The Olmec City of San Lorenzo

Archaeologist Matthew Stirling with one of the San Lorenzo Colossal Heads. Photographer Unknown

The Olmec City of San Lorenzo:

The Olmec culture thrived along Mexico’s gulf coast from roughly 1200 B.C. to 400 B.C. One of the most important archaeological sites associated with this culture is known as San Lorenzo. Once there was a great city there: its original name has been lost to time. Considered by some archaeologists to be the first true Mesoamerican city, San Lorenzo was a very important center of Olmec commerce, religion and political power during its heyday.

Location of San Lorenzo:

San Lorenzo is located in Veracruz State, about 38 miles (60km) from the Gulf of Mexico. The Olmecs could not have selected a better site to build their first great city. The site was originally a large island in the middle of the Coatzacoalcos River, although the course of the river has since changed and now only flows past one side of the site. The island featured a central ridge, high enough to escape any flooding and the flood plains along the river were very fertile. The location is close to sources of stone which were useful for making sculptures and buildings. Between the river on either side and the high central ridge, the site was easily defended from enemy attack.

Occupation of San Lorenzo:

San Lorenzo was first occupied around 1500 B.C., making it one of the oldest sites in the Americas. It was home to three early settlements, referred to as the Ojochí (1500-1350 B.C.), the Bajío (1350-1250 B.C.) and the Chichárras (1250-1150 B.C.).

These three cultures are considered pre-Olmec and are largely identified by pottery types. The Chicharrás period begins to show characteristics later identified as Olmec. The city reached its peak in the period from 1150 to 900 B.C. before falling into decline: this is referred to as the San Lorenzo era.

There may have been some 13,000 inhabitants at San Lorenzo during the height of its power (Cyphers). The city then went into decline and passed into the Nacaste period from 900 to 700 B.C.: the Nacaste did not have the skills of their forebears and added little in the way of art and culture. The site was abandoned for some years before the Palangana era (600-400 B.C.): these later inhabitants contributed some small mounds and a ball court. The site was then abandoned for over a thousand years before it was re-occupied during the Late Classic era of Mesoamerican civilization, but the city never regained its former glory.

The Archaeological Site:

San Lorenzo is a sprawling site which includes not only the one-time metropolis of San Lorenzo but several smaller towns and agricultural settlements that were controlled from the city. There were important secondary settlements at Loma del Zapote, where the river forked to the south of the city, and El Remolino, where the waters re-converged to the north. The most important section of the site is on the ridge, where the nobility and priest classes lived. The western side of the ridge is known as the “royal compound,” as it was home to the ruling class.

This area has yielded a treasure trove of artifacts, particularly sculptures. The ruins of an important structure, the “red palace,” are also found there. Other highlights include an aqueduct, interesting monuments scattered around the site and several artificial pits known as “lagunas:” their purpose is still unclear.

San Lorenzo Stonework:

Very little of Olmec culture has survived to the present day. The climate of the steamy lowlands where they lived has destroyed any books, burial sites and items of cloth or wood. The most important remnants of the Olmec culture are therefore architecture and sculpture. Fortunately for posterity, the Olmec were talented stonemasons. They were capable of transporting large sculptures and blocks of stone for masonry for distances of up to 60 kilometers: the stones were probably floated part of the way on sturdy rafts.

The aqueduct at San Lorenzo is a masterpiece of practical engineering: hundreds of similarly-carved basalt troughs and covers weighing a total of many tons were laid out in such a way as to promote the flow of water to its destination; a duck-shaped cistern designated Monument 9 by archaeologists.

San Lorenzo Sculpture:

The Olmec were great artists and the most remarkable feature of San Lorenzo is doubtless the several dozen sculptures that have been discovered at the site and nearby secondary sites like Loma del Zapote. The Olmec were famous for their detailed sculptures of colossal heads. Ten of these heads have been found at San Lorenzo: the largest is nearly ten feet tall. These massive stone heads are believed to depict rulers. At nearby Loma del Zapote, two finely sculpted, nearly identical "twins" face two jaguars. There are also several massive stone thrones at the site. All in all, dozens of sculptures have been found in and around San Lorenzo. Some of the statues were carved out of earlier works. Archaeologists believe that the statues were used as elements in scenes with religious or political meaning. The pieces would be laboriously moved around to create different scenes.

The Politics of San Lorenzo:

San Lorenzo was a powerful political center. As one of the first Mesoamerican cities – if not the first of all – it did not have true contemporary rivals and ruled over a large area. In the immediate environs, archaeologists have discovered many small settlements and dwellings, mostly located on hilltops. The smaller settlements were likely ruled by members or appointments of the royal family. Smaller sculptures have been found at these peripheral settlements, suggesting that they were sent there from San Lorenzo as a form of cultural or religious control. These smaller sites were useful in the production of food and other resources and were of strategic use militarily. The royal family ruled this mini-empire from the heights of San Lorenzo.

Decline and Importance of San Lorenzo:

In spite of its promising start, San Lorenzo fell into steep decline and by 900 B. C. was a shadow of its former self: the city would be abandoned a few generations later. Archaeologists do not really know why San Lorenzo's glory faded so soon after its classic era. There are a few clues, however. Many of the later sculptures were carved out of earlier ones, and some are only half-completed. This suggests that perhaps rival cities or tribes came to control the countryside, making acquisition of new stone difficult. Another possible explanation is that if the population somehow declined, there would be insufficient manpower to quarry and transport new material.

The era around 900 B.C. is also historically linked to some climatic changes, which could well have adversely affected San Lorenzo. As a relatively primitive, developing culture, the people of San Lorenzo subsisted on a handful of core crops and hunting and fishing. A sudden change in climate could affect these crops as well as the nearby wildlife.

San Lorenzo, while not a spectacular place for visitors like Chichén Itzá or Palenque, is nevertheless an extremely important historical city and archaeological site. The Olmec is the "parent" culture of all of those which came later in Mesoamerica, including the Maya and Aztecs. As such, any insight gained from the earliest major city is of inestimable cultural and historical value. It is unfortunate that the city has been raided by looters and many priceless artifacts have been lost - or rendered valueless by being removed from their place of origin.

It is possible to visit the historical site, although many of the sculptures are currently found elsewhere, such as the Mexican National Museum of Anthropology and the Xalapa Anthropology Museum.

Sources

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

Cyphers, Ann. "Surgimiento y decadencia de San Lorenzo, Veracruz." Arqueología Mexicana Vol XV - Num. 87 (Sept-Oct 2007). P. 30-35.

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