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Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture

The Unborn, Women, and Creation

By Carolyn E. Tate

Publication Year: 2012

This groundbreaking study of gestational imagery on ancient Olmec monuments and objects brings to light Mesoamerica’s earliest creation narrative and traces its evolution into one of the enduring themes of Mesoamerican ritual life and art.

Published by: University of Texas Press

Series: The William and Bettye Nowlin Series in Art, History, and Culture of the Western Hemisphere

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. xi-xiv

“In the Hill of the Woman [to’oxykyopk] there was a cave where the people used to put their ear of maize. In that place is where they found two little white eggs and carried them to the house.” These sentences from Walter Miller’s (1956:105)...

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pp. xv-xx

My efforts in conceiving and writing this book have benefited tremendously from the intellects, the talents, and the generosity of others. First, I offer my deepest thanks to Theresa May of the University of Texas Press...

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1. Rediscovering Women and Gestationin Olmec Visual Culture

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pp. 1-16

Like a newborn himself, a man leans out of the dark orifice of a small cave, bearing an infant. Rising from his head is a conical headdress adorned with a lustrous jade carving of a human embryo’s face. From the mouth of the cave...

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2. The Tale of the Were-Jaguar

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pp. 17-34

This is the first of two chapters about the anthropomorphic image that is a key to the evolution of Formative period beliefs and our interpretations of them. For the sake of objectivity, at the outset of the chapter I refer to it as the “axe-image.” From tiny figurines to medallions to large axe...

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3. The Sowing and Dawning of the Human-Maize Seed

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pp. 35-74

With the exception of the Olmec, no ancient society has made effigies of infants without mothers a prominent subject of sculpture. As I described in Chapter 1, hollow, life-size ceramic sculptures of babies have been known since the 1920s. Since then, dozens have been found, mostly broken, and bits of hundreds more appear...

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4. Tracking Gender,Gestation, and Narrativity Through the Early Formative

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pp. 75-134

This chapter surveys the genesis of visual culture in Mesoamerica in a roughly chronological order.1 The major periods—Archaic, Initial Formative, Early Formative, and Middle Formative—are discussed in three sections. Within each one, I focus on sites that have been excavated...

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5. La Venta’s Buried Offerings Women and Other Revelations

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pp. 135-176

La Venta was just one of several places that flourished as San Lorenzo declined,1 but during its apogee, about 500 bc , its users amassed a concentration of raw material, sculpture, and visual symbols that was unequalled at any other location. It is clear that the people who designed...

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6. Female Water and Earth Supernaturals: The Massive Offerings, Mosaic Pavements,and Mixe “Work ofthe Earth”

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pp. 177-198

In Chapter 5, a close study of human figures and associated imagery revealed that several female figures were prominent in La Venta’s monumental art and in the pseudoburials. We also found an abundance of imagery of the unborn, primarily in monumental sculpture, but in caches...

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7. A Processional Visual Narrative at La Venta

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pp. 199-214

Finally it is time to discover how, in its final phase, La Venta’s builders organized the visual landscape to create a complex message. The previous chapter introduced the small and large, buried and visible sculptures at La Venta in their chronological contexts. By interrogating their subject matter...

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8. La Venta’s Creation and Origins Narrative

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pp. 215-262

The previous chapters have discussed many of the graphic and plastic symbolic forms that Formative period Mesoamericans, from Tlapacoya to La Venta, developed, and how they organized these forms in significant assemblages. This chapter proposes that around 500 bc , the Olmec arrayed sculpture at La Venta...

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9. A Scattering of Seeds

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pp. 263-278

In the previous chapters I have attempted to facilitate further study of Formative period visual culture by synthesizing some relevant archaeological and art historical research. Because I think they are crucial to any theories about the formation of society and culture, urban development, and the transmission of knowledge...

Appendix 1. La Venta Monuments by Format

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pp. 279-285

Appendix 2. Comparison of Mesoamerican Creationand Origins Narratives

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pp. 286-295

Appendix 3. Shape-Shiftersand Were wolves to Were-Jaguars:A Brief Chronology

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pp. 296-298


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pp. 299-308


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pp. 309-326


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pp. 327-339

E-ISBN-13: 9780292735491
E-ISBN-10: 0292735499
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292728523
Print-ISBN-10: 0292728522

Page Count: 359
Illustrations: 268 b&w illus., 4 maps
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: The William and Bettye Nowlin Series in Art, History, and Culture of the Western Hemisphere