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3,000-Year-Old Monument Found In Southern Mexico

February 16, 2011

Archaeologists uncovered a 3,000-year-old Mesoamerican stone monument in southern Mexico of an unknown man.

“It’s beautiful and was obviously very important,” says University of Wisconsin-Madison archaeologist John Hodgson of the newly discovered stone monument. “But we will probably never know who he was or what the sculpture means in its entirety.”

The man is the central figure of a stone monument discovered in 2009 at a site known as Ojo de Agua in Chiapas, Mexico.

Hodgson describes the new monument in the cover article of the current issue of Mexicon, which is a leading peer-reviewed journal of Mesoamerican studies.

Monument 3 is the second carved monument found in Ojo de Agua.  Monument 1 was discovered accidentally when a local farmer hit it with a plow in the 1960s.

The newly discovered stone monument was uncovered in the process of digging an irrigation ditch.

Hodgson was able to see the monument’s impression in the trench wall and study the soil layers where it had been buried after he received word of the discovery just a few days after it was uncovered.

“Usually sculptures are first seen by archaeologists in private art collections and we normally have no good idea where they came from. The depictions of figures and the motifs change in form through time so you can get an approximate date by comparing styles,” he wrote in a press release. “But we were able to date the new monument by where it was found to a narrow 100-year window, which is very rare.”

Radiocarbon dating has found the monument to be about 3,000-years-old.  Its age corresponds to the Early Formative period, when an early culture known as the Olmec lived in the area.

“Everything means something in this kind of culture,” pre-eminent archaeologist Michael D. Coe, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Yale University and expert on Mesoamerican civilizations said in the press release. “It obviously was a public monument “” an important one, probably in connection with some really big cheese who lorded it over the area.” Coe was not directly involved in the work but is familiar with the newly discovered monument.

“It appears to me to be a depiction of an event or a way to convey other types of information,” Hodgson adds. “This dates to a time prior to a developed written language, but like the modern symbol used internationally for the Red Cross, symbols are very efficient at communicating complicated ideas.”

The figure on the tablet is depicted wearing an elaborate headdress, loincloth and ornate accessories.  The tablet also includes a smaller secondary figure and a series of asymmetric zigzag designs that the authors say could represent lighting, local mountain ranges, or other features of the natural world.

“This is closely connected with agriculture and the cult of the corn god,” Coe says, pointing out the zigzags. “Thunderstorms bring the rain.”

The monument is 14-inches wide and stands about three feet tall.

Ojo de Agua covers about 500 acres and is the largest site in the area from the time period 1200 to 1000 B.C. 

Hodgson expects there are many more clues at Ojo de Agua and hopes to have the opportunity to continue working at the site and perhaps have another look at Monument 3.

“We’ve just scratched the surface there. The things we’ve found are fantastic,” Hodgson says. “These early societies were a lot more complicated than we thought they were.”

Image Caption: This photo and drawing illustrate a recently discovered 3,000-year-old Olmec-style stone monument from Ojo de Agua, the site of an early planned settlement in what is now the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. The carved monument provides information about Olmec culture in the area and includes symbols of maize, deities or other important figures, and possible features of the natural world. Photo: John Hodgson; Drawing: Kisslan Chan and John Clark, New World Archaeological Foundation

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