Smithsonian Olmec Legacy

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An archaeological site

Tres Zapotes

Image: Marion Stirling kneeling next to Tres Zapotes Stela C. stirling_14. M.W. Stirling Collection, National Anthropological Archives
Marion Stirling kneeling next to Tres Zapotes Stela C. stirling_14. M.W. Stirling Collection, National Anthropological Archives

Tres Zapotes is located on the slopes of the Tuxtla Mountains, in the State of Veracruz. It is one of the most important Olmec sites, and the first to be written about by explorers. Melgar y Serrano (1868), Eduard Seler (1906) and Albert Weyerstall (1925) all reported seeing the colossal head at Hueyapan, near the village of Tres Zapotes. Matthew Stirling went to see the head in 1938; it inspired him to study the culture of its creators.

Matthew Stirling, Clarence Weiant and Philip Drucker were the first to attempt to establish a chronological sequence for the ceramics and stone monuments found at Tres Zapotes. One of the difficulties in dating Tres Zapotes is the fact that many of the forty stone carvings found at the site, were reused long after they were first carved. Three particularly important finds were two colossal heads and a carved stone known as Stela C, probably the most significant discovery at Tres Zapotes. Stela C played an important role in dating not only this site but other Olmec sites, and the early development of Mesoamerican civilization, as well.

While the debate continues, it is estimated that the occupation of Tres Zapotes may have begun as early as 1500 BC, and that it achieved prominence during the Early Formative period, between 1200 and 900 BC. During the Late Formative, 400 BC to 100 AD, when other Olmec centers such as La Venta were already in decline, Tres Zapotes sculptures showed the influence of other artistic styles, such as that of Izapa in the Guatemalan Highlands, and other regional styles.

This indicates ongoing trade connections with other cultures, which influenced Tres Zapotes. Despite the fact that Olmec culture may have no longer existed as such, Tres Zapotes continued to be occupied until well into the Early Postclassic (1000-1200 AD).

Stirling was the first archaeologist to attempt systematic excavations at the site in 1939 and 1940. Since then, only a few scholars have returned to Tres Zapotes to continue scientific investigations. The archaeologist Ponciano Ortiz Ceballos worked at the site in the early 1970s. Other archaeologists from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia [INAH] returned in 1978 for salvage operations during the construction of a gas pipeline, and discovered a columnar basalt enclosure.

Read Matthew Stirling's 1939 field notes from Tres Zapotes.

View a gallery of images from Tres Zapotes.

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