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Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture

Carolyn E. Tate
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    Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture
    Book Description:

    Recently, scholars of Olmec visual culture have identified symbols for umbilical cords, bundles, and cave-wombs, as well as a significant number of women portrayed on monuments and as figurines. In this groundbreaking study, Carolyn Tate demonstrates that these subjects were part of a major emphasis on gestational imagery in Formative Period Mesoamerica. InReconsidering Olmec Visual Culture, she identifies the presence of women, human embryos, and fetuses in monuments and portable objects dating from 1400 to 400 BC and originating throughout much of Mesoamerica. This highly original study sheds new light on the prominent roles that women and gestational beings played in Early Formative societies, revealing female shamanic practices, the generative concepts that motivated caching and bundling, and the expression of feminine knowledge in the 260-day cycle and related divinatory and ritual activities.

    Reconsidering Olmec Visual Cultureis the first study that situates the unique hollow babies of Formative Mesoamerica within the context of prominent females and the prevalent imagery of gestation and birth. It is also the first major art historical study of La Venta and the first to identify Mesoamerica's earliest creation narrative. It provides a more nuanced understanding of how later societies, including Teotihuacan and West Mexico, as well as the Maya, either rejected certain Formative Period visual forms, rituals, social roles, and concepts or adopted and transformed them into the enduring themes of Mesoamerican symbol systems.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-73549-1
    Subjects: Archaeology, Art & Art History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xx)
  5. Chapter 1 Rediscovering Women and Gestation in Olmec Visual Culture
    (pp. 1-16)

    Like a newborn himself, a man leans out of the dark orifice of a small cave, bearing an infant. Rising from his head is a conical headdress adorned with a lustrous jade carving of a human embryo’s face. From the mouth of the cave, he faces west toward a volcano. Outside the cave, two women and two men clutch a squirming toddler with strange, embryo-like features (Fig. 1.1). Nearby, around another eastward-facing cave opening, droplets of blood form flowers on long umbilical cords that descend from the sky. Out of this second cave emerges a man wearing the eagle headdress...

  6. Chapter 2 The Tale of the Were-Jaguar
    (pp. 17-34)

    This is the first of two chapters about the anthropomorphic image that is a key to the evolution of Formative period beliefs and our interpretations of them. For the sake of objectivity, at the outset of the chapter I refer to it as the “axe-image.” From tiny figurines to medallions to large axe-shaped stones to grand stelae, this image pervades Olmec sculpture (Fig. 2.1). It has numerous variations. These have been construed as a pantheon of deities, as representations of shamanic patrons, and as were-jaguars and other were-animals. Although several scholars have attempted to refute earlier interpretations and reframe the...

  7. Chapter 3 The Sowing and Dawning of the Human-Maize Seed
    (pp. 35-74)

    With the exception of the Olmec, no ancient society has made effigies of infants without mothers a prominent subject of sculpture. As I described in Chapter 1, hollow, life-size ceramic sculptures of babies have been known since the 1920s. Since then, dozens have been found, mostly broken, and bits of hundreds more appear among collections of ceramic sherds. Also since the 1920s, scholars have observed the presence of infants in compositions on monumental stone sculptures. Despite so many babies, there has been minimal inquiry as to where an attending adult might be, or what the babies might signify. The worldwide...

  8. Chapter 4 Tracking Gender, Gestation, and Narrativity Through the Early Formative
    (pp. 75-134)

    This chapter surveys the genesis of visual culture in Mesoamerica in a roughly chronological order.¹ The major periods—Archaic, Initial Formative, Early Formative, and Middle Formative—are discussed in three sections. Within each one, I focus on sites that have been excavated. These were selected for the significance of their contributions to visual culture, and I present them in an order determined by the beginning of the relevant archaeological phase (see Fig. 1.2). This means that a few places, such as San Lorenzo, are discussed in more than one section.

    Because other recent scholarship has insightfully addressed such issues as...

  9. Chapter 5 La Venta’s Buried Offerings: Women and Other Revelations
    (pp. 135-176)

    La Venta was just one of several places that flourished as San Lorenzo declined,¹ but during its apogee, about 500 bc, its users amassed a concentration of raw material, sculpture, and visual symbols that was unequalled at any other location. It is clear that the people who designed La Venta’s ritual landscape saw themselves as inheritors of the great traditions of El Manatí and San Lorenzo, and of the places, then only hazily known, where the ballgame became a metaphor for the mastery of generative forces. They built upon the foundations of earlier cultures by constructing a ritual-political center that...

  10. Chapter 6 Female Water and Earth Supernaturals: The Massive Offerings, Mosaic Pavements, and Mixe “Work of the Earth”
    (pp. 177-198)

    In Chapter 5, a close study of human figures and associated imagery revealed that several female figures were prominent in La Venta’s monumental art and in the pseudoburials. We also found an abundance of imagery of the unborn, primarily in monumental sculpture, but in caches as well. This chapter turns to the largest abstract sculptures of the site, the massive offerings and mosaic pavements, and considers what they might have represented, how these objects might have functioned, and why such enormous sculptures were undertaken (Fig. 6.1). In terms of method, it examines previous research and then couples a close scrutiny...

  11. Chapter 7 A Processional Visual Narrative at La Venta
    (pp. 199-214)

    Finally it is time to discover how, in its final phase, La Venta’s builders organized the visual landscape to create a complex message. The previous chapter introduced the small and large, buried and visible sculptures at La Venta in their chronological contexts. By interrogating their subject matter (a first-level analysis) and their syntactical arrangements as they were deliberately juxtaposed to other sculptures (a second-level analysis), we have been able to significantly enhance existing identifications. For one thing, due to Billie Follensbee’s work (2000), we know that the subject matter of La Venta’s sculptures includes several female agents. The female subjects—...

  12. Chapter 8 La Venta’s Creation and Origins Narrative
    (pp. 215-262)

    The previous chapters have discussed many of the graphic and plastic symbolic forms that Formative period Mesoamericans, from Tlapacoya to La Venta, developed, and how they organized these forms in significant assemblages. This chapter proposes that around 500 bc, the Olmec arrayed sculpture at La Venta in a manufactured environment to codify, in a limited way, a narrative regarding the generation and regeneration of the world and of the human–maize race, the proper modes of behavior of humans toward the earth, and the bestowal and ritual use of regalia for rulers and others. As we consider this ancient process...

  13. Chapter 9 A Scattering of Seeds
    (pp. 263-278)

    In the previous chapters I have attempted to facilitate further study of Formative period visual culture by synthesizing some relevant archaeological and art historical research. Because I think they are crucial to any theories about the formation of society and culture, urban development, and the transmission of knowledge and power, I have especially addressed two aspects of the 1400–400 bc millennium: the beginning and the end. In some detail and in a (still tentative) chronological sequence, I documented the appearance of imagery relating to women and the unborn in the Initial Formative and the consolidation of many ideas, practices,...

  14. Appendix 1. La Venta Monuments by Format
    (pp. 279-285)
  15. Appendix 2. Comparison of Mesoamerican Creation and Origins Narratives
    (pp. 286-295)
  16. Appendix 3. Shape-Shifters and Werewolves to Were-Jaguars: A Brief Chronology
    (pp. 296-298)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 299-308)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 309-326)
  19. Index
    (pp. 327-339)