Mexican officials have announced the recovery of a large carved statue from the Olmec period that was allegedly stolen decades ago – a sculpture known as ‘Monument 9’. It is colloquially known as an “Earth monster”, a cosmogonic creature frequently appearing in Olmec iconography. It is believed to date back to the Middle Preclassic Period (800BC-400BC) and had made its way to the USA as early as the 1950s.
Interpreting the Statue: Symbolism and Motifs
The interpretation of the massive Monument 9 sculpture, measuring 1.8 meters tall, 1.5 meters wide (5’10” x 4’10” feet), and weighing approximately one metric ton (1000 kilograms), by a specialist from the Chalcatzingo Archaeological Project suggests that the open jaws of the figure represent a gateway to the underworld. According to a press release by the National Institute of History and Anthropology (INAH) , this interpretation is in line with the Olmec belief in the concept of “worldly levels”, which included the upper world, middle world, and underworld.
The carved sculpture is believed to be from Chalcatzingo, a large archaeological site in Mexico. (Photo by Kent Reilly III. Courtesy Mario Córdova/ via INAH)
The Olmec believed that supernatural beings and ancestors resided in the underworld, and that it was possible to communicate with them through ritual offerings and other practices.
“… a sequence of three concentric bands is projected onto its mouth, including cruciform access to a cavern”. The three bands circling the mouth of Monument 9 represent access to a cave, which is another motif that appears frequently in Olmec iconography. Caves were believed to be important portals to the underworld, and were often associated with water and fertility. Additionally, the images of branches of a bromeliad plant in the corner of the figure’s mouth are characteristic of iconography in the Chalcatzingo area.
Bromeliads were believed to have spiritual significance to the Olmec, and were often depicted in their art. The presence of this motif on Monument 9 suggests that the sculpture was likely created in the Chalcatzingo region, and must have had a specific ritual or symbolic significance to the people who created it.
Illegal Passage to the United States?
The same press release explains that the statue was taken from the archaeological site of Chalcatzingo, located in the state of Morelos in south-central Mexico. The site is an essential part of the Mesoamerican culture and is known for its monumental structures, architectural complexes, and rock carvings . The sculpture’s removal was illegal, and its journey to the United States is still unclear.
”Our Consul Jorge Islas in New York confirms to me that Mexico’s most sought Olmec piece has been recovered and is about to return home, from where it never should have been taken,” Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard tweeted.
The Consul General of Mexico in New York, Jorge Islas, was notified that the piece had been recovered by the Antiquities Trafficking unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, but no further details regarding the recovery have been released.
Mario Córdova Tello, an archaeologist, expressed his excitement at the recovery of Monument 9 in a statement released by the INAH, saying that “this monument is a key piece for research on Olmec iconography, which is why we receive this news with joy and enthusiasm.”
Mexican Government and Repatriation Challenges
Mexico has been successful in repatriating thousands of archaeological objects from all over the world in recent years. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has made repatriation a foreign policy priority and launched a campaign to repatriate Mexico’s cultural heritage using the hashtag #MiPatrimonioNoSeVende (“My heritage is not for sale”), according to a report by The Art Newspaper .
France, Italy, and Germany returned 86 cultural objects to Mexico last week, and Italy returned 43 objects to Mexico in February. The Netherlands returned 223 artifacts in December of last year. AFP reports that the Mexican government has ‘rescued’ historical heritage taken from the country since 2018 – 10,000 goods in total, allegedly.
However, the repatriation efforts faced some challenges as a recent auction of pre-Columbian objects held by Millon in Paris went ahead despite Mexican authorities pressuring the auction house to return 83 pieces. The auction drew criticism from Mexico, with the country’s embassy in Paris releasing a statement calling the auction “an attack on Mexico’s cultural heritage.” Despite these challenges, Mexico remains committed to repatriating its cultural heritage and preserving its unique history for future generations.
Chalcatzingo archaeological site, Mexico. (Bucentaure/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Chalcatzingo: Monuments and the Olmec Civilization
The origins of Monument 9 are tracked to Chalcatzingo. This is a large archaeological site located in the state of Morelos in south-central Mexico. It was occupied from the Middle Formative Period (1000-400 BC) through the Classic Period (200-900 AD), and is known for its monumental stone sculptures and architecture.
The site was first discovered in the 1920s by American archaeologist Byron Cummings, and extensive excavations were carried out by Mexican archaeologist Ignacio Bernal in the 1950s and 1960s. The excavations revealed a large plaza surrounded by pyramids and other structures, as well as a number of carved stone monuments, including Monument 9.
Chalcatzingo is particularly significant for its role in the development of the Olmec civilization. The Olmecs practiced religious worship of the region’s apex predator, the jaguar, reports Atlas Obscura . Settled around 1500 BC, a complex culture had developed there by 900 BC.
While the iconography of big cats does appear in some Olmec artifacts, it is not necessarily ubiquitous. The Olmec civilization was known for its intricate and varied art, which included depictions of many different animals, deities , and other subjects.
That being said, big cats do appear in some of the most well-known Olmec artifacts, such as the “Were-Jaguar” figures and the “Baby-Faced” figurines. Chalcatzingo, like other Olmec settlements, does have examples of big cat iconography in its art and architecture. For example, the “Temple of the Jaguar” at Chalcatzingo features a carved jaguar head at its entrance.
The site’s monumental sculptures, including Monument 9, exhibit many of the characteristics of Olmec iconography, such as the representation of “earth monsters” and the use of symbolism related to caves and underworlds. Chalcatzingo is open to the public and is a popular destination for tourists and archaeology enthusiasts. It also serves as an active research site, with ongoing excavations and conservation efforts carried out by the Mexican government’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).
Top image: Sketch of the Chalcaltzingo Project 2008. Source: Courtesy of Mario Córdova/ INAH
By Sahir Pandey
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