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Monuments, Hieroglyphs, and Native Fauna

Posted On July 28, 2020 | 10:19 am | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Stephanie Strauss conducts the first art historical assessment of Epi-Olmec elite visual culture

Stephanie Strauss, most recently professor of art history at the Savannah College of Art and Design, was a 2019–2020 fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies. Her research report, “Sculpting the Narrative: The Material Practice of Epi-Olmec Art and Writing,” encouraged dialogue between Epi-Olmec texts and images.


Q&A with Stephanie Strauss 

How does Epi-Olmec art differ from that of other Mesoamerican cultures?

We know comparatively little about the people who produced the Epi-Olmec monuments and sites found across Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The Epi-Olmec built platforms, carved monuments, and produced distinctive material culture between circa 350 BCE and 550 CE, in the centuries after the collapse of the ancient Olmec (a Formative-era people who remain saddled with an exonym that twentieth-century scholars pulled from Late Postclassic sources). From an art historical perspective, the earlier Olmec are defined by sumptuous in-the-round monumentality. In the Epi-Olmec period, public monuments became flatter, with a tendency toward columnar forms—a number of which feature hieroglyphic writing.

 My research seeks to take this elite Epi-Olmec visual culture on its own terms. Students of Mesoamerican art are typically introduced to the field by a “blockbuster” group—the Maya, the Mexica, the Zapotec—and learn to identify patterns in Mesoamerican visual culture based on these more robustly studied cultures. While there are salient cross-cultural parallels to be found across ancient Mesoamerica, you can become predisposed to identify motifs from lesser-known cultures (like the Epi-Olmec) via their definitions from Maya studies or Olmec studies or Mixtec studies.

To push back against this pattern, I’ve taken a slow-looking approach to the corpus of inscribed Epi-Olmec monuments, as well as expanded the scope of my analysis. For example, I’ve catalogued Epi-Olmec monuments without hieroglyphic text, tracked the iconographic underpinnings of Epi-Olmec hieroglyphic signs, and surveyed material classes often left out of art historical studies (such as stamps). My contribution to the scholarship is to create a broader, more robust category of Epi-Olmec monuments (whether inscribed or not) that comes from the right region at the right time period and resonates with the visual tropes of better-known Epi-Olmec objects. The Maya produced exquisite monuments and material culture without hieroglyphs, and the Epi-Olmec people were doing that, too.


Why consider Epi-Olmec art and writing together? 

I first encountered the famous Tuxtla Statuette while it was on loan to Dumbarton Oaks from the National Museum of Natural History. It captivated me with its combination of sumptuously carved greenstone, which felt very Olmec, and spidering geometric hieroglyphic inscription. That led me down the path of working to reinsert an Olmec visual ancestry into the study of Epi-Olmec culture.

Dumbarton Oaks has a rich history of displaying and disseminating Epi-Olmec materials. At the start of my fellowship, I used the correspondence of influential Maya epigrapher Yuri Knorosov to study an epigraphic illustration of the Tuxtla Statuette, sent to him by famous Mayanist George Stuart. Stuart didn’t just transcribe the hieroglyphs—he included a background echo of the statuette, because he was thinking about text and object as two important parts of a visual whole. Today, unfortunately, Epi-Olmec visual culture is widely defined by its complex hieroglyphic writing system. We only have a few dozen inscribed Epi-Olmec objects, so deciphering the writing has been challenging. Focusing on that one narrow aspect of how the Epi-Olmec elite signaled their identity and history to their followers, however, is cutting ourselves off. 

The vast majority of ancient people who viewed Epi-Olmec monuments in their original contexts were illiterate. You have to get very close to the most famous Epi-Olmec inscribed monument, the La Mojarra Stela, to even see its hieroglyphs, much less read them—but the enrobed human figure, carved at higher relief, is visible for meters. The La Mojarra Stela was likely intentionally designed so its imagery would be more visible than its text. By sidelining the iconography of Epi-Olmec monuments, we’re ignoring what most people in that time period took as substantive information about the place of their leaders and themselves in Epi-Olmec society.


What’s one discovery you’ve made with this approach? 

Where appropriate, I draw upon the flora and fauna of the Gulf Coast and Isthmus region to reinsert a sense of place into Epi-Olmec visual culture. For example, the aforementioned La Mojarra figure is typically examined through a Maya-style lens. The enigmatic organic form trailing off the back of the protagonist’s headdress is often left out of such discussions, as it doesn’t have a clear parallel in any other Mesoamerican context.

I’ve proposed this is a depiction of a West Indian manatee, commonly seen in the Acula River (along which the La Mojarra Stela was erected) until a few generations ago. Manatees would have been a powerful part of a specifically Epi-Olmec landscape; they likely carried supernatural connotations and, judging by contemporary examples, may have been a rich protected food source. Marking the protagonist’s costume with something powerfully associated with the Epi-Olmec leaders’ territory and local resources also resonates with pan-Mesoamerican parallels. Interpreting this form as a specific landscape marker, therefore, gives more context and power back to its original Epi-Olmec artist-scribes.


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.