Olmeca Rock Carving – How Did They do It?

By Ian Kershaw
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Olmeca Rock Carving – How Did They do It?

Ian Kershaw
 
Olmec Colossal Head in the ancient city of La Venta
Olmec Colossal Head in the ancient city of La Venta
 
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The ancient world is filled with many mysteries. Many peoples and cultures who went before have left little behind that has survived to this day. Often, these remains create more questions than they provide answers to – especially as just about the only things to have survived are religious relics and items used by kings and other rulers. Only those special items were made with the materials and craftsmanship necessary to withstand the ravages of time.

Olmec colossal head
Olmec colossal head

Long before Mexico was a nation, the land was occupied by other people. This land is known by archeologists as Mesoamerica and is the land of the Mayans and the Aztecs. However, in the southern part of Mexico, in the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico as well as along the Pacific ocean coastline all the way down into El Salvador, there were an ancient people who predated both the Mayans and Aztecs. These people were the Olmecas (some write it Olmec rather than Olmeca).

Olmec Head No. 3 from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan 1200–900 BCE – Author: Maribel Ponce Ixba – CC BY 2.0
Olmec Head No. 3 from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan 1200–900 BCE – Author: Maribel Ponce Ixba – CC BY 2.0

It is believed that the Olmecas originally came to Mesoamerica from Africa, crossing the Atlantic ocean in small open boats. While that may seem impossible, the ancient Phoenicians were known to be a sea-faring people as early as 3200 BC. While much of their travel was in and around the Mediterranean Sea, it is believed that they ventured into the Atlantic as well.

These people have left behind a large number of artifacts, specifically stone carvings. Many are of giant human heads, which range six to ten feet in height. These are believed to be the memorialized heads of kings.

They have also left behind altars and shrines. In La Venta, an area which is about as flat as a pool table, there is a cone-shaped manmade hill, perhaps the earliest of the pyramids in Mesoamerica. This amazing structure is over 100 feet tall and was surely used as a ceremonial site. It was originally surrounded by a number of these giant heads as well as altars also carved out of stone.

Altar in the museum of La Venta
Altar in the museum of La Venta

I have been to La Venta, which is probably the most famous of all the Olmeca archeological sites. I’ve seen these carvings up close, both there and in the Museum in Villahermosa, Tabasco, Mexico. The quality of the work is amazing, especially when you consider what they had to work with.

Amazing Carvings, Amazing Technique

These massive carvings are all made of basalt, a volcanic rock, and weigh as much as 50 tons. However, there is no naturally occurring basalt in the area. It had to be quarried and brought from over 150 miles away. Archeologists think this was done by floating the stones down the many rivers in the area on rafts.

One of the amazing things about these carvings is that the Olmecas took the trouble to bring the stones from that far away. There are examples of finely-adorned pottery, so they had simpler methods available to them but were still driven to put the work into these massive carvings.

Olmec Colossal Head in the ancient city of La Venta
Olmec Colossal Head in the ancient city of La Venta

Once at the site, these giant stones needed to be carved to their final form. Yet, the Olmeca people apparently didn’t have metal tools to work with. While they lived in the early part of the Bronze Age, this technological advancement was happening in China and then later in Europe. There is absolutely no evidence that the Olmeca people had bronze weapons or tools. Rather, all their tools were made of stone.

The Olmecas used obsidian for making knives – knapping the stone, much like the American Indians did. Other tools were made out of hard rock. In most cases, rocks were sought out for a specific purpose, allowing them to be used with minimal modification. Many examples of hammers, wedges, and axes have been found.

The Olmec Altar of the museum La Venta at the capital of Tabasco, Mexico.
The Olmec Altar of the museum La Venta at the capital of Tabasco, Mexico.

It is with these primitive tools that the Olmecan artisans carved these huge sculptures. The early part of the carving was probably done with wedges and hammers, using the wedges like a chisel to break off large chunks. But it is clear from looking at the results that the finishing work was not done by chipping but rather by abrasive action. The smooth surface could not have been achieved by chipping with such crude tools.

What this means is that other than rough shaping, the entire carving work was accomplished by rubbing hard stones against the soft basalt to wear it away. It’s amazing that they were able to create such intricate carvings using such crude methods.

Olmec colossal head
Olmec colossal head

If you look at any of the Olmeca carvings, you will find areas that are concave or sunken. These would include areas like eyes, cave entrances, and holes. There is also relief carving forming borders around the rims of altars. One such altar has the image of a priest or god sitting in the entrance to the underworld (a common figure in Olmeca altars) with a rope in his hand. The rope follows around the base of the altar to where it is bound around the neck of a slave or victim carved into the side.

Can This Help in a Survival Situation?

On the surface, it doesn’t seem like the ability to carve rock by rubbing rocks together would be a useful skill in our modern world with all the tools we have. But in a grid-down situation, most of those tools will end up being worthless.

There is no saying how far back such a situation would take society, technologically speaking, or how long it would take to recover. In the meantime, we would need to find other ways of doing things – in most cases, the old ways.

Mankind has used this same method of grinding stone against stone since our ancestors started raising crops. They needed to do this in order to make the various implements that different societies used for grinding grain. While they used the same methods for other things, such as the Olmecas making their giant heads, grinding grain might be the most important use we would have for this craft.

 
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