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Excavation of Tres Zapotes Stela D, 1939

The Eight Expeditions

Tres Zapotes Stela C. Tres Zapotes, 1939. stirling_27. Photograph by Richard H. Stewart, National Anthropological Archives
Tres Zapotes Stela C. Tres Zapotes, 1939. stirling_27. Photograph by Richard H. Stewart, National Anthropological Archives

In 1938, while on vacation in Mexico with his wife and in-laws, Matthew Stirling went for a brief visit to Hueyapan in Veracruz. He had read reports - and seen photographs and illustrations - of a colossal, basalt head, first discovered in 1858 and later revisited by explorers in the 1920s. After an eight-hour horseback ride from Tlacotalpan to Hueyapan, Stirling continued on foot to the location of the head, within a mile from the village of Tres Zapotes. He photographed the head and briefly explored the mounds surrounding this curious object.

Upon his return to Washington, Stirling convinced colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society to fund further exploration of the area. Preparations were made for a joint Smithsonian Institution - National Geographic Society Archaeological Expedition to Veracruz, Mexico within the year.

During the 1939 field season Stirling and his crew discovered a stone monument carved with calendric inscriptions that caused uproar among Mesoamerican scholars due to its age. Because it was clear that this first expedition had only scratched the surface, and that much could be learned from additional fieldwork, Stirling proposed a second expedition to Tres Zapotes, with side excursions to sites with similar characteristics.

Ultimately, Matthew Stirling led eight National Geographic Society - Smithsonian Institution Archaeological Expeditions to Veracruz, Tabasco and Campeche along Mexico's Gulf Coast and to the Highlands of Chiapas.

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