The Colossal Heads of the Olmec

These 17 Sculpted Heads Are Now in Museums

Olmec Colossal Head
The sculpted heads created by the Olmec are indeed colossal in size. Photo by Maricarmen Ramirez

The Olmec civilization, which thrived along Mexico's Gulf Coast from about 1200 to 400 B.C., was the first major Mesoamerican culture. The Olmec were extremely talented artists, and their most lasting artistic contribution is without a doubt the enormous sculpted heads they created. These sculptures have been found at a handful of archaeological sites, including La Venta and San Lorenzo. Originally thought to depict gods or ballplayers, most archaeologists now say they believe they are likenesses of long-dead Olmec rulers.

The Olmec Civilization

The Olmec culture developed cities -- defined as population centers with political and cultural significance and influence -- as early as 1200 B.C. They were talented traders and artists, and their influence is quite clearly seen in later cultures like the Aztec and the Maya. Their sphere of influence was along Mexico's Gulf Coast -- particularly in the present-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco -- and major Olmec cities included San Lorenzo, La Venta and Tres Zapotes. By 400 B.C. or so their civilization had gone into steep decline and had all but disappeared.

The Olmec Colossal Heads

The Olmec's colossal sculpted heads show the head and face of a helmeted man with distinctly indigenous features. Several of the heads are taller than an average adult human male. The largest colossal head was discovered at La Cobata. It stands about 10 feet tall and weighs an estimated 40 tons.

The heads are generally flattened at the back and not carved all the way around -- they are meant to be viewed from the front and sides. Some traces of plaster and pigments on one of the San Lorenzo heads indicate that they may have once been painted. Seventeen Olmec colossal heads have been found: 10 at San Lorenzo, four at La Venta, two at ​Tres Zapotes and one at La Cobata.

Creating the Colossal Heads

The creation of these heads was a significant undertaking. The basalt boulders and blocks used to carve the heads were located as much as 50 miles away. Archaeologists suggest a laborious process of slowly moving the stones, using a ​combination of raw manpower, sledges and, when possible, rafts on rivers. This process was so difficult that there are several examples of pieces being carved from earlier works; two of the San Lorenzo heads were carved out of an earlier throne. Once the stones reached a workshop, they were carved using only crude tools such as stone hammers. The Olmec did not have metal tools, which makes the sculptures all the more remarkable. Once the heads were ready, they were moved into position, although it is possible that they were occasionally moved around to create scenes along with other Olmec sculptures.

Meaning

The exact meaning of the colossal heads has been lost to time, but over the years there have been several theories. Their sheer size and majesty immediately suggest that they represent gods, but this theory has been discounted because in general, Mesoamerican gods are depicted as more gruesome than humans, and the faces are obviously human.

The helmet/headdress worn by each of the heads suggests ballplayers, but most archaeologists today say they think they represented rulers. Part of the evidence for this is the fact that each of the faces has a distinct look and personality, suggesting individuals of great power and importance. If the heads had any religious significance to the Olmec, it has been lost to time, although many modern researchers say they think that the ruling class might have claimed a link to their gods.

Dating

It is almost impossible to pinpoint the exact dates when the colossal heads were made. The San Lorenzo heads were almost certainly all completed before 900 B.C. because the city went into steep decline at that time. Others are even more difficult to date; the one at La Cobata might be unfinished, and the ones at Tres Zapotes were removed from their original locations before their historical context could be documented.

Importance

The Olmec left behind many stone carvings that include reliefs, thrones and statues. There is also a handful of surviving wooden busts and some cave paintings in nearby mountains. Nevertheless, the most striking examples of Olmec art are the colossal heads.

The Olmec colossal heads are important historically and culturally to modern Mexicans. The heads have taught researchers much about the culture of the ancient Olmec. Their greatest value today, however, is probably artistic. The sculptures are truly amazing and inspirational and a popular attraction at the museums where they are housed. Most of them are in regional museums close to where they were found, while two are in Mexico City. Their beauty is such that several replicas have been made and can be seen around the world.