La Venta, Tabasco: a Study of Olmec Ceramics and Art

By Philip Drucker | Go to book overview

PART II: THE SCULPTOR'S ART

The battered potsherds from the occupational areas at La Venta represent the prosaic day-to-day life of the ancient inhabitants. Household wares, made for, used, and discarded in the daily round, give us little insight into the esthetic abilities of their makers. Yet the ceramics were made by the same group from whom came the artists who carved the massive monuments and the delicate jade objects. It is fortunate that in addition to the fact that the pottery and sculpture comes from the same one-horizon site, we have a few more precise cross ties: the occurrence of a few fragments of small jade and serpentine objects in the stratigraphic trenches (see p. 146), and the finding of a number of pottery vessels of wares represented in the tests and stratitrenches in the Ceremonial Court. The carvings of jade and other special materials from Complex A make it possible to round out the cultural picture on the esthetic side. The present chapter deals with the products of the sculptors and lapidaries of La Venta.

A glance suffices to assign a number of the jade objects to a Mesoamerican art style which for some time has been recognized as unique. This art has hitherto been known almost entirely from objects of jade and similar materials, and a few pottery pieces, for the most part of unknown provenience and never with clean-cut cultural associations. The La Venta series is the first to have been found with ceramic context. Nonetheless, a number of writers, including Beyer, Saville, Lothrop, Vaillant, and Covarrubias, have assembled enough of the stray pieces to enable them to define some of the outstanding features of the art style, and to lead them to suggest both a probable center for it in southern Veracruz, and a tentative ethnic association with the legendary Olmec.18 Thanks to these studies, the style has become well known enough so that traces of its influence have been recognized in materials from other cultures, as Lothrop has done, for example, in the case of certain Naranjo stelae ( Lothrop, 1941). Interest in the art style led to an archeological conference at Tuxtla Gutiérrez in 1942 on the Olmec, that is, an appraisal of the references to them in Mexican traditions, and what could be surmised of their culture from a study of the jade figurines attributed to them.19

____________________
18
See: Beyer, 1920, 1930; Saville, 1900, 1929; Vaillant, 1941; Caso, 1942; Covarrubias, 1942, 1943, 1944 a and b, and 1947.
19
"Mayas y Olmecas." See particularly the excellent stylistic definitions by Caso and Covarrubias (pp. 43 ff.; 46 ff.).

-152-

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