Looking Closely at Olmec Style

How do we understand art from societies with no writing? What if that art is abstract?

This is a condensed and edited version of my BA thesis, “Smooth Sides and Shining Surfaces: Looking Closely at Olmec Style.” It won the Robert and Joan Feitler Prize for Best Art History BA and was presented at the UChicago Undergraduate Research Symposium, Spring 2014, in the “Design and Change” panel. Many thanks to Claudia Brittenham for editing and advising.

Three thousand years ago, in the modern state of Veracruz, Mexico, people living near a spring in the Coatzacoalcos basin began making offerings in the water. Now known as Olmec, they offered wooden sculptures, foodstuffs, stone and ceramic bowls, rubber balls, human remains, and jade and greenstone objects in dense patterns. Despite the complexity of the deposits, neither the people of El Manati nor other Olmec left decipherable writing in the course of the civilization, from 1500-300 B.C. Only a single piece of Olmec epigraphy survives at all. At a loss to understand how the Olmec understood their material culture, generations of scholars turned to the most legible, iconographic pieces in the archaeological record, using them as 1proxies for absent writing. Though sometimes productive, this methodology left vast swathes of material unstudied, functionally ignored as anti-epigraphic, anti-iconic, and therefore apparently uncommunicative. In a push to understand what objects show and what they are, we can easily lose sight of the artistic challenges built into them, encoded in apparently simple objects. In order to understand ancient cultures, we need to challenge ourselves to look closely at objects which are hard to interpret, beginning with objects which seem like there is nothing to be interpreted.

Two classes of objects, small jadeite sculptures known as celts, and white, rounded bowls known as tecomates, are ideal candidates for such study. Extremely minimal in form and design, without modeled or incised decorations, they largely occur as archaeological footnotes.1 Treating celts and tecomates as merely simple misses a source of depth, complexity, and connectedness in Olmec material culture. Even on the surface, celts and tecomates have a sophisticated decorative program that harnesses light, shadow, glow, and materiality to individuate each item, despite overall standardization. By evoking their natural sources and facture, they access a tactility which moves beyond a simple ability to be held into and interpretive process. This physical activation melds with an intellectual process of engagement where the viewer naturally associates celts and tecomates with other objects, but is constantly aware of their innate, self-contained abstraction. Their commonalities argue for a way of understanding material evidence that moves past categorizations based on theorized symbolism and instead looks deeply at the logic of the objects themselves, revealing pieces which remain self-referential and abstract.

Though at first glance these objects appear simple, closer investigation reveals their careful composition, pointing to an important position in Olmec material culture. A cluster of jadeite celts from El Manati pair unity and 2individualization, complexity and simplicity. Each celt varies the elongated, trapezoidal shape of an ancient ax head, altering the sweep of the sides and curve of the base and tip to individualized proportions. They range in color from beige to mottled grey to sea foam to slate, each piece with its own grain and variations. Whereas the top left celt has a fine, sandy white grain, the rightmost celt has a diagonally oriented, swirling white grain which grades into dark, rusty clouds near the bottom. These variations in color give the illusion of undulating weights, changes in light and shadow imitated in jade. Their curving, mirror-bright finish creates shifting pockets of lightness and depth.

Similarly, tecomates’ burnished surfaces create an artificial sense of shading in which the pot appears to glow from within, elevating them beyond simple white bowls. Tecomates contrast monochromatic slip with a lustrous, 3mirror-burnished finish.2 Creamy and shining on the exterior, black and matte on the interior: a white-slipped tecomates from the Valley of Mexico glows, harnessing undulating light and shadow. Subtle variations in the raw materials, temperature flows during firing, and fuel types create changes in fluctuations in the white color palette, a subtle compositional detail that enhances the burnished surface’s optical effects. At the widest part of the pot, the brighter beige slip grades into smoky grey clouds, set off with spots of sienna that bleed into darker grey. These irregularities carefully mimic the undulating effect of the lustrous slip. Far from randomly chosen or carelessly executed, celts and tecomates demonstrate a closely planned composition that justifies rigorous art historical consideration.

Though celts and tecomates are formally complex, their minimal composition’s position in Olmec material culture is poorly understood, leading to their canonical designation as simplified representations of other objects. Treated as skeuomorphs, their form becomes incidental and inherited. In general, an object is a skeuomorph or skeuomorphic if it replicates on material in another: for example, pottery that looks like basketry or metal, or stone that looks like textile. For want of clear imagery, round, white tecomates become ceramic copies of gourds; green, tapered celts imitate maize cobs, ax heads, or the axis mundi.3 Categorizing any object as a skeuomorph treats its meaning reductively, where an object is little more than a copy – perhaps with humorous or clever connotations – but in the end, based entirely on some outside source. Its attributes are inherited, not original, undercutting its integrity. Presupposing this relationship denies an object meaning in its own right.

These abstract objects’ lack of decoration makes iconographic classifications problematic, undercutting the effectiveness of skeuomorphism as an interpretive framework. Though objects gain canonical associations, the actual relationship between a skeuomorph and its referent is rarely explicated, as if minimalistic, white bowl is somehow naturally a gourd. The categorization circumvents significant methodological problems related to motivation, which is challenging if not impossible to reconstruct without written evidence. Further difficulties arise when presumed skeuomorphs lose decorative elements present in the originals. As anthropologist Stephen Houston writes, “Most skeuomorphs have two […] tangled features, the first that cross-media transfer is usually presumed to be unidirectional, the second that transfers often mix media or juxtapose elements in notable bricolage.”4 If a celt is more minimal in shape, surface, and texture than an ear of maize, it actually borrows very little from a literal ear of corn. Imposing this iconographic scheme a priori allows the desire to find symbolism to overcome the possibility that undecorated objects may represent nothing other than themselves.

Indeed, the relationships between celts and maize and tecomates and gourds are more impressionistic than definite, underscoring these problems. Scholars generally associate tecomates with gourds in part because of their unusual shape; most Olmec vessels are wider edged plates and dishes. Later Maya paintings show figures using rounded gourd vessels, with the same deep curves as a tecomates. However, since all Olmec gourds decomposed long ago, tecomates remain in an ambiguous position, as we have no idea what Olmec gourd cups really looked like, or if gourd cups were a cheaper imitation of rounded ceramics.5 Similarly, greenstone celts vary widely in shape, size, and color; simply put, some celts look plausibly like maize, and others do not. A unidirectional relationship between original and imitation is far from evident.

With their simplified forms and carefully produced surfaces, celts and tecomates refer to both natural source material and other related forms, engaging in multiple conceptual gestures. Sculpted from boulders tumbled through the Motagua River, celts bear a formal resemblance to their 5unworked source material, carrying a reference to an idealized natural object. As large boulders of jadeite tumble through fast-moving rivers, softer stone chips off, leaving roughly triangular forms known as cobbles.6 These cobbles are often naturally celtiform, with a wide, rounded end, and a noticeably pointed tip. Though celts reduce cobbles’ scale, they maintain and distill cobbles’ inherent triangular composition. Symmetry replaces natural variability with respect to form. The regulation of these natural asymmetries imposes an inherent sense of a human hand in an object that recalls its material source.

With a more amorphous material, tecomates do not have the same formal relationship to clay that celts have to jade cobbles. Nonetheless, their surface treatment foregrounds a luminosity unique to burnished clay, producing an object that first and foremost looks like pottery rather than an imitation of gourds. The Olmec produced many ceramic objects which painstakingly reproduce natural forms far more complex than gourds: ducks, babies, and jaguar figures, to name only a few. Therefore, by editing tecomates down to the simplest possible form, Olmec sculptors made a definite choice to not faithfully imitate gourds. Furthermore, highly burnished pottery has a surface unique among Mesoamerican materials. Its gentle diffusion of light and seemingly internally generated luminosity make any burnished pot look distinctly unlike other objects. It is not imitative of other natural surfaces, including gourds. By foregrounding their material as an essential aspect of their appearance, celts and tecomates are always bound to a fundamentally sculptural gesture which resists a representative reading. Rather than imitating another object, celts and tecomates maintain a continual tension between gourd-like and clay-like, corn-like and jade-like, problematizing their reduction to simple symbols.

Without recourse to symbolism, theorizing these objects requires a return to form and composition, drawing the pieces into a dialogue with a viewer or user. Via a manipulation of scale and shape, celts and tecomates encourage usage that mimics their facture, creating meaning that is self-referential rather than outward looking. The final piece engages the viewer both visibly and tangibly. A tecomate’s smooth curves and delicate size match the shape of an open palm. Spanning only 4 ¾ inches across and 3 ½ inches vertically, with a flattened bottom and low curves, the tecomate pictured above would nestle exactly into a slightly open palm, with the thumb and fingers brushing the sides.7 On contact the highly burnished walls are silky smooth to the touch. This attention to personal scale, coupled with the undulating patterns of light and shadow on the surface, underscores that tecomates communicate primarily as abstract objects, not iconographically.

Both objects evoke their facture in form through their elongated, trapezoidal shape, creating a self-referential dialogue with the viewer. True jadeite was the hardest material known in Mesoamerica; creating celts was an extended and intensive process.8 Initial blocks were separated from boulders with percussive strokes, then chipped into a rough version of the final form. With repeated grinding from an abrasive such as jade or quartz sand with a wooden or stone saw, rope, or drill, a simplified, trapezoidal form emerged. 9 In the case of ceramic, since Mesoamericans did not have pottery wheels, tecomates were assembled from a flat base and coils of clay shaved into a smooth curve. Repeated scrapings with a stone or smooth implement, over the days required to harden from leather-hard to the firing stage, created the final lustrous and smooth surface. In both objects, once the first rough form emerges, the two follow parallel processes of reduction, first in large chunks of material, and then in a slow, painstaking smoothing and shaping. These artistic manipulations create shining, luminous surfaces that the naturally holds and touches.

Stroking motions naturally are firmest at the point of contact, smoothly decreasing in pressure until the hand lifts away. This gesture congeals in celts and tecomates’ elegantly tapering and curving forms. In this sense, they connect the current feel of their surface with the previous touchings that created their surface and form. Their form becomes tactile through its solidification of a physical process. Tactility is therefore interpretive: a viewer recognizes it in a form, and understands it as part of a process. Moreover, this interpretation is bidirectional. Responding physically to a piece prompts a to wonder about the hands the made it, and understanding the process of shaping a piece calls out for the replication of that process via touch. This self-reference operates entirely outside of iconography.

Tactility, viewer engagement, and self-referentiality come to the forefront in an expanded view of Olmec material culture, demonstrating the theoretical possibilities of frameworks that operate without reference to iconography. A large burial site at Tlatilco, in the Valley of Mexico, contains hundreds of 6graves, each with a mixture of pottery, bones, musical instruments, figurines, among other objects.10 Ceramics rest in every grave.11 Beyond simple ubiquity, however, the pots nestle into bodies, with other sculptural objects at a greater distance. Graves show pots between legs and tucked under arms, with figurines set apart by as much as a foot, a relatively large distance in a small burial. Though graves do not perfectly demonstrate how living Olmec related to their pots, they do encode significant indicators of social practices.12 Such depositions gesture at the importance of tactility and touch in Mesoamerican contexts.

Though semiotic interpretations provide an easy starting point for schematizing ancient materials, they either exclude abstract objects as unreadable, or attempt to impose iconography where it cannot fit. Both methodologies deny sophisticated, conceptual artworks autonomy in their own right. They tacitly position ancient, abstract art as less realized, unable to produce its meaning independently. Despite this historiography, minimal Olmec objects do afford closer readings that reveal complex connections between the pieces, their facture, and their viewer. Importantly, these connections extend beyond close readings of individual objects, using abstract pieces as a new theoretical framework for ancient art.


Harlow, George E. “Middle American Jade: Geologic and Petrologic Perspectives on Variability and Source.” In Precolumbian Jade: new geological and cultural interpretations. Edited by Frederick W. Lange. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press. 1993.

Houston, Stephen. The Life Within: Classic Maya and the Matter of Permanence. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.

Joyce, Rosemary A. “Social Dimensions of Pre-Classic Burials.” In Social Patterns in Pre-Classic Mesoamerica. Edited by David C. Grove and Rosemary A. Joyce. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research and Library Collection, 1999. http://www.doaks.org/resources/publications/doaks-online-publications/pre-columbian-studies/social

Taube, Karl. Olmec Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. 2004.

Wu, Hung. Monumentality in Early Chinese Art and Architecture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.


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