Mysteries Carved in Stone

The name “Olmec” (or “rubber people”) was given to the oldest-known culture in the Americas almost 2,000 years after that culture had disappeared, and was accepted by scholars only in 1932. We have no idea what these people of what is now eastern Mexico, just inland from the Gulf at its southernmost point, called themselves. In fact, we know almost nothing about them, except that they seem to have endured from about 2,000 to 400 B.C.

What we do know, or think we know, comes almost entirely from the carved stone monuments and other artifacts that outlived them underground, because stone does not rot. The first—one of those colossal heads for which the Olmec are famous—was found by a Mexican farmer in 1850 and made known to the world in 1869. Not until 1942 was it publicly asserted that the Olmec was the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica (i.e., Mexico plus Central America).

Seventeen huge heads (c. 1400-1000 B.C.) have been discovered so far, in four sites within a 90-mile range, measuring from just under five feet to just over 11 feet tall and weighing (it is estimated) as much as 50 tons. One archaeologist has figured that it took 1,500 people three or four months to move an apppropriate boulder from its source in the mountains to its designated location. With presumably less effort, two of the smaller heads were hauled up from their homeland to Los Angeles, where they are the stars of the first major museum exhibition outside of Mexico devoted to the “people of Olman” and their art.

Olmec head, 1200-900 B.C

The two great heads are set up at the front and the back of the light-filled central space of the new Resnick Pavilion at LACMA, atop brown cubistic concrete platforms designed by Michael Heizer—who knows something about colossal sculpture. Although the curators claim to discern individual features in each of the heads, suggesting that each represents a different ruler, I see an obsessive urge in the Olmec sculptors to make each one alike—a bullet-shaped mound, topped by a tight cap, beneath which flaring brows; huge popping, lidded eyes; a squashed nose; and fat, down-drooping lips convey an image at once all-powerful and either snarling or sad. All sorts of things (including jaguars and African origins) have been read into these features. But they may represent nothing more than a simple way to create a human face by grinding stone against stone, creating features related to those of Mexican Indians today.

Large, deeply carved rectangular basalt blocks, long thought to be altars, are now regarded as thrones. Another impressive set of stone carvings represents creatures sitting cross-legged, resting their hands before them. Some wear loincloths, some elaborate headdresses. What they represent, I have no idea—but I find myself staring at them as they stare back at me, across 3,000 years. You will find the same loincloths (along with leather helmets and the shoulder, hip and knee pads of modern football players) on figures representing ball players as well. For some reason, a kind of hip-hit volleyball (without a net) became an important ritual entertainment throughout Mexico in ancient times. The exhibition includes one of a number of solid rubber balls found in a swamp. They could be the size of a volleyball but 15 times heavier—hence the protective pads.

Glass cases are filled with carved stone masks and small figurines (usually tomb finds), carefully carved in minerals like jadeite and greenstone, as well as dozens of elongated ovoid polished ritual axes called “celts” (bloodletting was practiced, but not with these), as meticulously positioned in the cases as they were in the tombs.

This sunwashed show—which leaves welcome space between exhibits and extends into two side wings at the north—is enhanced by two colorful wall murals, in which contemporary artists have tried to reconstruct, in bright colors and enlarged dimensions, two long-faded cave paintings with Olmec motifs from elsewhere in Mexico.

If I had to chose a single exhibit to convey the mystery and power of this exhibition, it would be a group of 15 bald, high-headed jadeite and serpentine male figurines seven inches tall, all facing a leader-spokesman made of granite—one thinks of Christ and his apostles—who stands against a fence made of six 10-inch-long celts carved of serpentine. The wonder is that, once created and positioned, this whole group was carefully buried beneath many layers of multicolored sand at La Venta, sometime between 900 and 400 B.C. Sometime later, it was uncovered and covered up again. In 1955, it was once again unearthed, and put on display in Mexico City. As with almost all Olmec art, no one has any idea what it means. But the 15 disciples still surround and attend to their leader, after 2,500 or 3,000 years.

Mr. Littlejohn writes about West Coast events for the Journal.


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