Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 10, 2017
Diana Magaloni Kerpel and Laura Filloy Nadal La Ofrenda 4 de La Venta: Un tesoro olmeca reunido en el Museo Nacional de Antropología. Estudios y catálogo razonado Exh. cat. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2013. 240 pp. Paper $25.00 (9786074843699)

La Ofrenda 4 de La Venta is an edited volume of seven scholarly essays on Offering #4, a group of sixteen small stone anthropomorphic figures and six jade celts recovered in the 1955 excavations by Philip Drucker, Robert F. Heizer, and Robert J. Squier at the Middle Preclassic (1000–400 BCE) Gulf Coast Olmec site of La Venta. As noted in the preface and first essay of this treatise, the offering is one of the most spectacular, iconic discoveries of small stone sculpture in the history of Olmec archaeology, long meriting an in-depth analysis as presented in this monograph. This dedicated volume was enabled by the 2012 return to Mexico of three figures that had been on long-term loan to the Smithsonian Institution, allowing Offering #4 to be permanently reunited in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City. The seven essays are divided among three units, with the first three chapters exploring the history of the archaeological excavation, study, and exhibition of Offering #4; the fourth, fifth, and sixth chapters comprising analyses of the materials used and the formal qualities of the figures and celts; and the final chapter forming a catalogue raisonné of the figures and examining the implications of their placements in the offering.

In the first chapter, Rebecca González Lauck and Valérie Courtès discuss the archaeological context, providing a thoughtful description of the physical and cultural setting of La Venta. The authors briefly describe the history of the early archaeological explorations of La Venta sponsored by the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution, and the University of California, Berkeley; they examine the photographs and the archaeological field reports on Offering #4 by excavators Drucker, Heizer, and Squier—also recognizing the Mexican archaeologist Eduardo Contreras, a prominent participant in the excavations—and provide a detailed account of the scene presented by Offering #4 in situ. Among the most interesting aspects of this chapter are observations of inconsistencies and shortcomings of the original field reports. The authors astutely note, for example, that while Offering #4 was said to be found in the late afternoon, shadows in the photographs clearly indicate that the find occurred at midday. They also note that the reported white sand cap over the figures is not visible in photographs, and reiterate earlier scholars’ suggestions that Offering #4 might be an intrusive cache made well after the original construction of the Northwest Platform (William Coe and Robert Stuckenwrath, Jr., “A Review of La Venta, Tabasco and Its Relevance to the Olmec Problem,” in Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers 31 (1964): 1–43). Challenging this claim are photographs in the volume that do illustrate the presence of lighter-colored areas on both the floor and walls around the excavated figures; other chapter authors in the volume also assert the excavators’ conclusions that Offering #4 was deposited before the construction of the Northwest Platform floors, and that the intrusive hole through the floors reached only to the tops of the figures, as if to check on them. Nevertheless, the intriguing possibility that Offering #4 may have been an intrusive deposit merits further analysis and consideration.

Jane MacLaren Walsh’s chapter explores in more detail the history of the exploration of Gulf Coast Olmec sites, from the discovery of the first colossal head by Hueyapan hacienda workers in the 1850s through the most recent excavations by the Proyecto Arqueológico de La Venta, headed by González Lauck since 1984. She also discusses how the three figures from Offering #4 and a number of other jade artifacts from La Venta were loaned to the National Museum of the United States, now the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, where they provided the basis for detailed scientific and cultural study by many different scholars for over half a century.

The third chapter, by Martha Carmona Macías and Patricia Ochoa Castillo, provides a history of the complete exhibitions of Offering #4, when all sixteen original figures were displayed together. The authors also discuss the complex negotiations for the return of the three figures from the Smithsonian and explain the newly redesigned permanent display at the Museo Nacional de Antropología. An interesting narrative in this chapter relates how, during the infamous 1985 robbery of the Museo Nacional de Antropología, the three reproductions in the display actually saved Offering #4 from being stolen, as the thieves encountered the reproductions first and mistakenly assumed that the display was made completely of reproductions.

Olaf Jaime-Riverón’s chapter presents excellent photographs and a thorough, precise study of the six celts, describing and categorizing them by color, form, size, finish, relative positioning in the offering, and even possible practical use as indicated by beveling, finish, and wear. He also recognizes—as did the original excavators—that remnants of drilled holes and truncated incised designs indicate that several celts were recarved from previous objects, noting that Celts #3 and #4 together once formed part of an object incised with a well-known motif dubbed the “Flying Olmec.” His study of the incisions on Celts #1 and #2 provides interesting new avenues of analysis in comparing certain motifs to geometric designs incised on Olmec pottery and stelae; this study would have benefited, however, from further direct comparison to Olmec figural iconography, which reveals elements of the “Flying Olmec” headdress on Celt #2 and how Celt #1 illustrates half of a bilaterally symmetrical Olmec supernatural (Billie Follensbee, “Offering #4, La Venta,” in Smarthistory [September 8, 2016]: Jaime-Riverón’s chapter nevertheless provides a number of compelling hypotheses, such as his contention that the Olmec change in preference for bluish jade to greenish jade is directly attributable to their change in gaining subsistence from blue aquatic landscapes in the Early Preclassic to green agricultural landscapes in the Middle Preclassic.

The sixth chapter, by Laura Filloy Nadal, Diana Magaloni Kerpel, José Luis Ruvalcaba Sil, and Ricardo Sánchez Hernández, is an in-depth physical analysis of Offering #4 using x-radiation, ultraviolet and infrared light, and stereoscopic microscopes, done in collaboration with the Instituto de Física de la UNAM and INAH. Together, the authors examine the mineral composition of the stones used to manufacture the figures and celts; they use spectrum analysis to identify the red pigments coating the sculptures and, where possible, to trace the geologic sources of the jadeite.

The fifth chapter, by Josefina Bautista Martínez, and the seventh chapter, by Magaloni Kerpel and Filloy Nadal, provide excellent photographs, describe the figures, and compare and contrast the anthropometry of the figures’ heads and of the complete figures, respectively. Magaloni Kerpel and Filloy Nadal further attempt to develop subgroups of the figures according to material, color, physical features, and age, relating these to the positions and directions of the figures’ gazes in the scene.

Unfortunately, overshadowing the volume are a number of oversights and inaccuracies. The volume would have benefited from more collaboration among the authors, as they do not address disagreements among the chapters; this might have also avoided other problems, such as inconsistencies in the identification of features that indicate age and physical studies that inconsistently record important features, as with omitted notations of nasal piercings that are visible in the photographs. Likewise, the volume would have benefited from a more thorough exploration of the published literature on Olmec greenstone figures, which has addressed numerous important, additional aspects including the systematic analysis of body features, of sex and gender, of indications of recarving and reuse, and of piercings and open poses that suggest the possibility of perishable clothing and adornment.

The most serious error in the volume, however, consists of the misidentification of several figures in Offering #4 in the second, fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters. In the original excavation reports, the figures are identified by number in photographs and a diagram, designated as Figure 7 through Figure 22 (Philip Drucker, Robert F. Heizer, and Robert J. Squier, “Excavations at La Venta Tabasco, 1955,” Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 170 (1959): 152–61; plates 30–36). But a comparison of these identifications with the volume’s catalog reveals that these chapters confuse four of the figures in Offering #4: Figure 12 in the excavation reports is misidentified in these chapters as Figure 17; Figure 17 is misidentified as Figure 20; Figure 20 is misidentified as Figure 21; and Figure 21 is misidentified as Figure 12. These errors are especially significant for Magaloni Kerpel and Filloy Nadal’s chapter, as they developed their subgroups using these mistaken identifications of the figures in combination with the excavation report’s labeled diagram of the scene; the charts that they have developed must therefore be corrected before any resulting patterns or correlations could be considered meaningful.

Nevertheless, to dismiss the volume because of these deficiencies would be an overreaction, as the different chapters provide considerable new insights and open up strong avenues of previously unattempted research. The intriguing new hypotheses, mineralogical studies, descriptions, and excellent photographs also provide an invaluable basis for future research. Read critically and in combination with the original excavation reports and other published literature, the volume presents an important resource for scholars exploring not only this important offering but also Olmec greenstone figures as a whole.

Billie Follensbee
Professor, Department of Art and Design, Missouri State University

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