that this calendar predated the Maya and was possibly the invention of the Olmecs. Indeed, three of these six artifacts were found within the Olmec heartland. But an argument against an Olmec origin is the fact that the Olmec civilization had ended by the 4th century B.C., several centuries before the earliest known Long Count date artifact.
The Long Count calendar required the use of zero as a place-holder within its vigesimal (base-20) positional numeral system. A shell glyph –MAYA-g-num-0-inc-v1.svg – was used as a zero symbol for these Long Count dates, the second oldest of which, on Stela C at Tres Zapotes, has a date of 32 B.C. This is one of the earliest uses of the zero concept in history. The Olmec are also strong candidates for originating the Mesoamerican ballgame so prevalent among later cultures of the region and used for recreational and religious purposes. A dozen rubber balls dating to 1600 B.C. or earlier have been found in El Manatí, a bog 10 km (6.2 mi) east of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan. These balls predate the earliest ballcourt yet discovered at Paso de la Amada, circa 1400 B.C., although there is no certainty that they were used in the ballgame.
While the actual ethno-linguistic affiliation of the Olmec remains unknown, various hypotheses have been put forward. For example, in 1968 Michael D. Coe speculated that the Olmec were Mayan predecessors. In 1976, linguists Lyle Campbell and Terrence Kaufman published a paper in which they argued a core number of loanwords had apparently spread from a Mixe–Zoquean language into many other Mesoamerican languages. Campbell and Kaufman proposed that the presence of these core loanwords indicated that the Olmec – generally regarded as the first "highly civilized" Mesoamerican society – spoke a language ancestral to Mixe–Zoquean. The spread of this vocabulary particular to their culture accompanied the diffusion of other Olmec cultural and artistic traits that appears in the archaeological record of other Mesoamerican societies.
Mixe–Zoque specialist Søren Wichmann first critiqued this theory on the basis that most of the Mixe–Zoquean loans seemed to originate from the Zoquean branch of the family only. This implied the loanword transmission occurred in the period after the two branches of the language family split, placing the time of the borrowings outside of the Olmec period. However new evidence has pushed back the proposed date for the split of Mixean and Zoquean languages to a period within the Olmec era. Based on this dating, the architectural and archaeological patterns and the particulars of the vocabulary loaned to other Mesoamerican languages from Mixe–Zoquean, Wichmann now suggests that the Olmecs of San Lorenzo spoke proto-Mixe and the Olmecs of La Venta spoke proto-Zoque.
At least the fact that the Mixe–Zoquean languages still are, and are historically known to have been, spoken in an area corresponding roughly to the Olmec heartland, leads most scholars to assume that the Olmec spoke one or more Mixe–Zoquean languages. Olmec religious activities were performed by a combination of rulers, full-time priests, and shamans. The rulers seem to have been the most important religious figures, with their links to the Olmec deities or supernaturals providing legitimacy for their rule. There is also considerable evidence for shamans in the Olmec archaeological record, particularly in the so-called "transformation figures".
As Olmec mythology has left no documents comparable to the Popul Vuh from Maya mythology, any exposition of Olmec mythology must be based on interpretations of surviving monumental and portable art (such as the Las Limas figure at right), and comparisons with other Mesoamerican mythologies. Olmec art shows that such deities as the Feathered Serpent and a rain supernatural were already in the Mesoamerican pantheon in Olmec times. Little is directly known about the societal or political structure of Olmec society. Although it is assumed by most researchers that the colossal heads and several other sculptures represent rulers, nothing has been found like the Maya stelae which name specific rulers and provide the dates of their rule.
Instead, archaeologists relied on the data that they had, such as large- and small-scale site surveys. These provided evidence of considerable centralization within the Olmec region, first at San Lorenzo and then at La Venta – no other Olmec sites come close to these in terms of area or in the quantity and quality of architecture and sculpture. This evidence of geographic and demographic centralization leads archaeologists to propose that Olmec society itself was hierarchical, concentrated first at San Lorenzo and then at La Venta, with an elite that was able to use their control over materials such as water and monumental stone to exert command and legitimize their regime.
Nonetheless, Olmec society is thought to lack many of the institutions of later civilizations, such as a standing army or priestly caste. And there is no evidence that San Lorenzo or La Venta controlled, even during their heyday, all of the Olmec heartland. There is some doubt, for example, that La Venta controlled even Arroyo Sonso, only some 35 km (22 mi) away. Studies of the Tuxtla Mountain settlements, some 60 km (37 mi) away, indicate that this area was composed of more or less egalitarian communities outside the control of lowland centers.
The wide diffusion of Olmec artifacts and "Olmecoid" iconography throughout much of Mesoamerica indicates the existence of extensive long-distance trade networks. Exotic, prestigious and high-value materials such as greenstone and marine shell were moved in significant quantities across large distances. While the Olmec were not the first in Mesoamerica to organize long-distance exchanges of goods, the Olmec period saw a significant expansion in interregional trade routes, more variety in material goods exchanged and a greater diversity in the sources from which the base materials were obtained.
Despite their size and deliberate urban design, which was copied by other centers, San Lorenzo and La Venta were largely ceremonial centers, and the majority of the Olmec lived in villages similar to present-day villages and hamlets in Tabasco and Veracruz. These villages were located on higher ground and consisted of several scattered houses. A modest temple may have been associated with the larger villages. The individual dwellings would consist of a house, an associated lean-to, and one or more storage pits (similar in function to a root cellar). A nearby garden was used for medicinal and cooking herbs and for smaller crops such as the domesticated sunflower. Fruit trees, such as avocado or cacao, were probably available nearby.
Although the river banks were used to plant crops between flooding periods, the Olmecs probably also practiced swidden (or slash-and-burn) agriculture to clear the forests and shrubs, and to provide new fields once the old fields were exhausted. Fields were located outside the village, and were used for maize, beans, squash, manioc, and sweet potato. Based on archaeological studies of two villages in the Tuxtlas Mountains, it is known that maize cultivation became increasingly important to the Olmec over time, although the diet remained fairly diverse.
The fruits and vegetables were supplemented with fish, turtle, snake, and mollusks from the nearby rivers, and crabs and shellfish in the coastal areas. Birds were available as food sources, as were game including peccary, opossum, raccoon, rabbit, and in particular, deer. Despite the wide range of hunting and fishing available, midden surveys in San Lorenzo have found that the domesticated dog was the single most plentiful source of animal protein.
The jade Kunz Axe was first described by George Kunz in 1890. Although shaped like an axe head, with an edge along the bottom, it is unlikely that this artifact was used except in ritual settings. At a height of 28 cm (11 in), it is one of the largest jade objects ever found in Mesoamerica. Olmec culture was unknown to historians until the mid-19th century. In 1869 the Mexican antiquarian traveller José Melgar y Serrano published a description of the first Olmec monument to have been found in situ. This monument – the colossal head now labelled Tres Zapotes Monument A – had been discovered in the late 1850s by a farm worker clearing forested land on a hacienda in Veracruz.
Hearing about the curious find while travelling through the region, Melgar y Serrano first visited the site in 1862 to see for himself and complete the partially exposed sculpture's excavation. His description of the object, published several years later after further visits to the site, represents the earliest documented report of an artifact of what is now known as the Olmec culture. In the latter half of the 19th century, Olmec artifacts such as the Kunz Axe (right) came to light and were subsequently recognized as belonging to a unique artistic tradition.
Frans Blom and Oliver La Farge made the first detailed descriptions of La Venta and San Martin Pajapan Monument 1 during their 1925 expedition. However, at this time most archaeologists assumed the Olmec were contemporaneous with the Maya – even Blom and La Farge were, in their own words, "inclined to ascribe them to the Maya culture". Matthew Stirling of the Smithsonian Institution conducted the first detailed scientific excavations of Olmec sites in the 1930s and 1940s. Stirling, along with art historian Miguel Covarrubias, became convinced that the Olmec predated most other known Mesoamerican civilizations.
In counterpoint to Stirling, Covarrubias, and Alfonso Caso, however, Mayanists J. Eric Thompson and Sylvanus Morley argued for Classic-era dates for the Olmec artifacts. The question of Olmec chronology came to a head at a 1942 Tuxtla Gutierrez conference, where Alfonso Caso declared that the Olmecs were the "mother culture" ("cultura madre") of Mesoamerica. Shortly after the conference, radiocarbon dating proved the antiquity of the Olmec civilization, although the "mother culture" question generates much debate even 60 years later.
The name "Olmec" means "rubber people" in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec, and was the Aztec name for the people who lived in the Gulf Lowlands in the 15th and 16th centuries, some 2000 years after the Olmec culture died out. The term "rubber people" refers to the ancient practice, spanning from ancient Olmecs to Aztecs, of extracting latex from Castilla elastica, a rubber tree in the area. The juice of a local vine, Ipomoea alba, was then mixed with this latex to create rubber as early as 1600 B.C.
Early modern explorers and archaeologists, however, mistakenly applied the name "Olmec" to the rediscovered ruins and artifacts in the heartland decades before it was understood that these were not created by people the Aztecs knew as the "Olmec", but rather a culture that was 2000 years older. Despite the mistaken identity, the name has stuck. It is not known what name the ancient Olmec used for themselves; some later Mesoamerican accounts seem to refer to the ancient Olmec as "Tamoanchan". A contemporary term sometimes used for the Olmec culture is tenocelome, meaning "mouth of the jaguar".
In part because the Olmecs developed the first Mesoamerican civilization and in part because little is known of the Olmecs (relative, for example, to the Maya or Aztec), a number of Olmec alternative origin speculations have been put forth. Although several of these speculations, particularly the theory that the Olmecs were of African origin popularized by Ivan van Sertima's book "They Came Before Columbus", have become well-known within popular culture, they are not considered credible by the vast majority of Mesoamerican researchers and scientists, who discard it as pop-culture pseudo-science. [Wikipedia].
REVIEW: Between 1200 and 400 B.C., the Gulf Coast states of Veracruz and Tabasco in Mexico were the setting for a major cultural and artistic florescence among peoples now collectively known as Olmec, named after the Aztec word for the region (Olman, “place of rubber”). Olmec art is best known for colossal sculpture in volcanic stone and intricate works in jade, both media that were imported from faraway regions. Olmec artists were revolutionary for their time, establishing the first major widespread styles in Mesoamerica, laying the foundation for later innovation from the central Mexican metropolis of Teotihuacan south to the Maya area.
After the spread of maize agriculture in the Early Formative period (circa 1800–1200 B.C.), people in the river valleys of Olman cooperated to construct monumental earthen platforms and mounds at the site of San Lorenzo, Veracruz. More research is needed to know about the society at San Lorenzo: for example, what they ate, where they lived, what they believed. They shared the common goal to invest in major building projects, engineering structures and creating large gathering spaces that transcended the functional needs of daily life. Evidence from the nearby site of El Manatí demonstrates that people were creating sculptures out of wood and stone early in San Lorenzo’s history. Rubber balls found at El Manatí are also some of the earliest evidence for the importance of a ballgame to Olmec peoples.
Potters at San Lorenzo created sophisticated vessels out of white clay, such as globular containers known as tecomates, and black clay, such as incised and gouged bowls and zoomorphic vessels. They also began sculpting ceramic figures known as “babies,” named after their infant characteristics. Ceramic arts at San Lorenzo were exported and imitated in the Valley of Mexico, near modern-day Mexico City, at village centers such as Tlatilco, Tlapacoya, and Las Bocas. Experimentation with paste recipes and surface treatment for ceramic arts is especially evident in Olmec-period Mexico, even as far south as Guatemala and Honduras.
Evidence of the earliest dynastic rulers in Mesoamerica comes from San Lorenzo’s famous colossal heads. Sculpted out of basalt imported over long distances, these portray stoic male faces with individualized headgear. The Olmec naturalism achieved in megalithic portraits extended also to portable stone sculptures, such as regalia related to the Mesoamerican ballgame, and ceramic figures, such as depictions of seated individuals and people with nonstandard bodies). No graves were ever excavated at San Lorenzo, and the few examples of Olmec writing remain undeciphered, so the identity of the possible leaders and residents of this important place have yet to be discovered.
After about 900 B.C. the residents of San Lorenzo migrated away from the monumental center. To the east, people built a complex of platforms and a large pyramid at the site known as La Venta, Tabasco. La Venta architecture is distinguished by massive offerings composed of pavements made of rectangular greenstone slabs. In fact, the growth of La Venta as a center coincides with the influx of jade, from the Motagua River valley in Guatemala, and other types of greenstone from local sources into the Olmec region. Other offerings of greenstone axes and standing human figures excavated at La Venta are some of the most iconic works of Olmec art.
Olmec mythological beliefs were expressed by La Venta–period artists in jade sculpture. They animated large symbolic axes by portraying supernatural figures with downturned mouths, almond eyes, and cleft heads. They also incised large celts with abstract images pertaining to the Olmec Maize God, depicted with L-shaped eyes, fangs, an elaborate headband, and a facial mask. Greenstone celts seemed to have held symbolic power as representations of maize sprouts.
Olmec mythology was populated by a variety of characters, expressed as animal creatures that appear in jade sculptures, such as eagles or ducks. Regalia in jade, such as imitations of the claws of felines hint at the elaborate adornments worn by important Olmec leaders. Large stone sculpture at La Venta contains portraits of such leaders, both men and women, who are shown in standing portraits and mythological situations in which they emerge from caves or wrangle infant deities. After 400 B.C., however, the center of La Venta was abandoned and monumental building and sculpting ceased. Peoples at other Olmec centers, such as Tres Zapotes and Cerro de las Mesas, Veracruz, continued monumental sculpture and ceramic production for many more centuries.
Later Mesoamerican cultures revered works of art created by the Olmec. Many Classic Maya rulers were buried with Olmec figurines or pendants passed down through many generations. Maya artists even inscribed several objects of Olmec origin with hieroglyphic inscriptions and images of early rulers. Costa Rican peoples in the first millennium A.D. imported Olmec works and Maya-inscribed Olmec objects for use in ritual regalia. Recently, archaeologists uncovered an offering at the Aztec Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan in which the Aztecs deposited an Olmec mask made 2,000 years prior.
Olmec art lived on in ancient Mesoamerican aesthetic traditions as well. The sculptors and painters in Olmec-period Mexico were the first to portray many of the iconic features of self-proclaimed divine rulers in Mesoamerica. The Olmec legacy is seen in later Isthmian cultures that continued to sculpt greenstone into figures seated on benches, presumably the elite members of successor communities. Large stone sculptures, such as those featuring predatory felines, also continued to be a hallmark of art in descendent Mesoamerican societies until the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century. [New York Metropolitan Museum].
REVIEW: A possible Olmec outpost in southern Mexico. One of the most startling discoveries at Cantón Corralito was the "ax burial" of a juvenile surrounded by 15 polished jade axes from a quarry 200 miles away in eastern Guatemala. The last section of the excavation was finished, but a few large potsherds still jutted from the side wall. I must have walked past that open pit and those tempting sherds at least a hundred times before eventually deciding to extend the excavation. Within an hour, a polished jade ax was found, then another, then another.
When the dirt was cleared, what lay in front of me was a 3,000-year-old burial, the skeleton of an adolescent surrounded by 15 jade axes arranged in the shape of a giant ax. A decapitated adult was found two yards to the south, no doubt associated with the momentous event that brought the juvenile and the axes together. This extraordinary discovery typifies the archaeology of Cantón Corralito, a possible colony of Gulf Olmec people located in the Soconusco, a narrow strip of coastal Chiapas and Guatemala with some of the richest agricultural soils in Mesoamerica ("A City by the Sea").
What makes Cantón Corralito so intriguing is the incredible quantity and quality of foreign "Olmec-style" objects and its location in the center of a territory occupied for centuries by the Mokaya people, a culture with its own distinctive traditions and styles. Yet the Olmec inhabited the low-lying coastal region of southern Veracruz and western Tabasco, a 4,000-square-mile area roughly 300 miles north of Cantón Corralito that archaeologists call the "Olmec heartland."
Olmec culture flourished there from approximately 1250 to 500 B.C., a time frame that can be divided into three periods--Initial Olmec (1250-1150 B.C.), Early Olmec (1150-1000 B.C.), and Late Olmec (900-500 B.C.)--based on distinctive artifacts and practices. (The dates used in this article and in "A City by the Sea" are in radiocarbon years. Calendar years are about 150 years earlier.) The most important Early Olmec period site is San Lorenzo.
This 1,200-acre urban center--the first of its kind in the Americas--is famous for its colossal heads and multi-ton stone altars quarried from volcanic outcrops 40 miles away and then dragged or rafted to San Lorenzo, an incredible feat at the time considering the required organization and labor. Lesser known are the site's distinctive ceramic figurines and vessels decorated with abstract religious themes and supernatural creatures such as bird-serpents and crocodiles. These objects are also found at sites hundreds of miles away, where they were both locally made and imported from San Lorenzo.
Artifacts found at Cantón Corralito include carved pottery of the style most often found both within and beyond the Olmec heartland on the Gulf Coast. Given this distribution, archaeologists use the term "Olmec" to signify both an archaeological culture--the Olmec of the Gulf--and Mesoamerica's first widespread art style, which transcended cultural boundaries and set the stage for later developments. Where did this style emerge? How did it spread? These are two of the most fundamental and fiercely debated questions in Mesoamerican archaeology.
Since there is no precedent for the grandeur of San Lorenzo, some archaeologists interpret Olmec-style artifacts found outside the Olmec heartland as evidence of San Lorenzo's influence on less complex societies. This is often called the "mother culture" interpretation. Others consider the Olmec style a visual expression of deeply rooted religious beliefs shared by numerous Mesoamerican cultures. After 1200 B.C., with increased contact between regions, these beliefs began to be depicted on pottery and other objects. According to this view--held as the "sister cultures" interpretation--the Gulf Olmec were not solely responsible for the creation and spread of the Olmec style, nor were they more advanced than the cultures they contacted.
At the heart of the matter, but often sidestepped, is the extent of similarity between Olmec-style artifacts found at San Lorenzo and at distant sites. This point may seem obvious, but despite decades of research, few detailed comparative studies have appeared (see "Olmec People, Olmec Art"). Many sites in Mesoamerica are worthy candidates for this kind of investigation, but the quantity and quality of Olmec-style artifacts at Cantón Corralito demands it. If this site was an Olmec colony, it will change the perception of culture contact in early Mesoamerica and shift the tenor of this decades-old debate. [Archaeological Institute of America].
REVIEW: The mysterious Olmec civilization prospered in Pre-Classical (Formative) Mesoamerica from circa 1200 B.C. to circa 400 B.C. and is generally considered the forerunner of all subsequent Mesoamerican cultures such as the Maya and Aztecs. Centred in the Gulf of Mexico (now the states of Veracruz and Tabasco) their influence and trade activity spread from 1200 B.C., even reaching as far south as present-day Nicaragua. Monumental sacred complexes, massive stone sculpture, ball games, chocolate drinking and animal gods were features of Olmec culture which would be passed on to all those who followed this first great Mesoamerican civilization.
The Olmec civilization presents something of a mystery, indeed, we do not even know what they called themselves, as ‘Olmec’ was their Aztec name and meant ‘rubber people’. Due to a lack of archaeological evidence their ethnic origins and the location and extent of many of their settlements are not known. The Olmecs did, however, codify and record their gods and religious practices using symbols. The precise significance of this record is much debated but, at the very least, its complexity does suggest some sort of organised religion involving a priesthood. The Olmec religious practices of sacrifice, cave rituals, pilgrimages, offerings, ball-courts, pyramids and a seeming awe of mirrors, was also passed on to all subsequent civilizations in Mesoamerica until the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century A.D.
Olmec prosperity was initially based on exploiting the fertile and well-watered coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico to grow such crops as corn and beans (often twice-yearly) which allowed for an agricultural surplus. They also, no doubt, gathered the plentiful local supply of plant food, palm nuts and sea-life, including turtles and clams. By circa 1200 B.C. significant urban centres developed at San Lorenzo (the earliest), La Venta, Laguna de los Cerros, Tres Zapotes and Las Limas. San Lorenzo reached its peak of prosperity and influence between 1200 and 900 B.C. when its strategic position safe from flooding allowed it to control local trade. Typical Olmec trade goods included obsidian, jade, serpentine, mica, rubber, pottery, feathers and polished mirrors of ilmenite and magnetite.
Evidence of San Lorenzo’s high culture includes the presence of mound structures, possibly an early ball court, carved basalt drains through one of the man-made mounds and the Red Palace structure with painted red floors and workshops. Around 900 B.C. the site of San Lorenzo displays evidence of systematic destruction whilst La Venta, conversely, began to flourish, and becoming the new capital, it eventually supported a population of some 18,000. The three sites of San Lorenzo, La Venta and Laguna de los Cerros all had a bilateral symmetry in their planning and at La Venta the first pyramid in Mesoamerica was constructed.
It is the pre-meditated architectural layout of the religious centres of these settlements that is most striking, for example, at La Venta the buildings are placed symmetrically along a north-south axis with four colossal heads facing outwards at key points, seemingly acting as guardians to the complex. A huge ceremonial step pyramid (now a shapeless mound), sunken plaza once lined with 2 metre high basalt columns, and two smaller pyramids/mounds provide features that would be copied time and again at the major sites of later Mesoamerican cultures with whom equal attention was paid to the precise alignment of buildings. La Venta, as with San Lorenzo, suffered systematic and deliberate destruction of its monuments sometime between 400 and 300 B.C.
As with other areas of Olmec culture, details of their religion are sketchy. Nevertheless, with an ever-increasing archaeological record it is possible to piece together some of the most important features of Olmec religion. The Olmecs seem to have had a particular reverence for natural places which connected with the important junctions of sky, earth and the underworld. For example, caves could lead to the underworld and mountains which had both springs and caves could offer access to all three planes. Important Olmec mountain sites were El Manatί, Chalcatzingo and Oxtotitlan.
The names of the gods of the Olmec are not known other than that they often represented phenomena such as rain, the earth and especially maize. For this reason, identifiable gods from Olmec art have been given numbers instead of names (e.g. God VI). The Olmecs gave special significance to the animals present in their environment, especially those at the top of the food chain such as jaguars, eagles, caimans, snakes and even sharks, identifying them with divine beings and perhaps also believing that powerful rulers could transform themselves at will into such fearsome creatures. The Olmecs also liked to mix animals to create weird and wonderful creatures such as the were-jaguar, a cross between a human and a jaguar, which may have been their supreme deity. We also know that they worshipped a sky-dragon and that they believed four dwarves held up the sky, possibly representing the four cardinal directions which, along with other Olmec gods, became so important in later Mesoamerican religions.
The most striking legacy of the Olmec civilization must be the colossal stone heads they produced. These were carved in basalt and all display unique facial features so that they may be considered portraits of actual rulers. The heads can be nearly 3 m high and 8 tons in weight and the stone from which they were worked was, in some cases, transported 80 km or more, presumably using huge balsa river rafts. 17 have been discovered, 10 of which are from San Lorenzo. The ruler often wears a protective helmet (from war or the ballgame) and sometimes show the subject with jaguar paws hanging over the forehead, perhaps representing a jaguar pelt worn as a symbol of political and religious power.
The fact that these giant sculptures depict only the head may be explained by the belief in Mesoamerican culture that it was the head alone which bore the soul. Another permanent record of the Olmecs is found in rock carvings and paintings. Often made around cave entrances they most typically depict seated rulers, as for example at Oxtotitlan, where a figure wears a green bird suit and at Chalcatzingo where another ruler sits on her throne surrounded by a maize landscape. At other sites there are also paintings of cave rituals, for example, at Cacahuazqui, Juxtlahuaca and Oxtotlan.
Jade and ceramic were other popular materials for sculpture and also wood, some examples of which were remarkably well preserved in the bogs of El Manati. One of the gods most commonly rendered in small sculpture was God IV, sometimes called the Rain Baby, who is a toothless human baby with an open-mouth, cleft head and headband, sometimes with the addition of strips of crinkled paper hanging at the side of his face (another feature seen in the gods of later cultures and representing the paper and rubber sap strips which were burnt during rites as the smoke was thought to propitiate rain).
Perhaps the most significant jade carving is the Kunz Axe, a ceremonial axe-head now in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The jade has been worked to represent a were-jaguar creature using only jade tools and then polished, perhaps using a jade abrasive. Animals were a popular subject, especially those most powerful ones such as jaguars and eagles. Intriguingly, the Olmecs often buried their sculptures, even larger pieces, perhaps in a ritual act of memory.
The Olmecs influenced the civilizations they came into contact with across Mesoamerica, particularly in sculpture in ceramic and jade and objects featuring Olmec imagery have been found at Teopantecuanitlan, 650 km distant from the Olmec heartland. In addition, many deities featured in Olmec art and religion such as the sky-dragon (a sort of caiman creature with flaming eyebrows) and the feathered-snake god, would reappear in similar form in later religions. The snake-god especially, would be transformed into the major gods Kukulcan for the Maya and Quetzalcoatl for the Aztecs. This artistic and religious influence, along with the features of precisely aligned ceremonial precincts, monumental pyramids, sacrificial rituals and ball-courts, meant that all subsequent Mesoamerican cultures would owe a great deal to their mysterious forerunners, the Olmecs. [Ancient History Encyclopedia].
REVIEW: The stone head sculptures of the Olmec civilization of the Gulf Coast of Mexico (1200 B.C. - 400 B.C.) are amongst the most mysterious and debated artefacts from the ancient world. The most agreed upon theory is that, because of their unique physical features and the difficulty and cost involved in their creation, they represent Olmec rulers. Seventeen heads have been discovered to date, 10 of which are from San Lorenzo and 4 from La Venta; two of the most important Olmec centres. The heads were each carved from a single basalt boulder which in some cases were transported 100 km or more to their final destination, presumably using huge balsa river rafts wherever possible and log rollers on land.
The principal source of this heavy stone was Cerro Cintepec in the Tuxtla Mountains. The heads can be nearly 3 m high, 4.5 metres (9.8 feet, 14.7 feet) in circumference and average around 8 tons in weight. The heads were sculpted using hard hand-held stones and it is likely that they were originally painted using bright colours. The fact that these giant sculptures depict only the head may be explained by the widely held belief in Mesoamerican culture that it was the head alone which contained the emotions, experience, and soul of an individual. Facial details were drilled into the stone (using reeds and wet sand) so that prominent features such as the eyes, mouth, and nostrils have real depth.
Some also have deliberately drilled dimples on the cheeks, chin, and lips. The heads all display unique facial features - often in a very naturalistic and expressive manner - so that they may be considered portraits of actual rulers. The scholar M.E. Miller identifies Colossal Head 5, for example, as a second-millenium B.C. ruler of San Lorenzo. Although the physionomy of the sculptures has given rise to unfounded speculation of contact with civilizations from Africa, in fact, the physical features common to the heads are still seen today in residents of the modern Mexican cities of Tabasco and Veracruz.
The subject often wears a protective helmet which was worn by the Olmec in battle and during the Mesoamerican ballgame. These can vary in design and pattern and sometimes the subject also has jaguar paws hanging over the forehead, perhaps representing a jaguar pelt worn as a symbol of political and religious power, a common association in many Mesoamerican cultures. Colossal Head 1 from La Venta, instead, has huge talons carved on the front of the helmet. Many of the stones are difficult to place in their original context as they were not necessarily found in the positions the Olmecs had originally put them.
Some heads are also recarvings of other objects. For example, San Lorenzo Colossal Head 7 was originally a throne and has a deep indentation on one side and Altar 5 from La Venta seems to have been abandoned in the middle of such a conversion. Miller suggests that perhaps a specific ruler's throne was converted into a colossal portrait in an act of remembrance following that ruler's death. Many of the stones are difficult to place in their original context as they were not necessarily found in the positions the Olmecs had originally put them. Indeed, Almere Read suggests that even the Olmecs themselves regularly moved the heads around for different ritual purposes.
Another theory is that the heads were used as powerful markers of rulership and distributed to declare political dominance in various territories. Interestingly, the four heads from La Venta were perhaps originally positioned with such a purpose in mind so that they stood as guardians to the sacred precinct of the city. Three were positioned at the northern end of the complex and the other one stood at the southern end; but all faced outwards as if protecting the precinct. These heads are very similar to the San Lorenzo heads but display a regional variance in that they are wider and more squat in appearance.
That the other heads might have been discovered out of their original setting is suggested by the fact that very often they show signs of deliberate vandalism and most were buried sometime before 900 B.C. in what appears to have been a purposeful ritual distancing with the past. However, it has also been suggested that some of the heads were buried shortly after their production in a process of ancestor worship or that they were defaced and buried by subsequent rulers to legitimize their claim to power and exclude competing lineages. It could also be that they were even damaged in order to neutralize the dead ruler's power. Whatever the reason, the heads were buried and forgotten for nearly three thousand years until the first head was re-discovered, in 1871 A.D., with the last being excavated as recently as 1994 A.D. [Ancient History Encyclopedia].
REVIEW: The mysterious civilization of the Olmecs. Mexico is perhaps most well-known, archaeologically speaking, as the home of the Aztec civilization. Yet, before the arrival of the Aztecs, another sophisticated civilization, the Olmecs, ruled the region for almost 1000 years. Although pre-Olmec cultures had already existed in the region, the Olmecs have been called the cultura madre, meaning the ‘mother culture’, of Central America. In other words, many of the distinctive features of later Central American civilizations can be traced to the Olmecs. So, who were the Olmecs, and what was their culture like?
The Olmec civilization flourished roughly between 1200 BC and 400 BC, an era commonly known as Central America’s Formative Period. Sites containing traces of the Olmec civilization are found mainly on the southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, specifically in the states of Veracruz and Tabasco. Although the Olmecs did have a system of writing, only few of their inscriptions are available to archaeologists at present. Moreover, there is not enough continuous Olmec script for archaeologist to decipher the language. As a result, much of what we know about the Olmec civilization is dependent on the archaeological evidence.
For a start, the Olmecs left behind much of their artwork. The most famous of these are arguably the so-called ‘colossal heads’. These representations of human heads are carved from basalt boulders, and at present, at least seventeen of such objects have been found. The colossal heads measure between one and three metres in height, and seem to represent a common subject, i.e. mature men with fleshy cheeks, flat noses, and slightly crossed eyes. Incidentally, such physical features are still common amongst the people of Veracruz and Tabasco, indicating the colossal heads may be representations of the Olmecs themselves. Given the amount of resources needed to produce such objects, it may be speculated that these heads depict the Olmec elites or rulers, and were used as a symbol of power, perhaps like the colossal heads of Jayavarman VII at Angkor Thom in Cambodia.
In addition, the Olmecs also produced miniature versions of these giant heads. One such object is a ‘stone mask’ in the British Museum. In contrast to the colossal heads, this mask, which is made of serpentine, is only 13 cm high. This mask has similar facial features to the colossal heads. Although such features can be seen in the descendants of the Olmecs, some scholars have speculated that the mask represented an African, Chinese or even a Mediterranean face. The mask also has four holes on its front, speculated to represent the four cardinal points of the compass. As the Olmec ruler was believed to be the most important axis in the world centre, it has been suggested that the mask represented an Olmec ruler. Furthermore, there are numerous circular holes on the face, indicating that face piercings and plugs were used by the Olmecs. Due to the lack of Olmec skeletons (they have been dissolved by the acidic soil of the rainforest), this mask may be the closest we can get to seeing what the Olmecs looked like.
By 400 B.C., the Olmecs mysteriously vanished, the cause of which is still unknown. Although the Olmecs were only rediscovered by archaeologists relatively recently, i.e. after the Second World War, they were by no means a forgotten civilization. After all, the word Olmec itself (meaning ‘rubber people’) can be found in the Aztec language. It seems that the ‘Mesoamerican ballgame’, which was observed by the Spanish when they encountered the Aztecs, was invented by the Olmecs. As this game involved the use of a rubber ball, this may be the reason why the Olmecs were named as such by the Aztecs. This ballgame and several other features of Olmec civilization may be found in subsequent Central American civilizations. Thus, the Olmecs had a considerable amount of influence on these later cultures. As so little is known about the Olmecs today, it would require much more work and research to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of their importance to succeeding Central American societies. [Ancient Origins].
REVIEW: Olmec Jade. The Olmec fashioned votive axes in the form of figures carved from jade, jadeite, serpentine and other greenstones. The figures have a large head and a small, stocky body that narrows into a blade shape. They combine features of a human and other animals, such as jaguar, eagle or toad. The mouth is slightly opened, with a flaring upper lip and the corners turned down. Flaming eyebrows are also a recurrent feature, and have been interpreted as a representation of the crest of the harpy eagle.
Most axes have a pronounced cleft in the middle of the head. This cleft has been interpreted by scholars variously as the open fontanelle (soft spot) on the crown of newborn babies, the deep groove in the skull of male jaguars, or that found on the head of certain species of toads. In some instances vegetation sprouts out of some of them. These combinations of human and animal traits and representations of supernatural beings are common in Olmec art.
Jade perforators were used in self-sacrifice rites, which involved drawing blood from several parts of the body. Some representations of Olmec rulers show them holding bloodletters and/or scepters as part of their elaborate ritual costume. Bloodletting was performed by the ruler to ensure the fertility of the land and the well-being of the community. It was also a means of communication with the ancestors and was vital to sustain the gods and the world. These rituals were common throughout Mesoamerica.
Olmec jade perforators are often found in graves as part of the funerary offerings. Bloodletting implements were also fashioned out of bone, flint, greenstones, stingray spines and shark teeth. They vary in form and symbolism. Handles can be plain, incised with a variety of symbols associated to certain deities, or carved into the shape of supernatural beings. The blades, ending in a sharp point, are sometimes shaped into the beaks of certain birds, such as the hummingbird, or into a stingray tail.
Jade pectorals were carved by Olmec artists and in some instances reused by the Maya. Jade objects in Olmec style have been found throughout Mesoamerica and as far south as Costa Rica. Those found in areas of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, are decorated with different motifs and shapes from those found in the Olmec heartland, centered in present-day Southern Veracruz and Tabasco. Although contacts between the Maya area and the Olmec heartland seem to have been limited, jade objects in Olmec style appear in Maya deposits dated to the Middle Preclassic (about 1000-400 B.C.E.).
Its presence was probably the result of contact between the two areas or with areas that shared the same cultural traditions and similar imagery. Objects found in later deposits, for example at the Cenote of Sacrifice, in Chichen Itza, an Early Postclassic site (900-1200 C.E.), would have been reused over generations or found in earlier graves. [British Museum].
REVIEW: What Makes the Olmec Culture So Unique and Alluring? The Olmecs were the first true Mesoamerican civilization. There were small villages and groups of people in the area in which the Olmec developed but these societies are referred to as Pre-Olmec. The Olmecs were a full-fledged civilization because they were more organized and socially advanced than their predecessors. There are differing opinions regarding the Olmec timeline. Some say the start was around 1500 BC, but the more popular timeline puts the beginning of the Olmec at roughly 1200 BC and the decline of the culture sometime near 400 BC. There are many theories about the downfall of the Olmec civilization such as catastrophic climate change, illness, volcanism, and overpopulation.
The most recognizable artifacts created by the Olmecs are 17 colossal basalt heads that have been discovered across four different sites. The Olmec gathered basalt from boulders located in the Sierra de los Tuxtlas. These stones were very large and it is unknown how they moved them to their final resting places. The heads were shaped with percussion, hammerstones, and abrasives. The first archaeological investigations of the Olmecs didn’t begin until more than 75 years after the initial discovery of a colossal head. One of the first (and most famous) researchers to study the Olmec was Matthew Stirling.
The Olmecs are unique for many reasons. It appears the Olmec culture developed alone. Most cultures develop with outside influences by engaging in activities such as trade and immigration. Developing independently is rare and when it happens the culture is known as ‘pristine’. The Olmec had several firsts in the Americas. They developed the first monumental architecture and first signs of city planning. They were the first known people to use a writing system in the Americas. Another first was the use of chocolate, which was their preferred drink. The name Olmec means “rubber people”. It’s how the Aztec tribes described the Olmecs and makes sense as they are the best candidates for inventing the first ball games.
Evidence is not solely based upon Olmec influence at the oldest known ball courts, but also from several rubber balls discovered at a sacrificial bog called El Manati. Although archaeologists know that these Yugitos were involved in the Mesoamerican ball games, it is uncertain how they were used. The Olmecs are the earliest known civilization in the Americas to have used mathematics and had the concept of zero. The first calendar in long count format was discovered in the Olmec region of Tres Zapotes on the lower half of Stela C.
The Olmecs inhabited the area around the Gulf Coast of Mexico, now the modern states of Tabasco and Veracruz. They took advantage of the fertile land. Several large cities have been attributed to them, including San Lorenzo, La Venta, Tres Zapotes, Las Limas, and Laguna de los Cerros. The first major city of the Olmec civilization was San Lorenzo, with a population of at least 15,000. It had a very elaborate drainage system that may have helped its success. The Olmecs achieved this feat by using carved stone pipes with lids. San Lorenzo had vast influence and political power in Mesoamerica. Ten amazing colossal heads were discovered there.
The colossal heads represented rulers or elites. They differ from one another in facial characteristics and size. Each was also carefully carved with a distinctive headdress. The largest head at the San Lorenzo is 9.3 ft. (2.8 meters) high, 6.9 ft. (2.1 meters) wide, and weighs about 25.3 tons. The San Lorenzo colossal heads were at the center of the site and formed two lines oriented north-south. La Venta came into prominence around 900 BC. It had thousands of inhabitants and was about 200 hectares; though the power and influence of the city spread much further.
Many people there had jobs such in farming, fishing, and moving stone blocks from distant quarries. Traders also ventured into the distant valleys of Mexico and beyond, bringing back cacao, bright feathers, obsidian, and jadeite. Others were members of the priesthood and the elite or ruling class. La Venta was built on top of a ridge along the Palma river. The royal compound existed at the very top. Four colossal heads were found at La Venta and three of the four were oriented in a line east-west. The placement of these monuments at both La Venta and San Lorenzo is very intriguing.
La Venta had a Great Pyramid, which is thought to have been an important ceremonial and political center. Building of the pyramid is estimated to have begun around 1200 BC. It was the largest Mesoamerican structure of its time. It is 110 feet (33.5 meters) tall, and contains approximately 100,000 cubic meters of earth fill. It has never been excavated and scans of the area show a few interesting anomalies. There are other structures underneath the city - offerings to the gods. These include more than 1,000 tons of polished serpentine blocks, more than 48 individual deposits of pottery, hematite mirrors, jade celts, and complex mosaics.
Tres Zapotes is the third major city. In 1862, Jose Melgar discovered the first Olmec colossal head there. This led to the first archaeological explorations in the area five years later. The city’s unique because it may have been inhabited for more than 2,000 consecutive years. It also shows artistic influences from several other groups. Tres Zapotes became prominent around the time that San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan declined. The decline of Olmec culture at Tres Zapotes occurred during the Middle Formative period, about 400 BC. This “decline” refers to the Olmec people losing unique cultural aspects. The city was not abandoned at this time, but became a mixed culture known today as the Epi-Olmec culture. Many believe that Epi-Olmec art, especially at Tres Zapotes, was less skilled. Less detail was used and lower quality items were produced.
La Cobata was not an inhabited city - it was a basalt site located near the Sierra de los Tuxtlas. An offering of an obsidian knife was found buried with the colossal head found there. The knife was pointed North toward Monument Q’s head. The head at La Cobata was discovered in 1970 and is the largest found so far. It is the only Olmec head discovered with closed eyes. Olmec religion spurs the interest and debates of many scholars. Some regard the Olmec religious hierarchy as complex, while others call it simplistic compared to the Maya and Aztec pantheons. I view it as both complex and simplistic. Complex because it showed ingenuity in rituals and beliefs set in place with no major outside influence, but simplistic when compared with the Maya and Aztec pantheons. The Maya worshipped over 250 deities and the Aztec had more than 1,000 gods!
Unfortunately, the identities of the Olmec gods have been lost to time. Because the Olmec language has yet to be deciphered, the only way to gain insight regarding their beliefs is by studying the images and symbols left behind on carvings and other artifacts. Information on who they worshiped and how they did so may change drastically in the future. But it appears the Olmec deities did not show gender, unlike the Aztec and Maya cultures that they ‘parented’. Shamanism was a central part of Olmec religion and images of shamans transforming is often depicted in their art. Shamans are shown performing acrobatics, sometimes with were-jaguar attributes. It seems that the Olmec thought very highly of jaguars and admired their strength, stealth, and prowess. One of the highest states of being you could achieve would be the ability to become one with the powerful jaguar. Therefore, shamans were very important people in Olmec religion.
God I of the Olmec pantheon was the god of earth, sun, water, and fertility. and was also referred to as Earth Monster. It was sometimes depicted as a dragon with flaming eyebrows and a well-defined nose. This being’s connections suggest that it may have been a creator deity. It may also be the ancestor of the Maya Itazmna, Aztec Xiuhtecuhtli, and Mesoamerican god Huehueteotl. God II was the maize /corn god. It was usually depicted with a maize cob sprouting from a cleft in its head. Sometimes the being was shown as youthful or carved as a toothless infant. It had almond-shaped eyes, thick prominent lips, and a large flat nose. Carvings atop the heads of these statues were common. God II may have been the antecedent of all Mesoamerican corn deities.
God III was a cosmological deity sometimes referred to as a bird monster and was associated with the sun, sky, and agricultural fertility. It was usually portrayed in bird-monster form which combined reptilian and avian features. It sometimes had flaming eyebrows. God IV is the Olmec god of rain and was an agricultural fertility deity. It was depicted as a were-jaguar. Usually it was shown wearing a headband, pectoral badges, and ear ornaments. God IV has characteristics that suggest it was the predecessor of the Aztec Tlaloc and the Maya Chac.
God V is no longer a designation in the Olmec pantheon, but God VI represented spring and annual renewal. It was most often portrayed as a disembodied cleft head with almond-shaped eyes - one having a stripe across it. The name Banded-eye god is associated with this being. It was usually shown with a toothless, upturned grin. The only known depictions of this deity are in profile, usually carved on earthenware containers. In later years, the worship of this deity became rather hideous as priests would wear flayed human skins of sacrificial victims. God VII is a plumed or feathered serpent. It is the best known from the Olmec pantheon and was one of the earliest to have developed. Its counterparts include the Maya Kukulkan, and the Aztec Quetzalcoatl.
God VIII was the Olmec fish god, sometimes called Fish Monster or Shark Monster. This being was associated with all bodies of water, from lakes to oceans. Its portrayed with crescent-shaped eyes, a somewhat human style nose, a small lower jaw, and a fish body. In fish form, it was sometimes depicted with a forked tail and a dorsal fin. God X is the last known god in the Olmec pantheon. It was a were-jaguar type being with the popular cleft head characteristic, a toothless mouth, and almond-shaped eyes. A definable motif of this god was the figure-eight symbol in its nostrils. This being was never shown wearing stripes or bands and was probably a lesser deity compared to the others in the Olmec pantheon.
There is much confusion involving the Olmec pantheon. It is very difficult differentiating one deity from the next because their characteristics are so similar and Olmec examples so few. In fact, I have come across several internet sites and articles that have the deities listed incorrectly. More research needs to occur on individual deities in order to classify them accurately. [Ancient Origins].
REVIEW: Hidden in the Glyphs: Deciphering Bilingual Mayan-Olmec Text. In my book, "Olmec Language and Literature", I explain how I deciphered the Olmec language. One of the most important documents used in my research was a Bi-lingual Mayan-Olmec text inscribed on a brick. Support for my decipherment of the Olmec writing comes from a bilingual Mayan-Olmec/Mande inscribed brick from Comalcalco (“in the house of earthenware" in Nahuatl). Comalcalco is a Mayan archaeological site found in Tabasco, Mexico. It was built by the Chontal and is the only ancient Maya city in Mexico entirely built in brick. Archaeologist Neil Steede found over 4000 inscribed bricks at this site.
The Comalcalco site encompasses around 360 pyramids. Almost all the structures were built of fired bricks (tabiques). Nine of these pyramids were excavated between 1977-1978. This Mayan site has interesting architecture which served an important purpose. For example, "The Great Acropolis" was probably used for civil and religious practices. In addition to the fine temples, walls, and altars, elaborate “stucco” was used to face the constructions, which resemble images on the sub-pyramids of many Mayan sites and have analogy to Olmec iconography.
Neil Steede became interested in the bricks in 1979 and he obtained permission to photograph them from the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Steede published many of the inscribed bricks from the Comalcalco ruins in a bilingual book entitled Preliminary Catalogue of the Comalcalco Bricks. One of the bricks, T1-452 R16, is a particularly fascinating artifact for those interested in Olmec-Mayan connections. This brick has a bilingual Mayan-Olmec inscription, with the Mayan inscription on the left and an Olmec/Malinke inscription on the right-hand side. The Olmec writing used on this brick is in the plain style. The plain Olmec style of writing was usually used to inscribe celts and other Olmec artifacts. There are two additional characters on the far right hand side of the brick which are also written in the plain Olmec style of writing.
Dr. Alexander von Wuthenau advised Steede to send me copies of the images of the bricks before his publication of the Comalcalco Catalogue. He did this to determine if I could identify the writing on some of the bricks which Steede thought looked like scripts from the Old World. I immediately recognized that the T1-452 R16 brick appeared to include both Mayan and Olmec inscriptions. To test this hypothesis, I suggested to Steede that he decipher the Mayan inscription, and I would decipher the Olmec passage which had been partially defaced. Steede agreed to this test. He then divided the inscription into three segments we were both to decipher and we began our work.
I sent a copy of my decipherment of T1-452 R16 to Steede. I included a translation of the Malinke inscription on the right-hand side of the T1-452 R16 brick, and the Olmec/Mande signs found inside the Mayan glyphs. In English, the Olmec plain signs read: "Thou exist incomplete. He is the manifestation of life, a talisman in this proximity. Give birth to this [funerary] habitation.” In contrast, the Olmec signs inside the Mayan glyphs say: "The person of considerable dignity is void of breath. [He goes to me the] Jaguar God. [He] is no longer alive/ or Powerful Righteousness! [His] Place of rest exist here.”
Steede wrote me back on March 28, 1984 to say that his interpretation of the Mayan signs was almost identical to my translation of the Mayan and Olmec/Mande signs. He wrote: "1A shows a face with slashed eyes (blind or non=seeing), nostriless nose (non-breathing) and "clamped shut" mouth (non-speaking). This would indicate death alright, but below the cartouche is added onto by two breath scrolls on each side of an intricate sacrificial blade. These breath (or speak) scrolls indicate that the person in question has expressed that he feels as though he is "dead" spiritually and wishes to make a self-sacrifice." 1B underlines the fact that he is dead, but note the "S" in the ear of the jaguar. This indicates penitence, or repentance. Therefore, though the person is "dead" spiritually he has heard and accepted repentance. Therefore, 1A and 1B together would read extremely similar to your hieroglyphic translation. but almost exactly as your Manding translation. The person in question is considered to be incomplete until he accepts the priesthood. 2 is identical to your Manding translation and similar to your hieroglyphic interpretation. The part to the right is a dorsal fish fin." I don't have any notes in front of me but I believe it is Stela 1 of Izapa which shows that Quetzalcoatl "fishes" for all types of fish (men). This stela also implicates that the dorsal fish fin is associated with priesthood. Here we can see the fish fin "hatching" from an "egg?" or from "inner self?" The person in question is being born again as a priest. 3. I can't understand, but your rendering would seem to be correct. He is now at rest because he is (complete)." The translation of the Mayan side of this bilingual brick from Comalcalco, and other inscribed bricks from the site, indicates that it was probably a Mayan college where scribes learned Mayan writing and possibly pyramid construction. The bilingual text on T1-452 R16 also indicates that the Mayan scribes had to learn how to write Olmec inscriptions and translate them into the Mayan language. The fact that the Olmec inscriptions were defaced suggests that the scribes first wrote a piece in Olmec and then wrote the same inscription in the Mayan language(s) they studied.
Reading from top to bottom, one sees the signs Ma yo. The interpretation of Ma yo in Olmec is the following: "It's done well--full of life". These signs appear to indicate a grade or comment on the brick, probably made by the instructor. This supports the view that Comalcalco was a college where Mayan initiates entering the priesthood and scribal classes learned how to write Mayan hieroglyphics. B. Stross (1973) mentions a Mayan belief in the foreign origin of Mayan writing. This idea is confirmed by Mayan oral tradition, Tozzer (1941), and C.H. Brown (1991), who claimed that writing did not exist among the Proto-Maya. Many experts agree that the Olmec people taught the Maya how to write (Schele & Freidel, 1990; Soustelle, 1984).
Terrence Kaufman has proposed that the Olmec spoke a Mexe-Zoquean speech, however this view fails to match the epigraphic evidence. The Olmec people spoke a Manding (Malinke-Bambara) language and not Zoquean. There is a clear African substratum for the origin of Maya writing (Wiener, 1922). Mayanists also agree that the Proto-Maya term for writing was *c'ihb' or *c'ib'. The Mayan /c/ is often pronounced like the hard Spanish /c/ and has a /s/ sound. Brown (1991) argues that *c'ihb may be the ancient Mayan term for writing, but it cannot be Proto-Mayan because writing did not exist among the Maya until 600 BC. This was 1500 years after the breakup of the Proto-Maya (Brown, 1991).
Landa's claims about the origin of Mayan writing support the linguistic evidence (Tozzer, 1941). Landa noted that the Yucatec Maya said they learned writing from a group of foreigners called Tutul Xiu, from Nonoulco (Tozzer, 1941). The Tutul Xiu were probably Manding-speaking Olmecs. The term Tutul Xiu can be translated with Manding: Tutul, "Very good subjects of the Order" and Xiu, "The Shi (/the race)". Thus, "The Shis (who) are very good Subjects of the cult-Order". The term Shi is also probably related to the Manding term Si, which was used as an ethnonym (name given to an ethnic group). The Mayan term for writing is derived from the Manding term: *se'be. There are various other terms used by the Manding/Mande people for writing.
Brown has suggested that the Mayan term c'ib' diffused from the Cholan and Yucatecan Maya to other Mayan speakers. The term is probably derived from Manding *Se'be which is analogous to *c'ib'. This would explain the identification of the Olmec or Xi/Shi people as Manding speakers. There are also many cognate Mayan and Manding terms (Wiener, 1920-22). It is clear that the Olmecs introduced writing to the Maya. As a result, the Mayan term for writing is of Olmec/Mande origin. This view is confirmed by Steede and Winters’ decipherment of the Comalcalco brick T1-452 R16. [Ancient Origins].
REVIEW: The Olmec of Mexico may be the Etruscans of ancient Mesoamerica. Much as the Romans overshadowed the Etruscans, the Olmec have long lacked a place in the popular imagination on par with the Aztecs and Maya. But "Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico," at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through January 9 and at the de Young Museum in San Francisco starting February 19, might change that. The show reveals that the Olmec civilization, which flourished on the tropical Gulf Coast of Mexico for a thousand years ending about 400 B.C., also achieved greatness in some of its enormous ceremonial works.
The exhibition is the biggest of three concurrent shows that opened LACMA's airy and adaptable new Resnick Exhibition Pavilion. The six-foot-tall Colossal Head #5 from the ancient city of San Lorenzo greets visitors with an arresting sneer. At the other end of the long, spacious main gallery is its counterpart, with a face like a smiling Buddha's. Its benign visage, we're told, didn't save the head from having its nose smashed off—mutilations were a common fate for the statuary of deposed Olmec royals.
Cutting through the otherworldliness of much of what we see in this show are moments of connection between then and now, notably "El Bebe," a squalling green-stone infant shown in a squint-eyed, gape-mouthed howl familiar to parents throughout the ages. But a ceremonial array of 16 cone-headed figures could feed a UFO enthusiast's fantasies of ancient visitations. Few works anywhere could top two large, nearly identical, serene kneeling male figures that evoke the great statuary of ancient Egypt—but whose sweeping curved lines would appeal to a modernist sculptor.
The exhibition's organizational groupings and wall text allow it to passably serve two masters—the aesthetic presentation together with some archaeological context. However, two large replicas of post-Olmec murals could have usefully been replaced with archaeological elements such as photographs of artifacts in situ and detailed maps showing how key finds were arrayed at the three main Olmec capitals uncovered since the mid-1800s. But "Olmec: Colossal Masterworks" combines seriousness of educational purpose with an immense appreciation of the beauty in these astonishing ancient works. [Archaeological Institute of America].
REVIEW: Scientists presented new evidence yesterday that the fabled Olmec, sculptors of ancient Mexico's colossal stone heads, were the region's first dominant civilization, a "mother culture" that served as the hub of lesser settlements. For decades, a debate has raged between scholars favoring the mother-culture hypothesis and those who argue that the Olmec were just one of several "sister" cultures that developed simultaneously. The Olmec are known for sculpted stone figures, such as one from the National Gallery of Art's 1998 exhibit "Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico."
George Washington University's Jeffrey P. Blomster, leader of the team that examined pottery samples from Mexico and Central America, said at a news conference that chemical analysis of the clays and potsherds suggested that while other ancient settlements made pottery with symbols and designs in the "Olmec style," only the early Olmec themselves -- at San Lorenzo near Mexico's Gulf Coast -- exported their pottery. Local pottery did not have the prestige, Blomster said: "Higher-status houses [at other sites] had more access to the Olmec pottery. The difference was in having the real thing or a knockoff."
The new research appeared in this week's edition of the journal Science and drew cries of foul from sister-culture proponents. Blomster's research team "has demonstrated that pots were traded," said archaeologist David C. Grove, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "They did not demonstrate that trade sent Olmec religious and political ideas" around the region as well. The University of Michigan's Kent V. Flannery, a leading sister-culture proponent, suggested in an e-mail that the Blomster team had sampled only pottery that looked as if it might have come from San Lorenzo. "It is simply not true that nobody else's ceramics show up in San Lorenzo."
The Olmec arose more than 3,000 years ago near the present-day Mexican Gulf states of Veracruz and Tabasco. Known for spectacular sculpted basalt stone heads as much as 11 feet tall, the Olmec are regarded as the first Middle Americans to develop the region's monumental architecture. Besides the key Olmec settlements at San Lorenzo and La Venta, evidence of "Olmec-style" imagery and design is reflected in pottery at other contemporary sites. At a famous meeting of Olmec scholars in 1942, Mexican archaeologists suggested the Olmec were a "mother culture" whose ideas, religion and iconography were adopted and imitated by surrounding peoples.
Later, however, other scholars described this view as overly simplistic. They said the surrounding cultures were as sophisticated as the Olmec, and as "sister cultures" had developed similar pottery styles and iconography from what Grove described as a regional "root style of unknown origin." Blomster and co-researchers -- Hector Neff of California State University at Long Beach and Michael D. Glascock of the University of Missouri -- did elemental analysis of 725 pottery and clay samples from San Lorenzo and six other sites prominent during the "late formative" Olmec period -- between 1,500 B.C. and 900 B.C.
The analysis showed that all seven sites had Olmec-style pottery made from local clays, and all seven also had pottery made at San Lorenzo. But San Lorenzo had nothing from any of the other sites, and the other sites had nothing from one another -- only from themselves and San Lorenzo. Blomster described the results as a "really striking" demonstration that the Olmec in San Lorenzo "had something to offer that was of great interest." "The Gulf Coast Olmec created and synthesized their symbolism and disseminated it," he said.
Grove, however, said that the study proved nothing and committed the sin of granting primacy to the Olmec when the evidence does not exist. "If the Olmec were so influential," he said in a telephone interview, "why didn't the sites they allegedly 'influenced' also borrow monument-making?" Precisely, countered Blomster, because only the San Lorenzo Olmec had the sophistication and organization to handle multi-ton building projects: "The elites can control massive amounts of labor. Other sites didn't have that kind of social differentiation." [Washington Post].
REVIEW: It's a drizzly autumn morning in the eastern Mexican city of Xalapa, near the heartland of what many scholars say was Mesoamerica's first civilization. At the city's elegant anthropology museum, amid one of the finest Olmec collections in the world, Yale archaeologist Michael Coe points at the giant squat stone head staring sullenly at us. "Look at this," he says enthusiastically. "When it was made, the Maya area didn't even have pottery, and the biggest sculpture from this time in Oaxaca"--an important valley to the west--"could fit in this guy's eye." The Olmec, Coe insists, "were the Sumerians of the New World."
More than 40 wooden busts were found buried at El Manatí, an early Olmec religious site. The faces vary and may represent individual people rather than deities. An energetic man even at 77, he is part of an older generation of scholars who have spent a good part of their professional lives arguing among themselves over whether the Olmec birthed the rudiments of Mesoamerican civilization, or whether they were one among many contemporary peoples who contributed art, technology, and religious beliefs to the Aztec, Maya, and other cultures that Cortes and the Spanish encountered 2,500 years later.
But that lingering "mother-sister" debate--often vociferous, occasionally unseemly, and sometimes downright nasty--obscures a quiet revolution in research on early Mesoamerica. While the elders bicker, a younger batch of archaeologists is pursuing other questions, asking, for example, how the ordinary Olmec lived and worked, and what they ate. Such fundamental matters until now were largely neglected amid the academic fracas, which has focused on monumental structures, evidence of kings, and the iconography of the elite. "Everyone is flying a flag from their own valley," sighs Mary Pye, a 40-something archaeologist in Mexico City who is also in Xalapa for a conference on the Olmec.
"Forget mother-sister," she says. "It's more complicated." The more nuanced picture emerging of early Mesoamerica does not fit that of either warring camp. Those who back the Olmec as the first civilization traditionally point to the early adoption of maize, the growth of urban centers, and the export of finished goods such as pottery throughout Mesoamerica to clinch their argument.
Opponents emphasize the complexity of other cultures in different areas, such as Oaxaca. But the new research shows that during the early critical phase of urbanization the Olmec may have shunned maize, lived mostly as fishermen, and sought luxury items from distant places, while simultaneously expanding their cultural influence throughout the region. [Archaeological Institute of America]
I always ship books Media Mail in a padded mailer. This book is shipped FOR FREE via USPS INSURED media mail (“book rate”). All domestic shipments and most international shipments will include free USPS Delivery Confirmation (you might be able to update the status of your shipment on-line at the USPS Web Site) and free insurance coverage. A small percentage of international shipments may require an additional fee for tracking and/or delivery confirmation. If you are concerned about a little wear and tear to the book in transit, I would suggest a boxed shipment - it is an extra $1.00. Whether via padded mailer or box, we will give discounts for multiple purchases. International orders are welcome, but shipping costs are substantially higher.
Most international orders cost an additional $9.99 to $37.99 for an insured shipment in a heavily padded mailer, and typically includes some form of rudimentary tracking and/or delivery confirmation (though for some countries, this is only available at additional cost). However this book is quite heavy, and it is too large to fit into a flat rate mailer. Therefore the shipping costs are somewhat higher than what is otherwise ordinary. There is a discount program which can cut postage costs by 50% to 75% if you’re buying about half-a-dozen books or more (5 kilos+). Rates and available services vary a bit from country to country. You can email or message me for a shipping cost quote, but I assure you they are as reasonable as USPS rates allow, and if it turns out the rate is too high for your pocketbook, we will cancel the sale at your request. ADDITIONAL PURCHASES do receive a VERY LARGE discount, typically about $5 per book (for each additional book after the first) so as to reward you for the economies of combined shipping/insurance costs. Your purchase will ordinarily be shipped within 48 hours of payment. We package as well as anyone in the business, with lots of protective padding and containers.
All of our shipments are sent via insured mail so as to comply with PayPal requirements. We do NOT recommend uninsured shipments, and expressly disclaim any responsibility for the loss of an uninsured shipment. Unfortunately the contents of parcels are easily “lost” or misdelivered by postal employees – even in the USA. That’s why all of our domestic shipments (and most international) shipments include a USPS delivery confirmation tag; or are trackable or traceable, and all shipments (international and domestic) are insured. We do offer U.S. Postal Service Priority Mail, Registered Mail, and Express Mail for both international and domestic shipments, as well United Parcel Service (UPS) and Federal Express (Fed-Ex). Please ask for a rate quotation. We will accept whatever payment method you are most comfortable with. If upon receipt of the item you are disappointed for any reason whatever, I offer a no questions asked return policy. Send it back, I will give you a complete refund of the purchase price (less our original shipping costs).
Most of the items I offer come from the collection of a family friend who was active in the field of Archaeology for over forty years. However many of the items also come from purchases I make in Eastern Europe, India, and from the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean/Near East) from various institutions and dealers. Though I have always had an interest in archaeology, my own academic background was in sociology and cultural anthropology. After my retirement however, I found myself drawn to archaeology as well. Aside from my own personal collection, I have made extensive and frequent additions of my own via purchases on Ebay (of course), as well as many purchases from both dealers and institutions throughout the world - but especially in the Near East and in Eastern Europe. I spend over half of my year out of the United States, and have spent much of my life either in India or Eastern Europe. In fact much of what we generate on Yahoo, Amazon and Ebay goes to support The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, as well as some other worthy institutions in Europe connected with Anthropology and Archaeology.
I acquire some small but interesting collections overseas from time-to-time, and have as well some duplicate items within my own collection which I occasionally decide to part with. Though I have a collection of ancient coins numbering in the tens of thousands, my primary interest is in ancient jewelry. My wife also is an active participant in the "business" of antique and ancient jewelry, and is from Russia. I would be happy to provide you with a certificate/guarantee of authenticity for any item you purchase from me. There is a $2 fee for mailing under separate cover. Whenever I am overseas I have made arrangements for purchases to be shipped out via domestic mail. If I am in the field, you may have to wait for a week or two for a COA to arrive via international air mail. But you can be sure your purchase will arrive properly packaged and promptly - even if I am absent. And when I am in a remote field location with merely a notebook computer, at times I am not able to access my email for a day or two, so be patient, I will always respond to every email. Please see our "ADDITIONAL TERMS OF SALE."
Price distribution "HUGE Olmec Art Ancient Mexico San Lorenzo La Venta Chalcatzingo Sculpture Heads" vs 31 similar items
Average price: 2048.23$
Low price: 27.99$
High price: 22500$
2277.50$ 0 04d Details
No more products to load