Smithsonian Olmec Legacy

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Excavation of Tres Zapotes Stela D, 1939

Field Work

Miguel Baltasar, the foreman, calls the roll. Cap at Tres Zapotes, 1939 (wetmore 596. Photograph by Alexander Wetmore, Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Miguel Baltasar, the foreman, calls the roll. Camp at Tres Zapotes, 1939 (wetmore 596. Photograph by Alexander Wetmore, Smithsonian Institution Archives)

In the late 1930s, much of Veracruz and Tabasco was covered with jungle or secondary growth forest. Prior to the first field season at Tres Zapotes in 1939, Clarence Weiant went out to prepare for the arrival of the other expedition members. He had supplies and tools transported to the site, houses built — of locally available materials, such as palm fronts and wooden poles — and the site itself cleared of vegetation.

Each year the expedition consisted of 4 to 7 people at the most. Local workers did much of the heavy labor, such as clearing the brush, digging the site and moving the heavy stone monuments. Crews consisted of about 15 to 30 men from nearby communities. This arrangement seemed to work very well for both parties: the expedition could count on a crew that was used to hard physical labor in a hot and humid climate. The local workers earned cash in an economy where such opportunities were limited. By American standards, labor was cheap. In a January 6, 1939 letter Stirling wrote to Wetmore:

Everything here is surprisingly cheap. The peso is now about 20c. Labor is 1 1/3 peso a day. In this isolated section the people are quite unspoiled, are good workers, and do not have to be watched. They are all eager to work and are competing with one another for the privilege of being on the job so that in order to keep everyone happy we work the crews in rotating shifts...

The primary purpose of the first expedition to Tres Zapotes was to explore the territory and a yet-to-be identified culture. Several years later, Weiant wrote in his report about the expedition to Tres Zapotes:

It was felt more desirable as a beginning, to perform as many sampling operations as possible in order to learn fully the character of the site, leaving for a second season the task of determining whether more precise field methods might yield significant results.

Excavation of Tres Zapotes intensified in 1940. During this second season Stirling undertook an exploratory trip to La Venta and Cerro de las Mesas. This led Stirling to focus the third expedition in 1941 on Cerro de las Mesas in Veracruz, and the fourth and fifth expeditions in 1942 and 1943 on La Venta in Tabasco.

In 1944 Stirling led the sixth expedition to explore other areas of Tabasco and Campeche. He identified a new site at San Miguel in Tabasco and at Corral Nuevo in Campeche, but no subsequent expeditions were undertaken to these two sites.

A 1945 expedition took Stirling to Chiapas, primarily to the site of Piedra Parada. Towards the end of that year's field season, Stirling's crew visited the village of Tenochtitlan, on the Rio Chiquito in southern Veracruz. During the two days they spent at this site, they found and excavated two colossal heads and several other monuments. Stirling returned to San Lorenzo-Tenochtitlan on his eighth archaeological expedition in 1946, finding three more colossal heads. Although San Lorenzo- Tenochtitlan proved to be a very rich and interesting site, it was to be the last expedition led by Sterling, as he turned his attention to other areas of Central and South America.

Stirling's fieldwork during the eight archaeological expeditions led to the discovery and excavation of many impressive monuments and artifacts. His work was of great importance despite the fact of inquiry. Many have followed in Matthew Stirling's footsteps. Mexican archaeologists in particular and scientists from the U.S., Europe and Asia continue to explore Olmec archaeology, continually adding to an understanding of the Olmec.

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