Discovering the Olmecs

9780292760813: Hardback
Release Date: 1st November 2014

9781477309858: Paperback
Release Date: 1st November 2015

56 b&w photos, 6 line drawings, 5 maps

Dimensions: 152 x 229

Number of Pages: 207

Series The William and Bettye Nowlin Series in Art, History, and Culture of the Western Hemisphere

University of Texas Press

Discovering the Olmecs

An Unconventional History

Hardback / £47.00
Paperback / £16.99

The Olmecs are renowned for their massive carved stone heads and other sculptures, the first stone monuments produced in Mesoamerica. Seven decades of archaeological research have given us many insights into the lifeways of the Olmecs, who inhabited parts of the modern Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco from around 1150 to 400 BC, and there are several good books that summarize the current interpretations of Olmec prehistory. But these formal studies don't describe the field experiences of the archaeologists who made the discoveries. What was it like to endure the Olmec region's heat, humidity, mosquitoes, and ticks to bring that ancient society to light? How did unforeseen events and luck alter carefully planned research programs and the conclusions drawn from them? And, importantly, how did local communities and individuals react to the research projects and discoveries in their territories?

In this engaging book, a leading expert on the Olmecs tells those stories from his own experiences and those of his predecessors, colleagues, and students. Beginning with the first modern explorations in the 1920s, David Grove recounts how generations of archaeologists and local residents have uncovered the Olmec past and pieced together a portrait of this ancient civilization that left no written records. The stories are full of fortuitous discoveries and frustrating disappointments, helpful collaborations and deceitful shenanigans. What emerges is an unconventional history of Olmec archaeology, a lively introduction to archaeological fieldwork, and an exceptional overview of all that we currently know about the Olmecs.


Chapter 1. The Olmecs Come to Light

Chapter 2. The Tulane Expedition and the Olmec World (1925–1926)

Chapter 3. The First Excavations: Tres Zapotes (1938–1940)

Chapter 4. Stone Heads in the Jungle (1940)

Chapter 5. Fortuitous Decisions at La Venta (1942–1943)

Chapter 6. Monuments on the Río Chiquito (1945–1946)

Chapter 7. The Return to La Venta (1955)

Chapter 8. Of Monuments and Museums (1963, 1968)

Chapter 9. Adding Antiquity to the Olmecs (1966–1968)

Chapter 10. Research Headaches at La Venta (1967–1969)

Chapter 11. Reclaiming La Venta (1984 to the Present)

Chapter 12. San Lorenzo Yields New Secrets (1990–2012, Part 1)

Chapter 13. El Manatí: Like Digging in Warm Jell-O (1987–1993)

Chapter 14. "They're Blowing Up the Site!" Tres Zapotes after Stirling (1950–2003)

Chapter 15. An Olmec Stone Quarry and a Sugarcane Crisis (1991)

Chapter 16. Discoveries Large and Small at San Lorenzo (1990–2012, Part 2)

Chapter 17. The Night the Lights Went Out (2001)

Chapter 18. Some Thoughts on the Archaeology of the Olmecs

Bibliographic Essay


DAVID C. GROVE is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has carried out archaeological research in Mexico for fifty years and is best known for his investigations at the Olmec-related site of Chalcatzingo, Morelos. Grove is a recipient of the American Anthropological Association’s Alfred Vincent Kidder Award for Eminence in the Field of American Archaeology, a past president of the Archaeology Division of the American Anthropological Association, and an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He lives in Gainesville, Florida, where he is Courtesy Professor of Anthropology at the University of Florida.

"This is a marvelously engaging introduction to Olmec civilization that has something to offer the novice and expert alike. . . . There is no other book on the market resembling it that traces the history of Olmec studies through the people who did the field work, the discoveries they made, and the publications they produced. The chapters are short and blend discoveries of mounds and monuments with local community relations, which results in fast-moving and engaging reading."

Robert M. Rosenswig, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University at Albany-SUNY, and author of The Beginnings of Mesoamerican Civilization: Inter-Regional Interaction and the Olmec

"This book tells the tales of fieldwork that are commonly left out of formal academic discourse, and it explains what was done in terms of the real-time messy experience, rather than a false retrospective coherence. . . . I enjoyed reading this book because of the vividness of the accounts and the insights into the people who shaped the field [of Olmec studies]."

Michael Love, Professor of Anthropology, California State University, Northridge, and author of Early Complex Society in Pacific Guatemala: Settlements and Chronology of the Río Naranjo, Guatemala

"What a great book!  Grove, an archaeologist who has spent his professional career doing fieldwork in Mesoamerica, has produced an eminently readable account of the Olmec, one of the most well-publicized yet least well-known cultures of pre-Hispanic Mexico. Highly recommended."