Discussion # 7 Olmec Sculpture art 109 sgc

Olmec colossal basalt head in the Museo de la Venta, an outdoor museum near Villahermosa

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Our discussion this week will focus on Olmec sculpture, particularly the styles, of both monumental and small scale examples. As you have been reading this week, Olmec civilization is the oldest in Meso-america and served as the foundation of almost all later civilizations in this area. Understanding the iconography, function and style of Olmec sculpture is thus an important foundation for our upcoming discussions on later Meso-american art. For this discussion, please complete the following tasks:

1) select an example of Olmec sculpture from the assigned readings such as the colossal heads and stelae of La Venta, Tres Zapotes and San Lorenzo or a small portable example of sculpture and identify the location it was discovered (if known), approximate date and material (Jade, basalt, clay etc).

2) Describe the subject matter and iconography (what is represented i.e. were-jaguar or a ruler etc.) and how the subject matter relates to the function of the sculpture. For example, would the sculpture have been used for religious or ritual purposes or for political purposes in maintaining the political hierarchy? Please remember when discussing function there is not a definitive answer as no written records exist from Olmec civilization and we must rely on accompanying archaeological evidence to come to any conclusions regarding function. For example, the Colossal Heads were located in ritual centers where the foundation of pyramids and and temples have been located.

3) Finally, describe the style of the sculpture. Is it naturalistic or abstract? Again, how does the style relate to the possible function of the sculpture?

I’m looking forward to joining in on this conversation!

two replies:

This head is most likely with African features. This is practically a portrait of an African in a tight-fitting helmet with a chin strap. The head was sculpted from solid hand-made stones and may have originally been painted some bright color. The fact that this giant sculpture only depicts the head suggests that it contains the emotions, experiences and soul of a person. The fine details of the face were drilled into the stone (using reeds and wet sand), so protruding features such as the eyes, mouth and nostrils have real depth. The earlobes appear to be pierced. The face is cut with deep wrinkles on either side of the nose. The corners of the thick lips are bent down. The head is very naturalistic and expressively demonstrates the unique features of the face – therefore, I do not exclude that this is a portrait of one of the real rulers.
It is difficult to say for what purpose this head was used, I can assume that it was used for some kind of magical rituals. Although, judging by the size of this head, the difficulties with its manufacture do not exclude that this head was a powerful symbol of power and may have spread to assert political dominance in various territories.


Olmec colossal head; La Venta; Villahermosa, hight: 2.5m

The Olmec culture left behind many stone carvings, i.e., reliefs, thrones, and statues. However, the most notable examples of Olmec art are the colossal heads.

The colossal head is historically and culturally significant to modern Mexicans. The leaders of the researchers taught a lot about the culture of the ancient Olmecs. However, its most incredible value today is probably artistic. The sculptures are unique, inspiring, and a popular attraction in museums. Most of them are located in regional museums, close to finding them, while two can be found in Mexico City. Several copies have been made worldwide.

The huge Olmec carved heads show the head and face in a helmet with distinctly indigenous qualities. Several of the heads are taller than the average adult. (The largest colossal head was discovered in La Cobata; it is about 10 meters high and weighs about 40 tons). The heads at the back are usually flat and not carved in all respects – seen from the front and side. Some plaster and pigment traces on one of San Lorenzo’s heads indicate that they may have been painted once. Seventeen colossal heads were found: Ten in San Lorenzo, four in La Venta, two in Tres Zapotes, and one in La Cobata.

The creation of these heads was an important undertaking. The basalt rocks and blocks used to carve the head was 50 miles away. Archaeologists suggest that it was a labor-intensive procedure for moving stones slowly, with a combination of rough work, sleds, and, if possible, river rafts. This process was so difficult that many examples were carved in earlier works; St. Lawrence’s two heads were previously carved from a throne. Once the stones reached a workshop, they were carved only with rudimentary tools such as stone hammers. They did not have metal tools, which makes the statues more remarkable. Once the heads were ready, they were placed in position, although it is possible that they occasionally moved to create scenes with other Olmec sculptures.

Colossal heads’ exact meaning and function have been lost over time, but there have been several theories in recent years. Their large size and majesty immediately suggest that they represent Gods. Still, this theory has been discarded because, in general, Mesoamerican gods are described as more frightening than humans, and faces are obviously human. Each head’s helmet/headdress refers to ballgame players, but most archaeologists today believe that they represent rulers. Proof of this is that each of the faces has a distinct look and personality, suggesting individuals of great power and significance. If the heads had any religious significance for the Olmecs, they were lost over time. However, many modern scholars believe that the ruling class could have invoked its relationship with their Gods.

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