Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico

By Kathleen Berrin and Virginia M. Fields

Considered the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica, the people known today as the Olmec developed an iconic and sophisticated artistic style as early as the second millennium BC. This pre-Columbian civilization, which flourished in the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco between 1400 and 400 BC, is best known for the creation of colossal stone portrait heads of its rulers. Weighing up to 24 tons, the monumental heads are among ancient America’s most awe-inspiring and beautiful masterpieces.

Archaeologists have made significant finds at keys sites in Mexico over the past 15 years. Informed by the most recent scholarship, this sweeping international project brings together a diverse selection of more than 100 monuments, sculptures, adornments, masks, and vessels that paint a rich portrait of life in the most important Olmec centers, including San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, La Venta, and Tres Zapotes. A number of the artworks have never before been published. Particular attention is paid to the emergence of the culture, distinctive variations in the art of different sites, and the chronology and reach of Olmec civilization during its apex.

Centering on the concept of discovery, this wide-ranging volume presents a fresh look at the masterworks of the Olmec world, recapturing the excitement that greeted the unearthing of the first colossal stone head in the mid-19th century.


Kathleen Berrin is former curator in charge of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Virginia M. Fields is senior curator, Art of the Ancient Americas, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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