La Venta, a small island in the coastal wetlands of the Gulf of Mexico, had a rich array of agricultural and marine resources upon which to build a civilization. Recent excavations have established that small villages in the immediate area were growing maize as early as 1750 B.C., but the site reached its maximum size and importance from 1000 to 500 B.C. It was apparently abandoned by 400 B.C. First explored in 1925, La Venta has provided some of the most important archaeological finds from ancient Mesoamerica. In addition to one of the earliest known pyramidal structuresthe Great Pyramidthe site's inventory features seventy-seven carved stone monuments, including four colossal heads; four multi-ton greenstone offerings and three mosaic pavements of serpentine blocks; a tomb of basalt columns; and numerous small jade figures and ornaments. Excavations in the 1980s established the site's truly ancient past and provided the first accurate map.
Much of the iconography at the site reflects its environmental diversity and stresses the importance of the ruler's role in mediating between the watery realms occupied by fish, alligators, and sharks, and the earthly realm of agricultural and animal fertility. Though some of the northern sector of the site was destroyed by modern construction, it is known that the ceremonial heart of La Venta was aligned to eight degrees west of north, probably for astronomical reasons. Three colossal heads, facing north, served to mark the northern periphery. At some thirty meters tall, the Great Pyramid divides the site into northern and southern sectors. Access to the northern ceremonial precinct of Complex A was probably limited to the elite, who may have lived on the largely unexcavated Stirling "Acropolis." The southern sector, Complex B, includes a large plaza where numerous whole and fragmentary monuments have been discovered. It probably served as the primary staging area for ritual performances by La Venta's rulers.