Olmec Art and the Olmec Head
Though little is known about the Olmec culture, they were the
dominant Mesoamerican culture in Preclassic period, which lasted from
1200-200 B.C. The Olmecs reached their height from 700-400 B.C., and
they lived along the Gulf of Mexico, in the modern Mexican states of
Tabasco and Veracruz. Much more is known about their cultural
descendants, the Aztecs and Maya, who inherited platform mounds, city
layout, plazas, ball courts, hieroglyphic writing, art and many other
cultural institutions from the Olmecs.
The Olmecs wrote in hieroglyphics and devised an early calendar.
Their cities were built around great temples. In their religious system,
the jaguar was the sacred animal, both loved and feared by the
inhabitants. The jaguar cult was associated with the rain god and
fertility. La Venta, one of the Olmec's main cities, was built in a
swampy area of modern Tabasco. Nearly eighteen thousand lived nearby.
Its ceremonial center contained a large temple pyramid. It was destroyed
around 400 B.C.
Most known about them through their art, which was naturalistic and
symbolic. It inspired by mythology and religion. One religious belief
was that a woman and a jaguar together produced a race with the
characteristics of both, and masks were made reflecting this belief. The
lips of these masks were often down-turned and snarling in feline
fashion. They also made jade figurines, massive stone sculptures and
other stone and Olmec art objects. Small pieces have "baby face" characteristics and
chubby bodies, suggestive of infants or eunuchs. The famous "Olmec
head" was produced many times in different sizes. They may be
portraits of rulers or chiefs or the heads of ball-game players. They
appear to be wearing a helmet and have African or Asian features. One,
made of basalt, is nine feet tall and weighs forty tons.
Baquedano, Elizabeth. Aztec, Inca and Maya (New York: Alfred
A. Knopf, 1993).
Fairfield, Sheila. Peoples and Nations of the Americas
(London: Young Library Ltd, 1987).
Meyer, Michael C. and William L. Sherman. The Course of Mexican
History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).
Click Here to View our Selection of Olmec Art
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