Skip to main content

Creating Memory and Negotiating Power in the Olmec Heartland

Abstract

The creation of political landscapes requires the production of places made significant through acts of social remembering. The Gulf lowlands of Mexico exhibit some of the best known acts of social remembering in Mesoamerican prehistory. In this article, we engage political and practice-based frameworks for understanding the process of collective remembering in an examination of how the Olmecs and their successors inscribed their landscape with buildings, monuments, and rock art in ways that invoked the past while reframing it within the needs of their present. In particular, we explore the Olmecs’ memorialization of individuals and events in sculptures and offerings and their creation of narratives through the juxtaposition of sculptures and architecture. We then examine the creation and erasure of collective memory at the regional center of Tres Zapotes as expressed in the biographies of six monuments. We end with a comparison of “metropolitan” and hinterland carvings recorded in regional survey around Tres Zapotes. These examples situate social memory as an evolving entity molded and stretched by competing interests in an ongoing process of conflict and negotiation.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8
Fig. 9
Fig. 10
Fig. 11
Fig. 12
Fig. 13
Fig. 14
Fig. 15
Fig. 16
Fig. 17
Fig. 18
Fig. 19

Notes

  1. Cyphers and Di Castro (2009) observe that the area between the heads contained numerous structures, and so could not have been used for pageants. We do not disagree, but note that procession would not have been precluded by structures, just as contemporary processions often file through the streets of urban centers.

  2. As recounted by Rowlands (1993:142), the Roman orator Quintillian invoked a similar principle in his instructions on how to train an artificial memory “by attaching images and places to a speech or an order of things which are to be remembered.”

  3. Guernsey (personal communication 2016) notes a resemblance to the volutes behind the principal figure on Izapa Stela 11 and suggests an alternative interpretation that these elements express the act or motion of emergence. In this case, they would evidently refer to the emergence of the ruler from the earth/underworld, which would not rule out a vegetative metaphor.

References

  • Arnold, B. (2014). Erasure of the past. In C. Smith (Ed.), Encyclopedia of global archaeology (pp. 2441–2448). New York: Springer.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Baddeley, A. D. (1990). The development of the concept of working memory: implications and contributions of neuropsychology. In G. Vallar & T. Shallice (Eds.), Neuropsychological impairments of short-term memory (pp. 54–73). New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Basso, K. H. (1996). Wisdom sits in places: landscape and language among the western apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bengtsson, J., Angelstamb, P., Elmqvistc, T., Emanuelsson, U., Folked, C., Ihsec, M., et al. (2003). Reserves, resilience and dynamic landscapes. Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment, 32(6), 389–396.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bove, F. J. (2011). The people with no name: some observations about the plain stelae of Pacific Guatemala, El Salvador, and Chiapas with respect to issues of ethnicity and rulership. In M. Love & J. Kaplan (Eds.), The Southern Maya in the late Preclassic: the rise and fall of an early Mesoamerican civilization (pp. 77–114). Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brammer, J. (2015, August 5, 2015). Panel votes to keep statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Kentucky Capitol, Lexington Herald-Leader. Retrieved from. http://www.kentucky.com/2015/08/05/3974881/jefferson-davis-state-statue.html

  • Clark, J. E., & Pye, M. E. (2000). The Pacific Coast and the Olmec question. In J. E. Clark & M. E. Pye (Eds.), Olmec art and archaeology in Mesoamerica (pp. 217–251). Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art.

    Google Scholar 

  • Clewlow, C. W., Cowan, R. A., O'Connell, J. F., and Beneman, C. (1967). Colossal heads of the Olmec culture, contributions of the University of California Archaeological Research Facility, No. 4. Berkeley: University of California.

  • Coe, M. D., & Diehl, R. A. (1980). In the land of the Olmec, Vol. 1, The Archaeology of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán. Austin: University of Texas Press.

  • Connerton, P. (1989). How societies remember. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Connerton, P. (2008). Seven types of forgetting. Memory Studies, 1(1), 59–71.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cyphers, A. (1993). Escenas escultóricas olmecas. Antropológicas, 6, 47–52.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cyphers, A., & Botas, F. (1994). An Olmec feline sculpture from El Azuzul, Southern Veracruz. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 138, 273–283.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cyphers, A. (1997). El contexto social de monumentos en San Lorenzo. In A. Cyphers (Ed.), Población, subsistencia y medio ambiente en San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán (pp. 163–194). México City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cyphers, A. (1999). From stone to symbols: Olmec art in social context at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán. In D. C. Grove & R. A. Joyce (Eds.), Social patterns in pre-classic Mesoamerica (pp. 155–181). Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cyphers, A. (2004). Escultura monumental olmeca: Temas y contextos. In Uriarte, M. T., and Staines, L. (eds.), Acercarse y mirar, Homenaje a Beatriz de Ia Fuente (pp. 51-74), Mexico City: Instituto de Investigaciones Esteticas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

  • Cyphers, A. (2013). Retos y Riesgos en la Vida Olmeca. Mexico City: Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cyphers, A., & Di Castro, A. (2009). Early Olmec architecture and imagery. In W. Fash & L. López Luján (Eds.), The art of urbanism: how Mesoamerican kingdoms represented themselves in architecture and imagery (pp. 21–52). Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.

    Google Scholar 

  • de la Fuente, B. (1973). Escultura monumental olmeca: catálogo. Mexico City: Instituto de Invesigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

    Google Scholar 

  • de la Fuente, B. (1977). Los hombres de piedra: escultura olmeca. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

    Google Scholar 

  • Doyle, A. C. (1981 [1887]). A study in scarlet. London: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Drucker, P., Heizer, R. F., & Squier, R. H. (1959). Excavations at La Venta, Tabasco. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fowler, W. R., Borgstede, G. a., Golden, C. W., & (). . , pp. (2010). Introduction: Maya archaeology and social memory. Ancient Mesoamerica, 21, 309–313.

  • Gell, A. (1992). [The anthropology of time: cultural constructions of temporal maps and images].

  • Gillespie, S. D. (1999). Olmec thrones as ancestral altars: the two sides of power. In J. E. Robb (Ed.), Material symbols: culture and economy in prehistory (pp. 224–253). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gillespie, S. D. (2010). Maya memory work. Ancient Mesoamerica, 21, 401–414.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gillespie, S. D., & Volk, M. (2014). A 3d model of Complex A, La Venta, Mexico. Digital Applications in Archaeology and Cultural Heritage, 1(3–4), 72–81.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • González Lauck, R. (2010). The architectural setting of Olmec sculpture clusters at La Venta, Mexico. In J. Guernsey, J. E. Clark, & B. Arroyo (Eds.), The place of stone monuments: context, use, and meaning in Mesoamerica’s Preclassic transition (pp. 129–148). DC, Dumbarton Oaks: Washington.

    Google Scholar 

  • Grove, D. C. (1973). Olmec altars and myths. Archaeology, 26, 128–135.

    Google Scholar 

  • Grove, D. C. (1981). Olmec monuments: mutilation as a clue to meaning. In E. P. Benson (Ed.), The Olmec and their neighbors: essays in memory of Matthew W. Stirling (pp. 48–68). Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks.

    Google Scholar 

  • Grove, D. C. (1999). Public monuments and sacred mountains: observations on three formative period sacred landscapes. In D. C. Grove & R. A. Joyce (Eds.), Social patterns in Pre-classic Mesoamerica (pp. 255–295). Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections.

    Google Scholar 

  • Guernsey, J. (2012). Sculpture and social dynamics in Preclassic Mesoamerica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Guernsey, J., Clark, J. E., and Arroyo, B. (eds.) (2010). The place of stone monuments: context, use, and meaning in Mesoamerica's Preclassic transition. Washington, D.C: Dumbarton Oaks.

  • Hirsch, E. (1995). Landscape: between place and space. In E. Hirsch & M. O'Hanlon (Eds.), The anthropology of landscape: perspectives on place and space (pp. 1–30). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jones, A. (2003). Technologies of remembrance: memory, materiality, and identity in early bronze age Scotland. In H. Williams (Ed.), Archaeologies of remembrance: death and memory in past societies (pp. 65–88). New York: Kluwer Academic.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Jones, A. (2007). Memory and material culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Joyce, R. (2003). Concrete memories: fragments of the past in the classic Maya present (500–1000 a.D.). In R. M. Van Dyke & S. E. Alcock (Eds.), Archaeologies of memory (pp. 104–125). Oxford: Blackwell.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Kubler, G. (1962). The art and architecture of ancient America. Baltimore: Penguin Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Locke, J. (1997 [1690]). An essay concerning human understanding. London: Penguin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Love, M. (2010). Thinking outside the plaza: varieties of Preclassic sculpture in Pacific Guatemala and their political significance. In J. Guernsey, J. E. Clark, & B. Arroyo (Eds.), The place of stone monuments: context, use, and meaning in Mesoamerica’s Preclassic transition (pp. 149–176). Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lowe, G. W. (1989). Heartland Olmec: evolution of material culture. In Sharer, R. J., and Grove, D. C. (eds.), Regional perspectives on the Olmec, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 33–67. Source of data: Anthropological Literature, Harvard University.

  • Millet Camara, L. A. (1979). Rescate arqueológico en la región de Tres Zapotes, Ver. Unpublished Licenciatura thesis in anthropology. Mexico City: Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ortiz Ceballos, P., & Rodríguez, M. D. C. (2000). The sacred hill of El Manatí: a preliminary discussion of the site's ritual paraphernalia. In J. E. Clark & M. E. Pye (Eds.), Olmec art and archaeology in Mesoamerica (pp. 75–93). Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pool, C. A. (Ed.). (2003). Settlement archaeology and political economy at Tres Zapotes, Veracruz, Mexico. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California.

  • Pool, C. A. (2007). Olmec archaeology and early Mesoamerica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Pool, C. A., & Ortiz Ceballos, P. (2008). Tres Zapotes como un centro olmeca: nuevos datos. In M. T. Uriarte & R. González Lauck (Eds.), Mesa Redonda Olmeca: Balance y Perspectivas (pp. 425–443). Mexico City: CONACULTA-INAH.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pool, C. A. (2010). Stone monuments and earthen mounds: polity and placemaking at Tres Zapotes, Veracruz, Mexico. In J. E. Clark, J. Guernsey, & B. Arroyo (Eds.), The place of stone monuments: context, use, and meaning in Mesoamerica’s Preclassic transition (pp. 97–126). Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pool, C. A., & Loughlin, M. (2016). Tres Zapotes: the evolution of a resilient polity in the Olmec heartland of Mexico. In R. Faulseit (Ed.), Beyond collapse: archaeological perspectives on resilience, revitalization, and transformation in complex societies (pp. 287–309). Carbondale: Center for Archaeological Investigations, Southern Illinois University.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pool, C. A., Ortiz Ceballos, P., Rodríguez Martínez, C., & Loughlin, M. L. (2010). The early horizon at Tres Zapotes: implications for Olmec interaction. Ancient Mesoamerica, 95–105.

  • Porter, J. B. (1989). The monuments and hieroglyphs of Tres Zapotes, Veracruz, Mexico. (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation), University of California, Berkeley.

  • Reilly III, F. K. (1994). Enclosed ritual spaces and the watery underworld in formative period architecture: new observations on the function of La Venta Complex A. In M. G. Robertson & V. M. Fields (Eds.), Seventh Palenque round table, 1989 (pp. 125–135). San Francisco: Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute.

    Google Scholar 

  • Reilly III, F. K. (1999). Mountains of creation and underworld portals: the ritual function of Olmec architecture at La Venta, Tabasco. In J. K. Kowalski (Ed.), Mesoamerican architecture as cultural symbol (pp. 14–39). New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rowlands, M. (1993). The role of memory in the transmission of culture. World Archaeology, 25(2), 141–151.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Smith, A. T. (2003). The political landscape: constellations of authority in early complex polities. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Stirling, M. W. (1943). Stone monuments of southern Mexico. Washington DC.

  • Stirling, M. W. (1965). Monumental sculpture of Southern Veracruz and Tabasco. In G. R. Willey (Ed.), Archaeology of Southern Meso-america, part 2, handbook of middle American Indians (Vol. 3, pp. 716–738). Austin: University of Texas Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tate, C. E. (1999). Patrons of shamanic power: La Venta’s supernatural entities in light of mixed beliefs. Ancient Mesoamerica, 10, 169–188.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tate, C. E. (2012). Reconsidering Olmec visual culture: the unborn, women, and creation. Austin: University of Texas Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Thomas, J. (2012). Archaeologies of place and landscape. In I. Hodder (Ed.), Archaeological theory today (pp. 167–187). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tilley, C. (1994). A phenomenology of landscape: places, paths, and monuments. Oxford: Berg.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tuan, Y. F. (1974). Space and place: humanistic perspective. Progress in Geography, 6, 211–252.

    Google Scholar 

  • Urcid, J. (2005). The Zapotec scribal tradition: knowledge, memory, and society in ancient Oaxaca. Report submitted to the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc., Coral Gables, Florida, http://www.famsi.org/zapotecwriting/.

  • Urcid, J. (2011). Los oráculos y la guerra: el papel de las narrativas pictóricas en el desarrollo temprano de Monte Albán (500 a.C.-200 d.C.). In N. Robles García, and A. I. Rivera Guzmán (eds.), Monte Albán en la encrucijada regional y disciplinaria: Memoria de la quinta mesa redonda de Monte Albán (pp. 163–237). Mexico City, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

  • Van Dyke, R. M., & Alcock, S. E. (2008). Archaeologies of memory. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wertsch, J. V. (2002). Voices of collective remembering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Wicke, C. R. (1971). Olmec: an early art style of Precolumbian Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

The research reported in this article was supported by the National Science Foundation (grant numbers BCS-0242555 and BCS-1261514) and the University of Kentucky. Permission for fieldwork in Mexico was granted by the Institution Nacional de Antropología e Historia. We thank David Mixter and Edward Henry for inviting us to participate in the 2014 AAA symposium that gave rise to this article as well as their encouragement and advice as we revised the paper. Julia Guernsey and three anonymous reviewers offered recommendations for revision that greatly improved the final version of the article. We, of course, bear responsibility for any errors of fact or interpretation. Finally, we thank the crew of the Proyecto Arqueológico de Tres Zapotes (2003–3004) and the Recorrido Regional Arqueológico de Tres Zapotes (2014–2015), the people of Tres Zapotes, and the municipios of Santiago Tuxtla, Angel R. Cabada, Lerdo de Tejada, and Saltabarranca.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Christopher A. Pool.

Ethics declarations

Funding

This study was funded by the National Science Foundation (grant numbers BCS-0242555 and BCS-1261514).

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare they have no conflict of interest.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Pool, C.A., Loughlin, M.L. Creating Memory and Negotiating Power in the Olmec Heartland. J Archaeol Method Theory 24, 229–260 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-017-9319-1

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-017-9319-1

Keywords

  • Memory
  • Landscape
  • Monuments
  • Rock art
  • Olmec