Inside the colossal heads of mother culture

The Olmecs
July 29, 2005

The Olmecs are sometimes called "America's first civilisation", the cultura madre of Mexican scholars, a sobriquet that raises more questions than are immediately apparent. Richard Diehl is a forthright advocate of "Olmecs First", although he otherwise manages to give a fair and informative account of the culture.

Although the first of the "colossal heads" (now generally accepted as portraits of rulers) was reported by 1871, Olmec archaeology got off the ground only in the 1930s, when Matthew Stirling allied the intellectual punch of the Smithsonian Institution to the purse and publicity machine of the National Geographic magazine in his work at Tres Zapotes and San Lorenzo on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Dozens of massive enigmatic basalt sculptures were found, among them many more giant heads, and great boxy "altars" with a seated figure emerging from a niche on the front. These are now seen as thrones, thanks partly to the discovery in the 1960s of the wall paintings in Oxtotitlan Cave, far away in Guerrero, where a richly costumed man is shown sitting on just such a feature.

The bulk of the sites, and the fieldwork, continued to be in what Diehl calls "Olman", southern Veracruz and Tabasco in modern Mexico, and here at La Venta the next great Olmec site was investigated. Unfortunately, it overlay oil deposits, and one of the enduring tragedies of Mesoamerican archaeology is that much of La Venta was bulldozed for an airstrip and other necessary facilities such as brothels. Diehl, who shows more passion over this officially sanctioned destruction than all his distinguished olmecista predecessors, notes the vital role of the Tabascan poet Carlos Pellicer in hauling the major La Venta sculptures to safety.

Part of the problem was that from early on, Olmec art had attracted collectors, and thus looters and dealers. While gentleman scholars such as Robert Woods Bliss and responsive artists such as Miguel Covarrubias were among the first to appreciate this powerful and unknown style, the fashion for a stripped-down simplicity of form that marked the work of Constantin Brancusi and Henry Moore, among others, led to voracious market interest.

Diehl outlines the history of discovery: new evidence for early farming and proto-writing at the San Andrés site, part of La Venta's hinterland, which illuminate the formative phase of Olmec culture, came along just in time to be included; he also had access to the stunning finds at the waterlogged Manat! site, where wooden sculptures and rubber balls for the ritual ballgame were found, and to new evidence from San Lorenzo's centre and surrounding settlements.

Jeffrey Blomster's analyses of early Olmec-period pottery - which show export of decorated wares from San Lorenzo south to Oaxaca and the Mixteca and west into the Basin of Mexico, but no reciprocal ceramic imports - were published only this year: a pity, because they give some support to Diehl's position of Olmec primacy and make the whole pattern of regional interaction more interesting. Diehl organises the textbook material into chapters on the realms of San Lorenzo and La Venta, then covers Olmec daily life and their art, both monumental and miniature. Most Olmec portable art is looted: finds such as the Arroyo Pesquero cache allegedly consisted of more than 1,000 objects.

Diehl seems blind to the opportunities for forgery thus created; everything he illustrates may be genuine, but only connoisseurship says so in the absence of context. Two chapters on "the Olmecs abroad", in eastern and western Mesoamerica respectively, implicitly accept a model of radiating influence, whether carried by merchants (transporting pottery at least), missionaries, military adventurers or itinerant artists. This would have been a good chance to discuss the cultura hermana - literally "sister culture" - model to which many Mesoamericanists subscribe, in which the Olmecs are one of a coeval set of regional societies sharing an economic, social, intellectual and religious commonality.

Diehl evades the challenge with a vague and misleading reference to "dissenters", not even citing the literature in which he so passionately argued this point some 15 years ago. There are a few other inconsistencies: his thesis that "carving stone Colossal heads was a short-lived fad that lasted only 50 or 100 years" is compatible with only one of the two differing chronologies he offers for La Venta; and his description of Ivan Van Sertima's bogus claims for African Olmec origins as "recent" belies their 1976 publication date. Diehl's crediting the discovery of the long-sought source of Olmec blue jade to Americans, rather than the French geologists who actually found it is, one trusts, honest error and not chauvinism. There are occasional missing references and misspellings, including the hilarious assertion that pottery was decorated with "punctuation", that the publisher should have caught. But overall this is a concise, well-written and useful book.

Norman Hammond is professor of archaeology, Boston University, Massachusetts, US.

The Olmecs: America's First Civilisation

Author - Richard Diehl
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 208
Price - £.50
ISBN - 0 500 02119 8

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