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The Olmec Culture: Monuments, Masterpieces, and Mysteries

All-Day Program

Saturday, December 9, 2017 - 9:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.
Code: 1M2937

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Olmec head in La Venta Archaeological Park, Villahermosa, Mexico

The Olmec culture flourished in several civic and ceremonial centers along the Gulf of Mexico more than 3,000 years ago, from 1500 to 400 B.C. Best known for their carvings of colossal stone heads, the Olmec were masters of monumental sculpture, and also produced an array of other distinctive artworks in stone, ceramic, wood, and jade. Their civilization also provides some of the earliest evidence of urban planning and systems of numbering and glyphic writing in North America.

George L. Scheper, senior lecturer in advanced academic programs at Johns Hopkins University, provides a cultural overview of these Olmec achievements.

9:30­­­–10:45 a.m.  The Discovery

Following reports of accidental discoveries of colossal stone heads found buried at several sites on the Gulf Coast, American ethnologist and archaeologist Matthew Stirling undertook excavations in the 1930s and ’40s that made clear that a major new civilization had been identified. Controversy raged over the matter of dating, until it was confirmed that the Olmec civilization, as it was named, was indeed older than that of the Aztec or the Maya, and may well have been the "mother culture" of all Mesoamerican civilizations.

11 a.m.–12:15 p.m.  The Olmec World: San Lorenzo and La Venta

Systematic study has focused on several urbanized Olmec centers. San Lorenzo, perhaps Mesoamerica’s first city, flourished in the 10th century B.C. Along with an aqueduct system and a number of colossal stone heads, sculpture at San Lorenzo included princely human figures and depictions of human-jaguar spirit beings. La Venta, which thrived from 900–500 B.C, was the Olmec's greatest urban center, with an elaborate plan involving plazas and pyramids, prestigious burial chambers, monumental stone mosaic formations that were deliberately buried, and spectacular stone sculpture in the round and in relief.

12:15–1:30 p.m.  Lunch (participants provide their own)

1:30–2:45 p.m. Masterpieces of Art and Iconography

A closer look at some of the most intriguing individual artworks of the Olmec reveals a rich iconography of regal and spirit-being symbolism. Objects range from three-dimensional stone sculptures and wooden figurines to relief-carved stelae and beautifully inscribed jade artifacts, including some of the earliest evidences of systems of numbering and of glyphic writing in Mesoamerica.

3­–4:15 p.m. A Civilization in Context

Controversy has re-emerged concerning the relationship of the Gulf Coast Olmec to other Mesoamerican cultures of the Formative Era. Were the Olmec indeed Mesoamerica's "mother culture," or were there in fact other very early "sister-cultures" flourishing in Mexico and Central America? From cliff carvings at Chalcatzingo, cave paintings in Guerrero, and an intriguing new site called Teopanticuanitlán, we can trace a broad arc of Olmecoid style, throwing new light on the earliest beginnings of Maya civilization in Guatemala and of Zapotec culture in Oaxaca.

World Art History Certificate elective: Earn 1 credit


S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)