"Walk Among Giants: BATW Private Tour of Olmec Art at the de Young" — by Sandy Sims

Walking Among Giants:
BATW members’ private tour of Olmec Art at the de Young
by Sandy Sims
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Colossal Olmec Head 5, 1200–900 BC. Museo de Antropologia de Xalapa, Universidad Veracruzana
Colossal Olmec Head 5, 1200–900 BC. Museo de Antropologia de Xalapa, Universidad Veracruzana

It seems no art exhibit is too rare, too distant or too colossal for San Francisco’s de Young Museum. In a little over a year’s time, the de Young brought us the stunning King Tut exhibit from Egypt, the extraordinary Impressionist art from the Orsay Museum in Paris, and now we can walk among the masterworks of the Olmec peoples—art that dates back to 1200-900 BC, including two of the famous 17 colossal heads. BATW members enjoyed a private docent tour of the exhibit on March 12.
After docent Marsha Holm’s brief overview, we headed for the gallery. There at the exhibit entrance, sat Colossal Head 5 (two-and-a-half tons of basalt and volcanic rock and six-feet tall). His almond-shaped eyes, thick down-turned lips and broad nose exuded power; his features conjured parts of the jaguar—the shape of his mouth, his cleft head, and the paws at the edges of his helmet. One couldn’t help but be bowled over by this enormous head and impressed that it was carried all the way from Mexico.
Impressive as these colossal heads are, little is known about the people who created them. No written record exists about the Olmecs. They are, however, recognized as America’s oldest civilization and considered the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica. Archeologists call the region they inhabited Olman (derived from the Aztec word Olin, which means land of rubber), hence the name Olmec. Archeologists believe the Olmecs used rubber balls during ritual games, and surprisingly, some fifteen 3,000-year-old, original balls still exist. Docent Marsha Holm explained that none of the rubber balls could make the trip to the de Young because of problems with preservation.
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Archaeologists study a monumental stone head discovered at the La Venta site in Tabasco State, Mexico. (photo © Richard Hewitt Stewart / National Geographic Stock)
Archaeologists study a monumental stone head discovered at the La Venta site in Tabasco State, Mexico. (photo © Richard Hewitt Stewart / National Geographic Stock)

The discovery of Olmec artifacts came quite by accident in the late 1850s. A farm worker was clearing land in Veracruz when he uncovered the first colossal head. Imagine the shock at finding such an enormous sculpture just under his feet. To date, 17 colossal heads—some weighing up to 24 tons—have been found in the ground, as if they were placed there in some burial ritual. Initially, some speculated that because of the helmets carved into the heads, these were ball players, but today scholars believe the heads represent rulers. Why they were buried is still a mystery. What’s also remarkable about the heads is that the enormous boulders from which they were carved came from other locations and had to be transported to their burial spot, in some cases dozens of miles.
Archeologists speculate that the boulders were floated on rafts up the nearby river or dragged across land, an undertaking that would have required some 1,500 men three or four months. Visitors can watch a film about transporting possibilities at the exhibit. The two heads in the de Young exhibit are: Monument Q (eight tons) from Tres Zapotes, carved from a porphyritic basalt; and Head 5 (six-and-a-half tons) from San Lorenzo––discovered in 1946.
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Monument 1 (seated figure), 1200–900 BC. Museo de Antropologia de Xalapa, Universidad Veracruzana (Reg. 49 P.J. 4023). Object photos: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes–Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia–Mexico–Javier Hinojosa
Monument 1 (seated figure), 1200–900 BC. Museo de Antropologia de Xalapa, Universidad Veracruzana (Reg. 49 P.J. 4023). Object photos: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes–Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia–Mexico–Javier Hinojosa

While the colossal heads are by far the most awe-inspiring artwork of the Olmecs, the de Young exhibit includes over 100 artifacts, some of them very small. For instance a two-inch jadeite art piece with intricate carvings; smooth face-size masks; ear rings; large full-body sculptures representing what is thought to be Olmec rulers (twins); an 8-foot tall, imposing female figure carved inside a niche; mammoth thrones; and much more. Amazingly, this era predates metal tools. The Olmecs used hard rock, water and sand to create their art.
The de Young exhibit is divided by region, according to where the treasures were originally discovered in south-central Mexico in what are today the states of Veracruz and Tabasco.
Archeologists and scholars continue to probe Olmec artifacts to understand this little known and mysterious culture. They’ve found evidence of an aqueduct system, as well as a calendar. Jadeite figures and other rare stones show that the Olmecs traded with distant cultures. One grouping of small, carved men with various head shapes suggest the Olmecs practiced ritual head molding. The frequent inclusion of jaguar-like features in the art suggests the jaguar was an important deity. According to docent Marsha Holm, Richard Diehl, Ph.D., is the foremost authority on Olmec culture.  He’s written several books on the subject.
The exhibit shows some of what has been unearthed of this civilization, both from the land and from scholarly study. There is much to learn strolling among the artifacts and reading the panels. But the work of discovering the story of the Olmec civilization continues.
Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico will continute through May 8, 2011.
For photos and more press information on the Olmec exhibit BATW members can contact Robin Wander at rwander@famsf.org.
— Sandy Sims[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

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