Smithsonian Olmec Legacy

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The Kunz axe. Image (heizer_1311) in the National Anthropological Archives, National Museum of Natural History

The Kunz axe. Image (heizer_1311) in the National Anthropological Archives, National Museum of Natural History

The Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society co-sponsored eight expeditions to Mexico to explore archaeological sites in Veracruz, Tabasco and Campeche between 1939 and 1946. The expeditions were led by the Smithsonian's Bureau of American Ethnology chief, Matthew W. Stirling, who brought the Olmec culture to light with a series of spectacular finds including several colossal stone heads at the sites of La Venta, San Lorenzo, and Tres Zapotes. Stirling's discoveries created intense discussion among scholars about where the Olmec fit into the chronology of Mesoamerican civilizations, some of which continues to this day.

The Smithsonian continued its involvement in Olmec research when it co-sponsored an expedition to La Venta in 1955 with the National Geographic Society and the University of California. The Institution's early exploration and excavation of Olmec sites laid the groundwork for all subsequent research and archaeological investigation. The Smithsonian retains the field notes, reports, correspondence, slides, prints, films, and artifacts from the eight Stirling expeditions, and the 1955 season as well.

This website tells the story of these archaeological expeditions and some of the later fieldwork as well. It also provides an overview of the Department of Anthropology's Olmec archaeological collections, and the related manuscript and photographic material which is housed in the National Anthropological Archives and the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

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