La Venta: Stone Sculpture

Works of Art


La Venta’s large stone sculpture was made of basalt from the Tuxtla Mountains far to the north. The Olmec transported these massive basalt boulders by means of the region’s meandering rivers, where they were used for thrones, altars, stelae, and colossal heads. These heads, striking in their individuality, are thought to depict the ancient rulers. Distinct headdresses adorn each head, underscoring their different personalities. La Venta’s rulers oversaw a burgeoning economy that included trade in exotic materials such as greenstones, much of which was buried in the elaborate offerings of Complex A. The site’s ceremonial architecture is notable for use of local materials. Complex A, in particular, was the scene of four construction phases marked by the use of local clays and sands in a variety of colors.

In addition to the three-dimensional colossal heads, Olmec sculptors carved stelae and thrones with a mixture of low- and high-relief techniques. The stelae depict rulers in elaborate ritual garb, often surrounded by “flying” figures—perhaps depictions of ancestors conjured in the ruler’s visions. The thrones, identified also as altars, often have a large central niche carved in the base. In La Venta Altar 4, a carved figure emerges from the niche, which symbolizes a cave. A ruler, he wears an eagle headdress establishing his ability to emulate predators of the sky, and he holds a rope in his hands. The rope winds around the base of the throne to a bound captive. The motifs surrounding the throne’s upper band recall jaguars and mythical dragons, powerful images in Olmec ideology.

Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2001


Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “La Venta: Stone Sculpture.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2001)

Further Reading

Benson, Elizabeth P., and Beatriz de la Fuente, eds. Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico. Exhibition catalogue. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1996.

Coe, Michael D., et al. The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership. Exhibition catalogue. Princeton: Princeton University Art Museum, 1995.

Fuente, Beatriz de la. Los hombres de piedra: Escultura olmeca. 2d ed. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1984.

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