Carved monument from Mesoamerica

Monolito de Ojo de Agua INAH foto.jpg

In real life, this stone carving—found in an irrigation ditch in the Mexican state of Chiapas—stands 3 ft. tall and weighs 130 pounds. From photos, it can be hard to catch all the detail going on in these type of carvings. Luckily, we also have a line drawing of the artwork, made by Kisslan Chan and John Clark, of the New World Archaeological Foundation.


So what's it mean? Well, that's a mystery. Because of information collected from radiocarbon dating, careful study of the monument's context—the layers of earth it was buried in and other artifacts found nearby— and comparison with other, similar, artistic styles, University of Wisconsin-Madison archaeologist John Hodgson believes this monument was made by a pre-Maya culture called the Olmec.

The Olmec had a writing system—possibly the oldest in the Americas. It looks similar to Mayan written language, which probably evolved from it. But there doesn't appear to be any writing on this particular monument. In fact, Hodgson thinks it was made before the Olmec developed their writing system.

Without writing, archaeologists are left with little information other than what they can interpret from symbols and iconography in the drawing. That is, as you might imagine, a pretty subjective exercise. Most archaeologists (including Hodgson) acknowledge that, in these situations, any guesses they can make about what the art means are really just that—guesses.

But that doesn't mean the monument is just a pretty stone. The monument was found on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, but on the opposite side of the Isthmus, compared to where the largest Olmec settlements have been uncovered. The monument also seems to be part of a planned settlement that included plazas and pyramids, but which dates to a time earlier than most other, similar, settlements in the region. So, while we don't know what the carvings on this monument mean, we can put it into context with other artifacts to build a more complete picture of Olmec history.

Photo is courtesy National Institute of Anthropology and History in Chiapas, Mexico.