6 May 2022


Olmec Colossal Heads

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The Olmec civilization is an ancient society belonging to Mexico’s Gulf Coast who existed within the periods of 1200-400 BC. Olmec Colossal Heads are stone monuments that represent human heads, which were sculpted from huge boulders of basalt. These colossal heads are seventeen in number and date back to 900 BC; they are believed to be the Olmec’s civilization distinctive feature. All the seventeen heads portray men who have fully matured having with unique features like, eyes slightly crossed and fleshy cheeks among others; at the back of these heads it is usually flat. These heads according to the Olmec civilization represent the powerful rulers that the society had. The reason behind them being considered to be Olmec powerful rulers is simply because they are unique and must have cost a fortune to be made apart. Spherical boulders were mostly used in their sculpting but also enormous stone thrones were re-curved to make them. These heads were first discovered in the 19th century at a place known as Tres Zapotes. Their discovery led to the Olmec’s civilization first ever archaeological investigation in 1938 by one Stirling Mathew. Of all the seventeen Olmec heads discovered, 2 were from important centers of the Olmec civilization, 4 were from La Venta, and 10 were from San Lorenzo. The main source of these sculpted Olmec heads was Tuxtla Mountains, at a place called Cerro Cintepec. This sculpted heads weigh up to 8 tons, 3 meters (9.8 feet) high and have a circumference of 4.5 meters (14.7 feet). Although all the Olmec heads have been dressed in battle regalia (helmets or hat) only worn during a Mesoamerican ballgame and war, every single Olmec head has a feature which is unique to the others. This suggests that they are a depiction of the rulers of the Olmec civilization. The reason for the sculpting of these stone heads is not clearly known up to today, but as believed they are of great importance to the Olmec civilization. 

Every Olmec head was a portrait of leader to remind the Olmec civilization about the powerful leaders they once had. Using wet sand and reeds, every facial detail was drilled on the stone heads to give the heads real depth of prominent features like mouth, nostrils and nose, and the eyes. Others went ahead and deliberately drilled other features such as dimples on their respective positions; that is cheeks, lips, and chin. All the seventeen heads have a display of unique features on the faces, done in a very expressive and naturalistic way; these give a clear and are thus considered portraits of the actual rulers (Cartwright, 2014). The Olmec heads that were sculpted are a clear indication of the legacy that the Olmec civilization had. These colossal heads were carved from basalt and displayed all the facial features that were unique to every individual and may be kept and looked at and thus be considered as portraits of the rulers that the civilization had.

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The heads are more like a representation of culture. This is because the heads are dressed in protective helmets, which are battle gears worn for the purpose of war. They are also worn during celebrations such as the ball games, Mesoamerican ballgame. The pattern and the design as well may vary; at times the heads have jaguar paws which usually hang within the forehead. Jaguar paw may be a representation of the jaguar pelt that was usually worn to symbolize religious and political power, which is an association that is very common within the Mesoamerican culture (Cartwright, 2014). The Colossal head 1, which was found at La Venta, is an example, it has large talons that are curved at the helmet’s front. What is clear is that each and every face of the Olmec heads has a distinct personality as well as the looks; this suggested that every individual had great importance as well as the power to the Olmec civilization as a whole (Minster, 2017). 

Another thing is that the Olmec colossal heads may be for the purpose of showing power. This is simply because the heads are believed to have been made from a far distance from the Olmec's home. According to Ancient History Encyclopedia, the Olmec colossal heads were transported from as far as 100 kilometers (Cartwright, 2014). Also, the heads are heavy, weighing 8 tons with a circumference of 4.5 meters and a height of 3 meters. Anything with such measurements is simply heavy and expensive which only the powerful and most influential can afford, and thus the loyal subjects will concur to the terms and deliver whatever is needed (The Vintage News, 2017). The colossal heads construction was more like a strategy that the rulers invented to make patriots of themselves showing immediacy; this was with the aim of making the rest of the civilization view their ruling as personal, inescapable and accessible (Pasztory, 2005). Also, the Olmec heads were a representation of the power of each ruler which usually came into existence (life) any moment within the colossal incarnation (Pasztory, 2005).

Another thing might also be for being great individuals. All the Olmec colossal heads are dressed in war helmets, which simply mean warriors. The helmets were only worn during war times and perhaps for other cultural activities. The heads may be more for the purpose of remembering and honoring powerful warriors and leaders, and also ancestors among others, for instance, the heads found in San Lorenzo. The tradition that the society used in representing the powerful ancestors and leaders through the sculpting of stone heads persevered through the mid periods of Preclassic in La Venta. At this location, three heads were placed at the sites northern edge. The reason for their situation at this place is simply because it is believed that they served with great dedication ensuring that the sites northern entry was well guarded (Guernsey, 2012). Also, the colossal heads were used by the leaders to simply mark their leadership of the Olmec civilization and therefore, there distribution was as a way of declaring political dominance within many territories. This is evident by the way three of the La Venta heads were positioned at the Northern edge. It also shows the reason for placing four other heads at the entrances of the city’s sacred precinct at La Venta, which stood as guards (Cartwright, 2014). 

The Olmec colossal heads are an important history of the Olmec civilization and also to the modern Mexico. Scholars have learned a lot about the Olmec civilization thanks to the Olmec colossal heads. One of the greatest lessons about the Olmec civilization is that they great artists, their great skill are evident from the stone head sculptures. The Olmec colossal heads are a pure inspiration and amazing creation as well as an attraction which is popular within the museums that house them, with regional museums within their place of discovery housing a great number of them (Minster, 2017). 

The Olmec colossal heads were discovered at three different places and are believed to be the earliest civilization of the Central America who laid the subsequent societies’ foundations. The dating of this seventeen heads is not known up to date. However, the heads that were discovered at San Lorenzo indicated that the time of their burial was around 900 BC, which is a clear indication that they were manufactured long before 900 BC itself. Those that were discovered at the Tres Zapotes were not at their original position, meaning that they had been moved earlier to a different location before their discovery, and finally, the ones that were discovered at the La Venta which was buried but when they were discovered, they had been partially exposed from the surface. All of the Olmec colossal heads sculptures is still a mystery to the modern man up to this day. Scholars believe that they were made long before they were buried and moved to a different location, they estimate it to be at least a millennium or a century before their discovery. The colossal heads discovered at San Lorenzo are said to be the oldest of all the Olmec heads and were executed in a very skillful manner at the early periods of Preclassic. The other heads followed each other at mid Preclassic periods (Ancient Peoples, n.d.). 

The Olmec civilization and their sculptures the ancient Olmec colossal heads purpose is not clearly known up to date simply because nothing is known about them other than the sculpted heads that represent important members of their civilization. The Olmec heads purpose is believed to be for the purposes of showing power in leadership, history, the legacy of the Olmec civilization, artwork, among other things. The sole purpose believed to be behind the making of these colossal heads for the representation of the Olmec civilization leaders. The civilizations work still lives despite the civilization itself having vanished years ago, their sculptures are today’s great part of the history of the Mesoamericans. The sculpted heads were not just a representation of the individuals (Olmeic leaders) but also went ahead to incorporate the leadership concept itself.


Pasztory, E. (2005). Thinking with things: Toward a new vision of art. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

Minster, C. (2017, Feburuary 6). The Colossal Heads of the Olmec. ThoughtCo . Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-colossal-heads-of-the-olmec-2136318

Guernsey, J. (2012). Sculpture and social dynamics in preclassic Mesoamerica. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ancient Peoples. (n.d). Retrieved from https://ancientpeoples.tumblr.com/post/30453165923/the-olmec-colossal-heads-consist-of-at-least

Cartwright, M. (2014, March 21). Olmec Colossal Stone Heads. Ancient . Retrieved from http://www.ancient.eu/article/672/

The Vintage News. (2017, February 20). Mexico’s “Olmec Colossal Heads” are a mystery as to their age and their method of construction. Retrieved from https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/02/20/mexicos-olmec-colossal-heads-are-a-mystery-as-to-their-age-and-their-method-of-construction/

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