Michael D. Coe and Richard A. Diehl discusses the various means by which monuments were mutilated and destroyed.

Michael D. Coe

Michael D. Coe and Richard A. Diehl, In the land of the Olmec, 2 vols. (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1980), 1:297-98

University of Texas Press
Richard A. Diehl, Michael D. Coe
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Mutilation and destruction

Much attention has been paid to manufacture and possible modes of transport of the great Olmec monuments. Less has been said about the mutilation and destruction visited upon them, mainly at the end of San Lorenzo B. But, as evidence for the technical know-how and tremendous energy available to these ancient people, this is just as astonishing. This destructive activity shows itself at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán in the following ways.

1. Fracturing—this is the breaking away of flakes, chunks, or entire heads from seated or standing figures. Few figures are found with their heads and, for the broken-off heads that are recovered (such as San Lorenzo Monument 6), one never finds the bodies. Incidentally, bodies greatly outnumber heads, which must have been disposed of elsewhere. Angular monuments such as flat stelae and altars would surely have been easier to mutilate in this fashion than the more rounded colossal heads, and one finds the fracture damage to the latter to have been minimal (e.g., the lower lip of San Lorenzo Monument 3). In contrast, awesome destruction was inflicted upon San Lorenzo Monuments 18 and 20, both altars. Exactly how this was carried but is hard to comprehend. No signs of the use of the fire-and-water technique are visible, not the slots for wedges. Monument 20 exhibits the scars of massive flakes that were struck off by gigantic hammerblows. In our bewilderment, we have postulated large tree trunks being lashed together into huge tripods, form which great pieces of already shattered monuments could be suspended by ropes and sent oscillating to smash into their appointed targets. In no other way we can account for the power of these blows.

2. Slotting—This consists of oblong compartments pecked out of the monument surface. Good examples are to be seen on the right end of San Lorenzo Monument 14, where an entire surface has been lowered and slotted with multiple depressions to largely obliterate the relief figure of a captive, and on the back of Monument 20, a complex production which almost suggests a bar-and-dot numeral. Possibly the celt-shaped depressions of San Lorenzo Monument 8 are a case of slotting, although they look original.

3. Pounding—the surfaces of most monuments show some signs of pounding with stones to obliterate features; this is the way, for instance, that the seated figure in the niche of San Lorenzo Monument 20 was made almost unrecognizable.

4. Pitting—here we shall follow Clewlow and distinguish between dimpled pits, “ground, cup-shaped depressions with the bottom,” and ground pits, “cup-shaped depressions without concavities in the bottom” (1974: 13). Ground pits are much rarer than the former and are usually shallower; they can be seen on the front of the tabletop of San Lorenzo Monument 14. Dimpled pits often occur in pairs, which is why some of us have thought of them as “negative breasts.” As can be seen from the San Lorenzo corpus, they are among the most common techniques of defacing colossal heads, and their frequency varies form only a few—for example, below the right eye on Monument 1—to so many that they can turn a head into a veritable Swiss cheese as on Monument 19. Ground pits could have been produced by a simple grinding motion such as that used to turn out the concave surfaces of iron-ore mirrors. But the configuration and greater depth of dimpled pits suggest a deice like a bow drill with a convex weight or wheel. While we interpret dimpled pits as signs of mutilation, they might have had a more esoteric meaning to the ancients; for instance, dots with circles are an iconographic device indicating stars in the asterism maps shown in the Primeros memoriales (Sahagún 1905: 66).

5. Sharpening grooves—Clewlow says that these refer to the “longitudinal grooves, or boat-shaped channels, carved into stone as an apparent result of the grinding or sharpening of axes or celts” (1974: 13). This is quite rare at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán but can be seen for example on the front of San Lorenzo Monument 14.

Sporadic and mutilation of this sort probably took place at earlier stages of San Lorenzo’s history—we have already cited the fragment of carved basalt in the Chicharras phase and the fractured column of Monument 42 early in San Lorenzo A. But the cataclysm represented by the massive destruction and burial of monuments in the Group D Ridge which mark the need of the San Lorenzo phase is unprecedented: whoever carried this out had a plan. The fate of colossal heads seems to have been mutilation and burial on top of the plateau itself or on its very edge. If the evidence of the Ground D Ridge can be extended, the rest of the monuments then available (i.e., aboveground and presumably displayed) would have been laid on the ridges in lines on prepared floors and platforms, then totally covered up with fill. Most of the monuments found been eroding out of the ends of such lines int other ravines which surround the ridges.

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