Monument 3 from la Blanca, Guatemala: A Middle Preclassic Earthen Sculpture and Its Ritual Associations

Article excerpt


Among the many artistic achievements of ancient Mesoamerica, none is more notable than the long-standing sculptural tradition. Ancient Mesoamerican sculptors worked in a variety of media, including stone, wood, stucco and clay. Works of perishable materials are rarely found archaeologically, except in cases of extraordinary preservation, such as at Cerro Manati, Veracruz (Ortiz & Rodriguez 1999; 2000).

During the 2004 season a remarkable sculpture was discovered at La Blanca, in Pacific Guatemala (Figure 1). Dating to the early Middle Preclassic period (c. 900-400 BC), the work is notable in several respects. First, it is one of only a handful of earthen sculptures from ancient Mesoamerica, and the earliest known example. Second, it provides dramatic evidence of rituals associated with rulership in Middle Preclassic Mesoamerica. Third, it is the earliest known example of the quatrefoil motif in Mesoamerican art. Moreover, Monument 3 provides an opportunity to examine the validity of oppositions such as public/private, ritual/utilitarian and Great Tradition/Little Tradition in the archaeology of Mesoamerica and other regions.

Physical characteristics of Monument 3

La Blanca Monument 3 (Figure 2) takes the form of a quatrefoil, clover-leaf or flower with four petals, which was created by sculpting compacted earth, a process observed in other artefacts at the site. Once complete, the monument was given a finishing coat of fine, dark (nearly black) clay, and the interior ring was painted red with hematite.


The monument is 2.1 m in diameter and consists of five parts: two rings, a channel, the interior rim and a basin (Figure 3). Ring 1 was originally a complete circle, 10cm wide; as discovered a small part of the south-eastern part of the outer ring was missing. Ring 2 is also a complete circle, but with four points that incline toward the centre and divide the monument into four parts. The channel, actually four separate channels, lies between Ring 2 and the interior rim. The highest location of each channel lies halfway between the points and the lowest locations are at the extremes, where the channels join the basin. The inner rim consists of four arcs that run between the points of Ring 2, forming the interior sides of the channels. The centre of the monument is a slightly concave basin approximately 10cm deep, measured from the top of the inner rim, with the centre 3-5cm deeper than the edges.



The archaeological context of La Blanca Monument 3

La Blanca (Figure 4) was one of the largest Middle Preclassic sites of ancient Mesoamerica, arising as a regional centre in 900 BC and maintaining its prominence for over 300 years. That 300-year period is defined as the Conchas phase, which can be divided into four sub-phases on the basis of stratigraphy and changes in pottery (Love 2002). The site covered over 200ha at its peak and boasted some of the earliest monumental architecture in Mesoamerica. Mound 1, built c. 900 BC was one of the first pyramidal temples in Mesoamerica, standing over 25m tall and measuring 150 x 90m at its base (Love et al. 2005).


Monument 3 was found on the western slope of Mound 9, which is part of an elite residential precinct on a ridge east of Mound 1. Between Mound 9 and Mound 1 lies a sunken plaza which measures approximately 40 x 100m. Excavations conducted in Mound 9, designated as Operation 32 (Figure 5), were undertaken as part of a study of household ritual and economy whose goal is to understand the economic and ideological changes that took place during the expansion of social complexity. The domestic refuse, burials and hearths found within Operation 32 indicate that Mound 9 represents the remains of an elite residence (Love et al. 2006). The ceramics from Operation 32 indicate that the monument was built and used during the Conchas C sub-phase, c. …