Landscape and a Visual Narrative of Creation and Origin at the Olmec Ceremonial Center of La Venta
As they designed their ceremonial and civic urban centers, ancient Mesoamerican artists and architects often made visible their culture’s creation-and-origins story.1 When building pyramids or siting temple complexes it was not unusual to replicate certain natural features that they considered to be the places that gave birth to their original ancestors. Such structures conceptually collapsed the distance between primordial and present time as well as the space between mythic places and the one in which the temple stood. For example, the two shrines of the Great Temple of the Aztec (AD 1325–1521) capital emulated two mythical sacred mountains. One side represented Tonacatepetl, the Mountain of Sustenance that held the seeds and water that would become human food. The other stood for Coatepec, Serpent Mountain, upon which the tribal deity was re-born and where he defeated the female of the old regime, his elder sister. In the past few decades, Aztec specialists have been able to reconstruct this kind of integration among origins stories, mythical landscape, and actual urban constructions because of the convergence of archaeological remains with surviving pictorial and written texts from the early sixteenth century.
Understanding the relationships between landscape and origins has been harder for earlier civilizations. Nevertheless, this topic has fascinated many scholars, some of whom have investigated even the oldest civilizations. Beatriz de la Fuente (1996) and F. Kent Reilly (1999, 2002) have written about certain Olmec (1200–400 BC) sculptures and urban constructions as evidence for a much earlier creation story. They have provided provocative views of how parts of ancient sites seem to prefigure later stories. But, given the lack of a fully developed system of writing prior to 600 BC, it has seemed impossible that we would ever have a good sense of the scope of an Olmec creation-and-origins narrative. However, by reconstructing the “find” locations of the now-removed monuments of the site called La Venta and considering their forms and symbols in relation to later creation narratives, I propose that we may catch a glimpse of one of the first times a cosmogonical vision was integrated into urban form in Mesoamerica. Such a glimpse is the goal of this chapter. It seeks to determine whether at a specific moment in La Venta’s existence, its designers organized monuments and landforms in a visual narrative of creation-and-origins.
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