Monday, April 11, 2011

Museum Visit: Olmec Exhibition at DeYoung

The Olmecs are widely thought the first major civilization of the Americas, first rising sometime in the second millennium BC. They ruled over what is now southeastern Mexico, along the Gulf coast. Their three main cities were Tres Zapotes, La Venta and San Lorenzo (near the latter-day Tenochtitlan, today's Mexico City), all abandoned by 400 BC. They are known mostly for their huge rock monuments, and the controversy over their origins.

The DeYoung exhibition featured several major Olmec works. Most were figures of people and animals, or narratives of historical scenes and traditional ceremonies, with some rare female images. The most imposing were the Olmec Heads, meters high, weighing many tons, carved in volcanic basalt stone. There were also axes, mirrors in magnetite, clean shell pendants of Jadeite and a pair of twinned figures in Andesite rock. The figures were of a man and beast combination. Many of the figures showed the cranial deformation (shaping) practiced by the Olmecs; the maize cob thought the right shape for the human head. Some stone carvings related to the ballgames they played, and were deeded to the later civilizations such as the Mayas, Toltecs and Aztecs. The art also included ceramic slip-painted with pigment.

Olmec works remained static through the centuries, with little change in style or substance. Their strong belief in the supernatural is likely one reason. Many of their inventions, such as the long-count calendrical system and hieroglyphs, would be adopted by other Mexican cultures. Ethnically, they are considered the same stock that came in via the Siberian bridge and spread south.

While the art impresses with its sophistication relative to what has been excavated elsewhere in the Americas for the same period, it is, in technique, variety and dynamism, not there with the art of the civilizations close to the Mediterranean shores, such as Mesopotamia and Egypt. Lack of metal tools, a smaller population, and no form of writing seem to have held back the Olmecs.

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