Thursday morning we began our day with a trip to the La Venta Archaeology Site just outside of Villahermosa. We were surprised to see that in addition to carving the colossal stone heads, the Olmec were also very skilled in carving tiny sculptures of people and children. One of the most interesting, to me, was the leg of what archaeologists assume to be a child with Down Syndrome. The docent said that the Olmec revered people with this syndrome because they believed they had a unique intellect that was a gift from the gods.
Out in the actual site we found replicas of several heads and other noteworthy sculptures. The figures were discovered in the 1930’s, but oil was discovered shortly thereafter. The rigs apparently took priority over the cultural significance of the site, and archaeologists managed to salvage a few pieces before the blasting began. The site has since been restored as much as possible, but the original pieces have been transplanted to other museums around the country in order to keep them safe. As the oil underneath La Venta dries up and rigs move to off-shore drilling, perhaps the site can be properly excavated and rehabilitated so that we can someday see the extent of this very ancient civilization.
My favorite head--the only one that's smiling!
From there, we drove several hours to the site of the cradle of the Olmec civilization—San Lorenzo. We came to a road that said “No hay paso,” (no thru traffic) and I thought we were out of luck. Apparently, in Mexico, the word “no” does not always mean “no,” and our driver asked a very kind man with an assault rifle (who must’ve been guarding the road, although he had no uniform) if we could go through. The answer was yes, and we began our trek down a very long stretch of road that was under construction. The road was one-lane and we drove for what seemed like hours, speeding up, slowing down, running into pot holes and over topes (bumps), past men working and riding horses, until we finally came to a town.
Asking for directions in the Mexican countryside is a rather interesting affair. Many people, who know the area like the backs of their hands--and don’t understand why you don’t--will generally tell you, with a wave of their hand, “Go here, go there, when you cross the bump, go straight, past the white building [of course, there are several white buildings], and you’ll see it over there.” We zig-zagged our way through town and eventually ended up on another stretch of dirt road filled again with pot holes and construction equipment, one lane bridges, and farmers on horseback.
Finally, we pulled into the town of San Lorenzo Tenochtítlan and walked up to the museum. The museum was simple, but contained several incredibly exciting pieces. This was the site of the 10th head found—a head with so much detail it is uncanny! Also at this site were figures of animals such as jaguars and birds, which showed the obvious influence on Maya culture (since Olmec culture predates the Maya). My favorite artistic piece, however, is called “Cabeza mutiliada,” which means, “The mutilated head.” This piece shows how the Olmec re-used artwork to create new pieces. To me, it is almost a surrealist piece, but I guess we’ll never truly know the artist’s intention.
In talking with the docent, we discovered that there was still a piece at the original site—an altar that had been left in a farmer’s field that was likely close to 3000 years old. Being the aspiring archaeologists we are, we decided we would venture out and take a look.
Down another long dirt road, we parked the car when it appeared to be muddy enough to get stuck, found some farmers coming back from the field, and asked for directions. They kept their composure, but inside I can guarantee they were wondering what in the world two gringas from the United States would be doing all the way out in the middle of nowhere looking for a 3000 year old rock that they see every day.
“Up over the hill, about 200 meters, you’ll come to an opening in the fence. You take a right and go down a little more, and it’s over there.”
Ah, there go the directions again! Ha, ha!
We went about 200 meters, and crawled through a barbed-wire fence, thinking we had found the area. Tromping up and down hills, jumping over small creeks, and keeping our eyes always on the random cows, we searched high and low for the altar. When we couldn’t find it where we were, we returned to the dirt road and began walking further. We were debating about taking our chances climbing into a field with cows and bulls (with very large horns), when some more farmers came by on horseback and we asked them for directions. They were kind enough to actually take us to the now infamous altar, deep in a field still at least a hundred meters from where we had considered entering.
We paid the men “una coca” (which means “10 pesos,” because a Coke costs that much) and stared in awe. There it lay, down in the ground. A large, flat stone slab. Most people would think we were absolutely crazy for searching high and low through mud and barbed-wire fencing to find this piece, but to us it was worth it. This altar was close to 3000 years old, and we were part of an exclusive group of people who have gone the length to see it. What happened on that altar? Did they sacrifice humans or animals, or both? What was the purpose? And what else lies deep under these fields, now so lush and fertile? What could we learn about Mesoamerica’s first civilization from studying this area?