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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Ancient Olmec Art

Olmec Art
Ancient Olmec artists created what archaeologist Michael D. Coe describes as "magnificent and awe-inspiring sculptures." The artists carved their works from some of the hardest rock in the Americas, even though they did not have metal tools.
The Olmecs made tools out of materials that were available to them. They used drills made of bone to cut into basalt, greenstone, jade, and other rocks. They used sand and reeds to carve the finer lines of their artwork.

The Olmecs are perhaps best known for the giant heads they carved from basalt rock. They cut out large pieces of the basalt from mountains that were many miles away from their ceremonial centers. They probably moved the stones to their centers by floating them downriver on rafts made of balsa, a very lightweight wood.

A number of the ancient carved heads still exist. Some of them are more than 9 feet (2.7 m) tall and weigh as much as 20 tons each. Modern archaeologists marvel at the finely carved lines of the ancient stone faces. Experts believe that each face is a portrait of a different Olmec ruler.

Olmec artists also used basalt to carve thrones for their rulers. On the front of many of these thrones is a carved opening with a small stone figure inside. Some archaeologists think that the stone figure represented the ruler returning from a trip to the "otherworld." The otherworld was the place where the Olmecs believed their people went after they died. The Olmecs thought that if their king survived a trip to the otherworld, he would bring back life and good fortune for his people.

Not all Olmec art showed real people. Some pictured the many gods worshipped by the Olmecs. The Olmec religion was based on the forces in nature that affected farming. The most important god to the Olmecs was the jaguar god, a cat god they believed brought the rain. The image of the jaguar appears often in Olmec art. Some Olmec art shows figures that are half-jaguar and half-human. Other gods that the Olmecs worshipped included a fire god, a corn god, and a feathered serpent. Many of these gods are also found in later Mesoamerican cultures.

Not all Olmec art is huge like the stone heads. In fact, the Olmecs made some sculptures that were only a few inches tall. Tiny masks and jade statues have been found. The Olmecs did not display their smaller works of art as they did the huge stone heads. Instead they buried them, probably as offerings to their gods.

What were some of the subjects of Olmec sculptures?


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