The Cobata Colossal Head: An Unfinished Olmec Monument?

By Hammond, Norman | Antiquity, March 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Cobata Colossal Head: An Unfinished Olmec Monument?

Hammond, Norman, Antiquity

The discovery of the Cobata colossal head in 1970 brought the number of such Olmec monuments in the Gulf Coast heartland region to 15, added to those already known from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes (Clewlow et al. 1967; De La Fuente 1973). It was the largest known example, at 3.4 m high and with lateral dimensions of 3 m from back to front and side to side, `un enorme bloque petreo de superficies mas o menos redondeadas ... su aparencia no es, sin embargo, uniforme' (De La Fuente 1992: 106).

It was also the most unusual by comparison with the overall design range of the others, leading De La Fuente (1974: 56; 1992: 117) to conclude that `el diagnostico del estilo sugiere francamente la ubicacion tardia, no olmeca, de esta escultura excepcional' (although her 1973 catalogue includes it among the 204 Olmec pieces, not the 44 additional doubtfully Olmec ones). Cyphers (1996: 55) describes it as `different from the others in that the headdress is stylized, the eyes are closed and it has a peculiar mouth, features that make it lose the portrait-like quality of the other heads. The headdress, without design, is formed by a smooth horizontal band surrounding the upper part. The lack of realism is observed also in the flattened nose which lacks nostrils. Some specialists believe the head represents a deceased person' (cf. De La Fuente 1973: 125).

De La Fuente (1973: 124) notes that the archaeological context in which the head was found contained Late Classic period sherds, together with an even later offering in front of a Fine Orange plate and obsidian knife, hence her view that it is a late piece. There is, however, circumstantial evidence to suggest that the Cobata head is, like those from La Venta, San Lorenzo and Tres Zapotes, Olmec; and that the unusual features of its design are the result of its shaping and carving never having been completed (FIGURES 1 & 2 ).


The head was found on the side of the Cerro El Vigia, near Santiago Tuxtla in the Tuxtla Mountains of Veracruz (it now resides in the town's main plaza). The Tuxtlas area is the source of the olivine-augite basalts (Clewlow et al. 1967: 69-70; Williams & Heizer 1965) used for all the Olmec colossal heads, and those at La Venta and San Lorenzo were moved a considerable distance, most likely by water as far as was possible. The Cobata head is the closest to the source area: Williams & Heizer (1965) report that the rock from which Tres Zapotes CH 1 and Nestepe CH 1 were made (also known as Tres Zapotes Monuments A and Q, although the latter was found some 3 km north of the site) is from Cerro Vigia itself.

The reported find-spot of the Cobata head does not seem to have been a major site, in spite of the associated cultural material: the head could have been abandoned unfinished at source (supposing that colossal heads were completed, to lose unnecessary weight, at the quarry), or it could have been abandoned en route to its eventual destination. If the latter, its degree of incompletion would usefully demonstrate the extent to which the Olmec went to rough-out colossal heads, leaving most of the fine detail to be added at the destination; the asymmetry of the incompletion on the Cobata head does not, however, support this interpretation.

A striking feature of the Cobata head's shape is that it does not taper inwards below its greatest width, but sits squatly on the ground. On other heads, removal of the rock surface around and then below the earflares to leave them in low relief has created a slight taper towards the base, a feature absent on the Cobata head. Some irregularity of the surface just above the base, visible especially on the chin, suggests an unfinished area, as does the asymmetry of the recessed area below the mouth, where the left side is more finished than the right. The Cobata monument also lacks the flattened back of many of the other heads, which were recarved from rectangular block thrones (Porter 1989; whether a deceased ruler's throne was recycled to form his funerary portrait as a deified ancestor, or whether the incoming ruler had his life-mask carved from his precursor's vacant throne, are matters beyond this short note).

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