Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Olmec civilization was prominent in Mesoamerica from as early as 1500 B.C. up through A.D. 1. The Olmec heartland, an area on the Gulf of Mexico coastal plain of southern Veracruz and Tabasco, is thus called because of the concentration of a large number of Olmec monuments as well as the greatest Olmec sites. The area is about 125 miles long and 50 miles wide (200 by 80 km), with the Coatzalcoalcos River system running through the middle. These sites include San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes. La Venta is one of the greatest of the Olmec sites.
La Venta is dated to between 1200-400 B.C, which places the major development of the city in the Middle Formative Period. Located on an island in a coastal swamp overlooking the then-active Río Palma river, the city of La Venta probably controlled a region between the Mezcalapa and Coatzacoalcos rivers.
La Venta was found and excavated by Matthew Stirling between 1941 and 1943, with several subsequent excavations following through the 1960s. Stirling is sometimes credited with identifying the Olmec civilization; although some Olmec sites and monuments had been known earlier, it was Stirling's work that put the Olmec culture into context.
The site itself is about 18 miles inland with the island consisting of slightly more than 2 square miles of dry land. The main part of the site is a complex of clay constructions stretched out for 12 miles in a North-South direction, although the site is 8° West of true North. The entire southern end of the site is covered by a petroleum refinery, and has been largely demolished, making excavations difficult or impossible. Many of the site's monuments are now on display in the archeological museum and park in the city of Villahermosa, Tabasco.
In its heyday, La Venta was a monumental center that contained an elaborate series of buried offerings and tombs as well as monumental sculptures similar to the many found at San Lorenzo, perhaps the most well known of the Olmec sites. Power of the Olmec culture passed down to La Venta after the downfall of San Lorenzo, in about 900 B.C. It is calculated that the site supported a population of at least 18,000 people during its principle occupation.
Among the major features of the site at La Venta are Complex A and the Great Pyramid. The Great Pyramid is a huge clay pyramid 110 ft high, one of the earliest pyramids known in Mesoamerica. The current conical shape of the pyramid was once thought to represent nearby volcanoes or mountains, but recent work by Rebecca Gonzalez-Lauck has shown that the pyramid was in fact a rectangular pyramid with stepped sides and inset corners, and the current shape is probably due to 2500 years of erosion. The pyramid itself has never been excavated, but is thought to contain an elaborate tomb, such as many other Mesoamerican mounds and pyramids do.
Complex A is a mound and plaza group located just to the North of the Great Pyramid. It was erected in a period of 4 construction phases that span over a period of 4 centuries. Beneath the mounds and plazas were found a vast array of offerings and other buried objects including: buried jade celts, polished mirrors made of iron-ores, large mosaic offerings made of serpentine blocks, and perhaps the most unusual offering being 3 large pits, or Massive Offerings, filled with hundreds of tons of serpentine blocks. Of the buried offerings the most interesting were 4 rectangular pavements each about 15 ft × 20 ft and each consisting of about 485 blocks of serpentine. The mosaics were laid in the form of an abstract jaguar mask, a common theme in Olmec art. Perhaps the strangest part of the pavements is that they were covered over with many feet of clay and adobe layers soon after completion.
It is clear that the Olmecs were a knowledgeable and artistic people, as is evident by the many monuments and sculptures they have left behind. The site of La Venta itself included floors of different colored clays and platforms painted in red, yellow, and purple. Throughout this city of color were a large number of monuments sculptured from basalt. Perhaps the most intriguing of the monuments are the four colossal heads. There are 14 known colossal heads at sites in the Olmec heartland, including San Lorenzo, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes. The site of La Venta contained 4 of these colossal heads.
The La Venta heads are thought to have been carved by 700 B.C., but possibly as early as 850 B.C, while the San Lorenzo heads are credited to an earlier period. The colossal heads can measure up to 9 ft 4 in. in height and weigh several tons. The sheer size of the stones causes a great deal of speculation on how the Olmecs moved the stones, because the nearest quarry for basalt was over 30 km away from San Lorenzo, where 8 heads are located.
It is believed that the heads are portraits of mighty Olmec rulers, which are flat-faced, with thick-lipped features. These characteristics have caused much debate about the Olmecs and the resemblance of the heads to African characteristics. Some insist that the Olmecs were African. Others have said it is possible that the heads were carved this way reflecting the shallow space allowed on the basalt boulders, and not the actual appearance of the people. Others note that in addition to the broad noses and thick lips, the heads have the asian eye-fold, and that all these characteristics are still found in modern Mesoamerican indians. In the 1940s 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.
Each of the heads wears headgear resembling football helmets, although each is unique in its decoration. These helmets probably served as protection in war and in the ceremonial Mesoamerican ballgame played throughout Mesoamerica.
The site also included several "altars" of basalt, the most familiar being Altar 4. Altar 4 represents a figure, probably a ruler or shaman dressed in an elaborate headdress and sitting inside what appears to be a cave. The figure is holding on to a rope, which wraps around the base of the altar to the right side where it is tied to a seated figure. The left side is eroded away but is thought to be similar to the scene on the right. These "altars" have now been identified as thrones, which the Olmec rulers may have been seated on during important rituals or ceremonies. This fact leads many to interpret the figure in the cave as a ruler, who is contacting or being helped by his ancestors, the figures on either side of the altar.
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