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Olmec People, Olmec Art March 28, 2005
by Mark Rose

A large-scale collaborative project looks at Mesoamerican pottery sources.


A panoramic view of the site of Etlatongo (Courtesy Jeffrey Blomster) [LARGER IMAGE]

The Olmec, a complex society that arose in the lowlands of Mexico's Gulf Coast about 1200 B.C. have often been called Mesoamerica's first civilization. As such, the Olmec, best known for their enigmatic giant stone heads, figuratively stand at the head of the array of later Mesoamerican civilizations--Toltec, Maya, Aztec, and others.

Archaeologists have, since the nineteenth century, identified "cultures" or "people" or "folk" in the past based on recurring groupings of artifact types, building methods, funerary rituals, and artistic styles. This is convenient for discussing finds, especially in terms of geographical distribution or changes over the course of time. But in using this approach, there is a risk of identifying pots with people--that the appearance of a particular type of pot or tool or burial custom in an area means that people from elsewhere have brought that with them. The "movement" of pots can equally be explained as from trade, from the spread of manufacturing techniques, and the like, as from the movement of people.


In the case of the Olmec, the lowland people need to be kept distinct from the artistic style and iconography package that also goes by the name Olmec. That package includes pottery vessels with thick, excised designs, and hollow "baby" figurines with distinct Olmec features. Such items have been found at sites throughout Mesoamerica. Today, archaeologists can use neutron activation analysis (NAA) to fingerprint the source of pottery, and that's what Jeffrey Blomster of George Washington University, Hector Neff of Cal State-Long Beach, and Michael D. Glasock of University of Missouri did in a project recently reported in the journal Science.

They wanted to determine, if possible, if Olmec-style pottery all came from one area, from many areas equally, or some combination. This required a large number of samples from many sites, which the team was able to assemble through the generous cooperation of colleagues at Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico's federal archaeological agency, and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. In all, over 1,000 ceramic artifacts were tested along with another 275 samples from clay sources throughout the region.

Left, an example of Conejo Orange-on-White pottery from Etlatongo. Analysis reveals this vessel was produced with clay from the Olmec site of San Lorenzo, Veracruz. Center, an Olmec-style design on a vessel that analysis shows was made locally at Etlatongo. Right, an Olmec-style design on a grayware bowl that was manufactured by the Olmec at San Lorenzo and exported to Etlatongo, where it was discovered. (Courtesy Jeffrey Blomster)

What they found was that white-ware and vessels with Olmec-style iconography made at San Lorenzo and other large Gulf Coast centers occurs at sites throughout Mesoamerica. Interestingly, nobody at non-Olmec centers was exporting their Olmec-style pottery; they received the genuine stuff and copied it but that's all. For example, at Etlatongo, a site in the mountains northwest of the Oaxaca Valley, they received pottery from Olmec centers and local Mixtec potters copied it, but they didn't bring in copies of Olmec-style ceramics that were being made in the nearby Oaxaca Valley. This suggests to Blomster and his co-authors that the Olmec packaged and exported their beliefs throughout the region in the form of specialized ceramic designs and forms, which quickly became hallmarks of elite status in various regions of ancient Mexico.

Blomster, who excavates at Etlatongo and is author of Etlatongo: Social Complexity, Interaction and Village Life in the Mixteca Alta, Mexico (Wadsworth 2004), spoke with ARCHAEOLOGY about these findings. "Many of us--myself included--just accepted without the kind of robust data we should have had that places like Oaxaca exported their versions of the Olmec style to other parts of Mesoamerica," he says. "And of course, our research debunks that. Perhaps if we sampled thousands more sherds from San Lorenzo, we would find a pot that came from outside the Gulf Coast, but it would be fairly insignificant in light of the pattern we report in our Science article."

[image] Jeffrey Blomster documents burials in a storage pit at Etlatongo. (Courtesy Jeffrey Blomster) [LARGER IMAGE]

The means and reasons for the movement of Olmec-style objects, and what motivated the local copying of them, are not certain. "This probably varies for each region," says Blomster. "Also, we have to be careful not to put the possibilities into mutually exclusive categories. We have to acknowledge that the exporters (the Olmec) and the receivers may have had very different interests in the system. I think we have to move beyond a purely economic model; for the Olmec, this involved more than simply acquiring raw materials from other regions in Mesoamerica. The fact that it involves ceramic vessels which display iconography, representing an underlying ideology and religion synthesized by the Gulf Coast Olmec, suggests that something much deeper is at stake than simply maintaining exchange relationships."

Although the new study points to importance of the Olmec in the development of Mesoamerican civilizations, it does not mean that the Olmec "created" them. "We know that throughout Mesoamerica, the Olmec interacted with groups who had already achieved some kind of socio-political complexity," says Blomster. "These groups, such as those in Oaxaca, were probably already at the chiefdom level. We believe while the Olmec were more socio-politically complex--as the Red Palace discovered by Ann Cyphers at San Lorenzo indicates--we simply cannot say they somehow created these cultures. Impact, yes; created, no."

Mark Rose is executive and online editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America