The Olmec City of La Venta

Olmec Colossal Head, La Venta. Sculptor Unknown

La Venta Archaeological Site:

The La Venta is an archaeological site in the Mexican State of Tabasco. At the site are the partially excavated ruins of an Olmec city which thrived from approximately 900-400 B.C. before being abandoned and reclaimed by the jungle. La Venta is a very important Olmec site and many interesting and significant artifacts have been found there, including four of the famous Olmec colossal heads.

The Olmec Civilization:

The Ancient Olmec were the first major civilization in Mesoamerica, and as such are considered the "parent" culture of other societies that came later, including the Maya and Aztec. They were gifted artists and sculptors who are best remembered today for their massive colossal heads. They were also talented engineers and traders. They had a well-developed religion and interpretation of the cosmos, complete with gods and mythology. Their first great city was San Lorenzo, but the city declined and around 900 A.D. the center of Olmec civilization became La Venta. For centuries, La Venta spread Olmec culture and influence throughout Mesoamerica. When La Venta's glory faded and the city declined around 400 B.C., Olmec culture died with it, although a post-Olmec culture thrived at the site of Tres Zapotes. Even once the Olmec were gone, their gods, beliefs and artistic styles survived in other Mesoamerican cultures whose turn for greatness was yet to come.

La Venta at its Peak:

From about 900 to 400 A.D., La Venta was the greatest city in Mesoamerica, far greater than any of its contemporaries. A man-made mountain towered over the ridge at the heart of the city where priests and rulers carried out elaborate ceremonies. Thousands of common Olmec citizens labored tending crops in the fields, catching fish in the rivers or moving great blocks of stone to the Olmec workshops for carving.

Skilled sculptors produced colossal heads and thrones weighing many tons as well as finely polished jadeite celts, axe heads, beads and other pretty things. Olmec traders crossed Mesoamerica from Central America to the Valley of Mexico, returning with bright feathers, jadeite from Guatemala, cacao from the Pacific coast and obsidian for weapons, tools and adornments. The city itself covered an area of 200 hectares and its influence spread much further.

The Royal Compound:

La Venta was built on a ridge alongside the Palma River. At the top of the ridge are a series of complexes collectively referred to as the "Royal Compound" because it is believed that the ruler of La Venta lived there with his family. The royal compound is the most important part of the site and many important objects have been unearthed there. The royal compound - and the city itself - is dominated by Complex C, a man-made mountain built of many tons of earth. It was once pyramidal in shape, but the centuries - and some unwelcome interference from nearby oil operations in the 1960's - have turned Complex C into a shapeless hill. On the northern side is Complex A, a burial ground and important religious area (see below).

On the other side, Complex B is a large area where thousands of common Olmecs could gather to witness ceremonies taking place on Complex C. The royal compound is completed by the Stirling Acropolis, a raised platform with two mounds: it is believed that the royal residence was once located here.

Complex A:

Complex A is bordered on the south by Complex C and on the north by three massive colossal heads, clearly setting this area aside as a privileged zone for the most important citizens of La Venta. Complex A is the most complete ceremonial center to have survived from Olmec times and the discoveries made there redefined modern knowledge of the Olmec. Complex A was evidently a sacred place where burials took place (five tombs have been found) and people gave gifts to the gods. There are five "massive offerings" here: deep pits filled with serpentine stones and colored clay before being topped with serpentine mosaics and earthen mounds.

Numerous smaller offerings have been found, including a set of figurines known as small dedicatory offering four. Numerous statues and stonecarvings were located here.

Scuplture and Art at La Venta:

La Venta is a treasure trove of Olmec art and sculpture. At least 90 stone monuments have been discovered there including some of the most important pieces of Olmec art. Four colossal heads – out of a total of seventeen known to exist – were discovered here. There are several massive thrones at La Venta: huge blocks of stone brought from many miles away, carved on the sides and meant to be sat or stood upon by rulers or priests. Some of the more important pieces include Monument 13, nicknamed “the Ambassador,” which may contain some of the earliest glyphs recorded in Mesoamerica and Monument 19, a skillful depiction of a warrior and a feathered serpent. Stela 3 shows two rulers facing one another while 6 figures – spirits? – swirl overhead.

Decline of La Venta:

Ultimately La Venta's influence petered out and the city went into decline around 400 B.C. Eventually the site was abandoned altogether and reclaimed by the jungle: it would remain lost for centuries. Fortunately, the Olmecs covered up much of Complex A with clay and earth before the city was abandoned: this would preserve important objects for discovery in the twentieth century. With the fall of La Venta, Olmec civilization faded as well. It survived somewhat in a post-Olmec phase referred to as the Epi-Olmec: the center of this age was the city of Tres Zapotes. The Olmec people did not all die out: their descendants would return to greatness in the Classic Veracruz culture.

Importance La Venta:

The Olmec culture is very mysterious yet very important for archaeologists and modern-day researchers. It is mysterious because, having disappeared over 2,000 years ago, much information about them has been irrevocably lost. It is important because as the "parent" culture of Mesoamerica, its influence on the later development of the region is immeasurable.

La Venta, along with San Lorenzo, Tres Zapotes and El Manatí, is one of the four most important Olmec sites known to exist. The information gleaned from Complex A alone is priceless. Although the site isn't particularly spectacular for tourists and visitors - if you want breathtaking temples and buildings, go to Tikal or Teotihuacán - any archaeologist will tell you it's just as important.

Sources:

Coe, Michael D and Rex Koontz. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. 6th Edition. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2008

Diehl, Richard A. The Olmecs: America's First Civilization. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004.

Gonzalez Tauck, Rebecca B. "El Complejo A: La Venta, Tabasco" Arqueología Mexicana Vol XV - Num. 87 (Sept-Oct 2007). p. 49-54.