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The Olmec in Large and Fine print

I know just enough about the Olmec people to know I’d be interested to know more. I’m in good company, though. Apparently they are still very mysterious even to those who study what they left behind. They are considered Modern Mexico’s first major civilization, populating the Gulf Coast region from 1200 to 400 BC.

Like a lot of ancient cultures long gone, we can approach the Olmec through their art. I thought of two examples for this post. The Colossal Head on right is arguably their most famous artifact. This one is known as the San Lorenzo Colossal Head 8 and it’s one of 17 that have been found. I used it because it’s held as the best preserved example of the art form. If you happen to like large scale works, as an artist or an art appreciator, this thing will certainly please you. It’s a carved basalt boulder standing 7 feet tall, a little over 5 feet wide and deep that weighs in at 13 tons. The largest is about 40 tons, the smallest around 3 or so, I think. Personally, the large scale is what I appreciate, especially considering the amount of realism they achieved with this one. We may differ on how to interpret his expression, to me it looks stern and commanding but I’ve read others who describe it as sad. In any case, for about 1200 BC, this is outstanding artistry.

On the left is Olmec art on an entirely different scale. These miniatures were carved from jade, granite, and serpentine, arranged as you see them in the photo, then buried in a narrow hole under several layers of colored clay. That’s exactly how they were discovered at the dig site of La Venta in Mexico. They are believed to be a memorial to an important event. But since no one seems to know what was being commemorated, experts have to look for clues in how the figures are staged. The backdrop is a series of upright stones that probably represent stelae, commemorative columns often used by ancient peoples to publicize big events in their history. Ten figures form a semi-circle as four figures pass in procession between them and the stelae. Those four are moving towards a separate figure who is apparently waiting on them, with the final figure also facing the march but opposite the semicircle with his back to the stelae. So it’s a gathering in a significant place with some kind of pageantry to it. I’ve read that it could be a visiting dignitary being greeted by the king, the formation of an alliance between two peoples, a wedding, and even a preparation for human sacrifice. One thought really fascinates me about this. Centuries after they are gone, we are still trying to figure out what is they took great care to remember. And the reason we’re doing that is because of the art they left behind.

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