The Olmec culture emerged between 1500BC and 400BC in the Gulf Coast Lowlands of modern day Mexico.

To many scholars, they are Mesoamerica’s first fully developed civilisation, a ‘mother culture’ whose legacy can be traced through all subsequent Mesoamerican societies.

To others, they were but one of many Formative, or Preclassic societies, who shared widely-distributed culture traits and art styles. Whichever way one chooses to look at this mysterious culture, there is no doubt that the art they left behind can tell us much about life in the Olmec period, and the powerful concepts and beliefs that underpinned it.

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    Seated pottery figure, 1200-400 BC  

    Seated pottery figure

    This is an example of an Olmec ‘baby’ figure, whose style is inextricably linked with the Olmec. The exact significance of these figures remains a mystery. It has been suggested that they may have been ‘sacrificed’ in lieu of actual infants or that they portray supernatural or elite beings.

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    Votive jade axe, 1200-400 BC  

    Votive jade axe

    This ceremonial axe depicts the most important of Olmec supernatural beings, the were-jaguar. Frequently depicted on effigies of agricultural tools such as celts and axes, this anthropomorphic being would have been a powerful talisman, handed down from one generation to the next.

  • 3

    Jade perforator, 1200-400 BC  

    Jade perforator

    We know that perforators played an important role in Maya bloodletting rites associated with royal ceremonies. It is supposed that Olmec perforators would have served a similar function, although the size and impracticality of this example suggests that it was itself a ritual object, which might have formed part of an Olmec ruler’s ritual regalia.

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    Jade pectoral, 1200-400 BC and re-used in Maya AD 100-900  

    Jade pectoral

    This portrait, a beautiful example of Olmec craftsmanship, was re-used by the Maya, who inscribed it with glyphs. This indicates that the object was a highly prized heirloom and suggests that the Olmec figure portrayed was respected as an ancestor.