Prof. Mark Van Stone
The Colossal Heads of the Olmec:
The Colossal Heads of the Olmec (Fig. 1-1) are a set of stone sculptures that lay across several different locations in the cities of Western Mexico. These heads are found in the cities of La Venta, San Lorenzo, and Tres Zapotes, by the gulf region of Mexico where the ancient civilization of the Olmec used to thrive as early as 1500 BC. (Kleiner, 493-494). The remarkable carvings on such heavy stone could be of the Olmec people or one of their deity rulers, but much is unknown about who or what these carvings represent. What’s even more remarkable is just how the stone sculptures appear in the ruined cities considering the wet terrain and rivers of the region (Fig. 1-2), as well as the materials source, basalt stone, being located 50 miles away from their site. Archeologists believe that the transportation of these stones was a strenuous task that could’ve combined, “raw manpower, sledges, and when possible, rafts on rivers.” (Minster, “The Colossal Heads of the Olmec”).
The Olmec’s were known to be fascinating artists who made clay figurines and structures that were also painted as well as making carvings and sculptures. Carving and sculpting especially took talent considering the Olmec were a civilization who used primitive stone tools lacking metal ones, making the stone heads an artistically skillful feat. Because carving these large stones using primitive technology must have been time consuming, Minster notes that the heads are generally flattened and not carved all the way around and are meant to be seen from the front and sides.
Although we can identify how the sculpture was made, what material was used, and what culture it pertained to, we still don’t have a concrete idea as to what these sculptures represent or signify. Minster makes a reasonable and interesting guess, saying, “Their sheer size and majesty immediately suggest that they represent gods, but this theory has been discounted because in general, Mesoamerican gods are depicted as more gruesome than humans and the faces are obviously human.” And, “if the heads had any religious significance to the Olmec, it has been lost in time…” (Minster,…