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This article is about the archeological site in Mexico. For the fossil site in Colombia, see La Venta .
"The Grandmother", La Venta (reproduction).
Officially known as Monument 5, this statue is thought to represent a dwarf.
La Venta is a pre-Columbian archaeological site of the Olmec civilization located in the present-day Mexican state of Tabascomarker.

Overview

The Olmec civilization was the first civilization of the Americas. Rising from the sedentary agriculturalists of the Gulf Lowlands as early as 1600 BCE, the Olmecs held sway in the Olmec heartland, an area on the southern Gulf of Mexicomarker coastal plain, in Veracruzmarker and Tabascomarker.

Roughly 125 miles long and 50 miles wide (200 by 80 km), with the Coatzalcoalcos River system running through the middle, the heartland is home to the major Olmec sites of La Venta, San Lorenzo Tenochtitlánmarker, Laguna de los Cerrosmarker, and Tres Zapotesmarker.

The Olmec Heartland, showing La Venta.
no later than 1200 BCE, San Lorenzo had emerged as the most prominent Olmec center. While a layer of occupation at La Venta dates to 1200 BCE, La Venta did not reach its apogee until the decline of San Lorenzo, after 900 BCE. After 500 years of pre-eminence, La Venta was all but abandoned by the beginning of the fourth century BCE.

Located on an island in a coastal swamp overlooking the then-active Río Palma, La Venta probably controlled a region between the Mezcalapa and Coatzacoalcos rivers. The site itself is about inland with the island consisting of slightly more than 2 square miles (5 km²) of dry land. The main part of the site is a complex of clay constructions stretched out for in a north-south direction, although the site is oriented 8° west of north. The urbanized zone may have covered an area as large of 2 km².

Unlike later Maya or Aztec cities, La Venta was built from earth and clay—there was little locally abundant stone for the construction. Large basalt stones were brought in from the Tuxtla mountains, but these were used nearly exclusively for monuments including the colossal heads, the "altars" (actually thrones), and various stelae. For example, the basalt columns that surround Complex A were quarried from Punta Roca Partida, on the Gulfmarker coast north of the San Andres Tuxtla volcano.

Today, 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 archaeological museum and park in the city of Villahermosa, Tabasco.

Major features of La Venta

La Venta was a civic and ceremonial center. While it may have included as-yet-undiscovered regal residences, habitation for the non-regal elite and the commoners were located at outlying sites such as San Andrés. Instead of dwellings, La Venta is dominated by a restricted sacred area (Complex A), the Great Pyramid, and the large plaza to their south.

As a ceremonial center, La Venta contains an elaborate series of buried offerings and tombs, as well as monumental sculptures. These stone monuments, stelae, and "altars" were carefully distributed amongst the mounds and platforms. The mounds and platforms were built largely from local sands and clays. It is assumed that many of these platforms were once topped with wooden structures, which have long since disappeared.

Great Pyramid

One of the earliest pyramids known in Mesoamerica, the Great Pyramid is 110 ft (33 m) high and contains an estimated 100,000 cubic meters of earth fill. 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 most likely due to 2500 years of erosion. The pyramid itself has never been excavated, but a magnetometer survey in 1967 found an anomaly high on the south side of the pyramid. Speculation ranges from a section of burned clay to a cache of buried offerings to a tomb.

Complex A

Complex A is a mound and plaza group located just to the north of the Great Pyramid. Surrounded by a series of basalt columns, which likely restricted access to the elite, it was erected in a period of 4 construction phases that span over 4 centuries. Beneath the mounds and plazas were found a vast array of offerings and other buried objects, more than 50 separate caches by one count, including buried jade celts, polished mirrors made of iron-ores, and five large "Massive Offerings" of serpentine blocks. It is estimated that Massive Offering 3 contains 50 tons of carefully finished serpentine blocks, covered by 4,000 tons of clay fill.

Also unearthed in Complex A were 3 rectangular mosaics (also known as "Pavements") each roughly 15 ft × 20 ft and each consisting of up to 485 blocks of serpentine. These blocks were arranged horizontally to form what has been variously interpreted as an ornate Olmec bar-and-four-dots motif, the Olmec Dragon, a very abstract jaguar mask, a cosmogram, or a symbolic map of La Venta and environs. Not intended for display, soon after completion these pavements were covered over with colored clay and then many feet of earth.

Five formal tombs were discovered within Complex A, one with a sarcophagus carved with what seemed to be an earth monster. Diehl states that these tombs "are so elaborate and so integrated to the architecture that it seems clear that Complex A really was a mortuary complex dedicated to the spirits of deceased rulers".

Other notable artifacts within Complex A include:
  • Monument 19 (see photo below). This relief sculpture is the earliest known example of the feathered serpent in Mesoamerica.
  • Offering 4. Sixteen figurines and six celts form a strange tableau.


Complex B

South of the Great Pyramid lies Complex B. Whereas Complex A was apparently restricted to the elite, the plaza of Complex B seems to be built specifically for large public gatherings. This plaza is just south of the Great Pyramid, east of the Complex B platforms, and west of the huge raised platform referred to as the Stirling Acropolis. This plaza is nearly 400 meters (437 yards) long and over 100 meters (109 yards) wide. A small platform is situated in the center of the plaza.

This layout has led researchers to propose that the platforms surrounding the plaza functioned as stages where ritual drama was enacted for viewers within the plaza. These rituals were likely related to the "altars", monuments, and the stelae surrounding and within the plaza. These monuments, including Colossal Head 1, were of such a large size and were placed in such a position that they could convey their messages to many viewers at once.

Summary

The arrangement of the mounds, platforms, complexes, and monumental artifacts at La Venta created a unique civil and ceremonial center that, in the words of Rebecca Gonzalez-Lauck, constitutes "one of the earliest examples of large-scale ideological communications through the interaction of architecture and sculpture".

Monumental artifacts at La Venta

Colossal heads

Certainly the most famous of the La Venta monumental artifacts are the four colossal heads. Seventeen colossal heads have been unearthed in the Olmec area, four of them at La Venta, officially named Monuments 1 through 4.

Three of the heads—Monuments 2, 3, & 4—were found roughly 150 meters north of Complex A, which is itself just north of the Great Pyramid. These heads were in a slightly irregular row, facing north. The other colossal head—Monument 1 (shown at left) -- is a few dozen meters south of the Great Pyramid.

The La Venta heads are thought to have been carved by 700 BCE, but possibly as early as 850 BCE, 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 were able to move them. The major basalt quarry for the colossal heads at La Venta was found at Cerro Cintepec in the Tuxtla Mountains, over 80 km away.

Each of the heads wears headgear reminiscent of 1920s-style American 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 consensus is that the heads likely represent mighty Olmec rulers.



Altars 4 & 5

Seven basalt "altars" were found at La Venta, the most familiar being Altar 4 and Altar 5. These altars, roughly 2 meters high and twice as wide, both feature an elaborately dressed and sculpted figure on the center front.

The figure on Altar 4 is sitting inside what appears to be a cave or the mouth of a fantastic creature, holding a rope which wraps around the base of the altar to his right and left. On the left side, the rope is connected to a seated bas-relief figure. The right side is eroded away but is thought to be similar to the scene on the right.

The consensus today is that these "altars" are thrones on which the Olmec rulers were seated during important rituals or ceremonies. This leads many researchers to interpret the figure at the front of Altar 4 as a ruler, who is contacting or being helped by his ancestors, the figures on either side of the altar. Alternatively, some believe the side figures to be bound captives.

Altar 5 faces Altar 4 across Structure D-8 (one of the dozens of mounds at La Venta, the remains of platforms). Altar 5 is similar in design and size to Altar 4, except that the central figure holds an inert, perhaps dead, were-jaguar baby. The left side of Altar 5 features bas-reliefs of humans holding quite lively were-jaguar babies. Like the Altar 4, the right side of Altar 5 has been defaced.

Some have seen child sacrifice echoed in the limp were-jaguar baby on the front of Altar 5. Others, however, view the tableau as a myth of human emergence or as story of a spiritual journey.

Although less striking and displaying a lesser degree of craftmanship, Altars 2 and 3 are similar to Altars 4 and 5. They each show a central figure, one with a baby and one without, and they sit facing each other on the southern edge of the Great Pyramid.

Social structure

Little is known about the structure of La Venta society or about the Olmec state. From the size and diversity of La Venta, it is assumed that the society consisted of an elite class, a class of artisans, and a large pool of laborers and farmers who supported these classes.

It has been estimated that La Venta would need to be supported by a population of at least 18,000 people during its principal occupation.

Discovery and excavation

Monument 19, from La Venta, the earliest known representation of a feathered serpent in Mesoamerica.
Courtesy George & Audrey Delange
Frans Blom and Oliver La Farge made the first detailed descriptions of La Venta during their 1925 expedition, sponsored by Tulane Universitymarker.

La Venta was first 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.

Rebecca Gonzalez-Lauck led an INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia) team on digs here in the 1980s.

Threats to La Venta

On January 11, 2009, 23 ancient Olmec sculptures were vandalized, prompting Mexican legislators to draft legislation "that would increase fines and jail time for vandalism and looting of monuments and archaeological sites."

Notes

  1. Diehl 2004, p.81
  2. Coe et al. 1986, p.95
  3. Heizer 1968, p.10
  4. See Pool 2007, p.161; who references Joralemon, 1976.
  5. Somewhat contradictorily, Diehl says that "most archaeologists consider it an extremely stylized depiction of a . . . were-jaguar", but that "we do not know which end the Olmec considered the top" (Diehl 2004, p.73).
  6. Pool 2007, p.161
  7. Reilly 1994
  8. Diehl 2004, p.70
  9. The Stirling Acropolis is named in honour of Matthew Stirling, the archaeologist who first surveyed La Venta in the 1940s.
  10. Grove (1999, p.275) discusses ritual drama. Tate (2008, pp.32–37) makes the case that the monumental art itself recount a creation narrative.
  11. Gonzalez-Lauck 2001, p.800
  12. Coe et al. 1986, p.95
  13. Adams (2005, p.76) finds that, "examined carefully, these two people seem to be male and female and therefore the parents of the ruler, symbolically attached to him by umblical cords".
  14. Heizer 1968


See also



References



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