the Olmecs’ most characteristic artefact are the colossal heads, like this one on the Zocalo of Santiago Tuxla

The reason for our relatively slow progress towards Yucatan is the Olmecs; Mexico’s first well organized civilisation, which started around 3000 years ago (dates vary wildly in the literature), and according to archaeologists provided the basis, in terms of religion, science, architecture and art, for the subsequent indigenous cultures. As far as physical remains are concerned, the Olmecs are particularly famous for the ‘cabezas colosales’, their colossal heads. A total of seventeen have been found, probably representing powerful local rulers, and they are all different, meticulously carved from basalt. Some have suffered from weathering, but all of them – well, the few we have seen, so far – have a delicate facial expression, very personal. First time we came across them was 20 years ago, when we visited the Parque La Venta in Villahermosa, where four of them are exposed, together with other Olmec stone artefacts, along the walking paths through the park.

The Olmecs were confined, as far as we know, to the area around Veracruz, in the Southeast of Mexico, just before entering the Yucatan peninsula. As we are heading that way, we might as well take a look. Two major Olmec localities are La Venta, the centre of power from 800-400 BC, and Tres Zapotes, which dominated slightly later.

the Tres Zapotas museum

In Tres Zapotes there is no archaeological site to visit, only the museum. Which has a collection of Olmec artefacts from huge to tiny, all found in the vicinity. Of course, we first concentrate on the colossal head, Cabeza Colosal Numero Uno, proudly exhibited. This was the first head to be discovered, in Tres Zapotes in 1938 – although apparently, it had been found before, in 1882, but at the time not well documented and not publicised. It is 1.5 meters high and weights almost 8 tons; it is still unclear how on earth the Olmecs managed to transport the basalt from its source, probably some 150 kms away. It is thought to represent the ruler, at the height of his power. But there is lots more to admire, from huge stelae and roughly hewn figures, which are not always equally clear about subject matter, to very delicate, little sculptures, of heads, of people. The guide claims that those are the commoners, as opposed to the rulers depicted by the heads, but I have so my doubts. Many of the tiny heads are also decorated with headdresses, and as a minimum well-coiffed, which I suppose was not something common people did. All together a lovely small museum.

this is one of the colossal heads

with a real expression of his face

these photos illustrate how the head was found and recovered, in the 1930s

monumento G in the museum, a sculpture with head looking up

a butterfly creates a welcome contrast with the dark basalt of Olmec artefacts

apart from the big head, there are numerous small, tiny heads, too

a small face, from different material, but similarly decorated

like this one, with impressive hair-do

or this, apparently with jewellery on the forehead

and this, with intricate earlobes

the pyramid of La Venta, now overgrown, and several stellea

the stairs to the top of the pyramid, no doubt a recent addition

outside in La Venta, finally some colour

two of the monuments on one side of the museum outside

of which one is another colossal head

La Venta is an actual archaeological site, where we can roam around, climb the pyramid – overgrown with grass and trees, nothing like the impressive stone monuments of the Aztecs and the Maya, but still some 30 meters high. To protect the artefacts, what we see outside are replicas, but carved from the same basalt, and made to look as old as the original. I recognise the one colossal head we have seen long ago in the park in Villahermosa, where the original is being kept. And at the far end of the site are three more, equally impressive (even though these, too, are replicas – I am sure I would not see the difference if they are placed next to the original). There are some smaller figures, and lots of basalt pillars, or parts thereof, are scattered around, once no doubt part of a more impressive structure. Tracks lead into the jungle, where more artefacts, like a huge altar, can be found under the trees. The small on-site museum has a few more pieces, and these are the originals.

two of the three colossal heads at the far end of the outdoor space of the museum

this is one of them

this another, somewhat less expressive

and the third, look at those eyes!

one of the artefacts on the other side of the museum

a collection of small heads in the La Venta museum

two of them, in close-up

and one in more detail

well, and another one, too

this is a recurring theme in more museums, woman and child

part of the museum is in the jungle

but the jungle also harbours more colourful elements

where an altar was dicovered, still in place

the colossal head inside the Santiago Tuxla museum

also with an impressive expression

a stadard bearer, from somewhere 1500-900 AD; note the folded arms

a stone mask from the Olmecs, quite different from the colossal heads

a lovely sculpture, I think Olmec, in the Santiago Tuxla museum

four more smaller heads

A third museum, as well as the largest colossal head, is to be found in Santiago Tuxla, where we spent the night. The head on the village square is some 3.4 meters high; the smallest heads in the museum, once again very well laid out, are in the order of a few centimetres. In addition, there are lots of other artefacts, including a second colossal head found near Tres Zapotes, several other large-scale basalt sculptures, as well as delicate earthenware, suggesting a high level or artistic capacity already early on in Mexican history. And this is all original stuff! Or so they say.

Most of the Olmec artefacts, whether sculptures or clay figures, are focussed on the human figure, others are anthropomorphic and zoomorphic. Very few are of realistic animals. Nowhere mentioned in the museums, but unmistakable, are the almond-shaped eyes in many of the faces, whether colossal or tiny, although mainstream scientists discard an Asian origin.

What is striking, is that these artefact were already appreciated very long ago; some have been found a 1000 years after they were produced, in Aztec and Maya offerings.

We were going to re-visit the Parque Archaeologico in Villahermosa, the park where we were first confronted with these remarkable artefacts 20 years ago, but unfortunately, the park is closed for remodelling, so we have to skip this. But we will try to visit the museum in Xalapa, on the way back to Mexico City, where another seven original colossal heads are displayed.

once more, the head in Santiago Tuxla, the biggest one discovered so far

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2 Responses to 04. the Olmecs

  1. Thea Oudmaijer says:

    Lots of heads.???

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