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George Stuart  







Mesoamerican Archaeology; Matthew Stirling  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
9 Dec 1998

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Let¿s begin by saying who you are and what you do.

George Stuart [GS] :11
I¿m George Stuart and I¿m the chairman of the Committee for Research and Exploration at National Geographic Society.

DS :17
We want to hear you tell the story of Matthew Stirling...let¿s begin by talking about the Olmec culture. And we have a lot of material to cover...when were these folks around?

GS :36
These folks were around from about 1200BC until about 400 BC and that¿s about all we know about the span. We don¿t know much about their origins or demise.

DS :48
What else was going on in the world during that time?

GS :50
Oh Gosh, I guess they were trading around the Mediterranean, the Phenetians and all and the Minoan Civilization, Micenean. All these things were happening, the formation of classical Greece was going on. Homer was probably writing. It was an important time. Things were going on in China probably at a more accelerated pace than most of the world.

DS 1:14
What was the Olmec culture? What was its importance in pre-hispanic Mexico?

GS 1:20
It is important because it was early. In terms of Mesoamerica, which is that land of Southern Mexico and C. America where the cultures shared a certain similarity. We know it from the Aztecs and the Maya and all those people. But the Olmec were the first in there to start doing things that gave distinction to the area so long ago. They had everything that anybody else ever had except perhaps cities.

DS 1:46
And we see some things in Maya and Aztec that were prefigured in Olmec.

GS 1:52
We do, we see the ritual ballgame. We see the obsession with gods connected with rain, fertility, and sacred geography, mountinas, etc. We see the notion of pyramids and high ritual buildings, public plazas for ritual. We see the dependence on maize agriculture, corn, beans and squash. We see all these patterns that obtain to this day among a lot of peoples in terms of what they eat and what they believe in.

DS 2:24
It was a big, physically, sprawling culture.

GS 2:27
Well it occupied as far as we know, and we¿re still a little foggy on this, much of the area of coastal which now is the Vera Cruz state in Mexico adjourning parts of Tobasco state and all the way across the isthmus of Twantipec (?) into S. Guatemala. It¿s a pretty amazing stretched out area. And we know that they traded all over the place, so we¿re somewhat confused by trying to recognize what they traded with, where they lived.

DS 2:54
And was this really the first culture that we see?

GS 2:59
Well, it¿s the first sort of artistically stunning culture. The remains are spectacutlar, the sculptures, the carvings, the minor arts and crafts, even, are sort of great art. And wonderful. They carved jade like it was puddy. And they polished it and tehy traded it all over mesoamerica. They worked in stone and they worked in clays and they made plazas of various colors and things to enhance their architecture.

DS 3:29
And they had to be pretty well organized to do all of that.

GS 3:32
They had to be extremely well organized. Whoever led them in the various towns and estates must have had good control over the water and been very powerfule in terms of working the religions and acting as kind of an intermediary between the people and the supernatural world. In fact the rulers were probalby Shamans.

DS 3:57
Does anybody have any idea how many people were in the culture in its golden age?

GS 4:03
No idea whatsoever. The sites are few and far between and they¿re mostly underneath later things, so it¿s kind of confusing to get estimates. Because I don¿t think we have adequate samples for a population. That¿s one of the hardest things to do in archaeology anyway.

DS 4:20
Isn¿t it unusual to find that kind of culture in a tropical climate?
GS 4:25
It is. And that¿s one of the things that caused it to gain early attention. That and the Maya and other cultures of Mesoamerica.

DS 4:32
So these people were living in this hot humid weather and they were doing these activities.

GS 4:38
They were living in the high tropics. And it¿s also plagued with another problem, that is there¿s a rainy season and a dry season. So if you¿re depending on agriculture, you¿ve got a problem right off the bat. You¿ve got to save water or irrigate over the dry season. And whoever could organize that sort of held the reigns of power.

DS 4:58
Let¿s go back to before Stirling came on the scene. What did we know about the culture before Stirling came along. It was very mysterious, wasn¿t it?

GS 5:09
We knew absolutely nothing about it. We didn¿t even know what to call it, the people working then. They only knew that in 1862 a collosol head had turned up in a little hacienda in S.E. Veracruz. And this head nobody knew what it was. It was published briefly and then sort of forgotten by the American archaeologists because of the civil war in the U.S. So everybody left this problem alone. And then increasingly weird sculptures kept turning up in European museums and private collections, farmers would pick up strange things in fields. And then I guess it was in the 30s, that Mat Stirling...of the Smithsonian Institution, who was also connected with the National Geographic¿s Society Research Committee, he had decided that he had seen enough things to make him really wonder. He had read the article about the 19th century of the colossol head at Tres Sapotes. He had seen in Berlin in a museum, a very strange scultpure of a snarling Jaguar carved in beautiful apple green jade. He had seen other things in journals and they just didn¿t seem to make sense in terms of what they knew about Mesoamerica.
6:26 They knew from the Aztecs, because the Aztecs had actually talked to the Spanish, they knew that the Aztecs had a story about the people that lived in this area. And they had a story about the people Olmec. And this meant the people of the place where there is rubber. And it¿s where the Aztec imported their rubber balls for their ballgame. So thte people that lived in this area, where the finds were being made, lived there at the time of the Aztecs in the very early 16th century. And really, we didn¿t know it then, it had nothing to do with the sculptures. The sculptures turned out to be much earlier but then it was too late to change the name.

DS 7:09
So that was what first attracted Stirling. Let¿s talk about Stirling for just a moment...what was his background, who was he, what was he like?

GS 7:26
Matthew Stirling probalby was one of the great American archeaologists. I don¿t know of an instance where he was acutally wrong about a conclusion. Which is pretty amazing to say about anybody in the sciences. But he was at the Smithsonian. He was in charge of the bureau of American ethnology. He was interested in the archaeology of the U.S., the east, the southwest. He was interested in the archeology of lower Central America, Panama, S. America. And he was deeply interested in Mesoamerica. And when he saw that stuff in the literature and in the museums, he was determined to go down there and see what it was all about. He had close colleagues in Mexico, Alfonso Caso the great Mexican archaeologist and others, so there was immediate cooperation in anything he wished to do.

DS 8:13
And you knew him pretty well, didn¿t you?

GS 8:15
I knew him fairly well. We overlapped a bit and I replaced him on the Research committee at Geographic after his death in 1975.

DS 8:23
What kind of a person was he like?

GS 8:25
He was incredible. He was, you knew immediately that you were in the presence of serious science. But Matt also knew more about sports than any person I¿ve ever met. Baseball, track you name it. He was devoted totally to the enjoyment and the statistics in history of virually every sports endeavor that ever was. He was amazing in this way and I think that everybody that ever knew him remembers this a lot.

DS 8:50
It takes kind of a special mind to follow takes a good memory doesn¿t it?

GS 8:56
that¿s right. And Matthew had that. And his wife, Marion, helped. Her presence on all of the expeditions was just an incredible boom to the endeavor. They were also helped all the time by photographer Richard Stewart of National Geographic, who acoompanied them on virtually every trip. And I worked with Dick Stewart toward the end of his career back in the 50s, but he¿s still alive and he¿s an amazing man.

DS 9:26
no relation?

GS 9:27
None. He spelt it the other way.

DS 9:39
What did Stirling first find. From your conversations with him, your knowledge...can you sketch the moment when he first said, boy there¿s something here.

GS 9:44
Well he wanted to see that head first, the one that had been published in the 1860s. I think it was finally ... anyway, there was a picture of it and he wanted to see the real thing. Often time you see something in the book and you can¿t believe it, so you want to see the real thing. So they went down. I thik they landed in some coastal place...and they got a mule train, they just went into the rain forest, over these trails, and they reached this hacienda out in the bush. And thepeople that lived there took him out and showed him this dome shaped thing on the trail and that¿s just how the earlier discoverer, who was a school teacher, had described it. He thought it was an inverted kettle in the woods or something. And then Matt reexcavated it, and there it was, the big head, about 5 or 6 feet tall, with this scowling countenance and a helmet and all, a portrait of somone. So they looked at it and dug around and got reports on the other artifacts. And Matthew kept thinking, well these things look kind of early. He just felt this, it was kind of an instinct, and then they started looking at other monuments and other sites nearby. And they went to another famous site called Tres Sapotes, and Sierra de Las Mesas and then La Venta, the other sites that have all become legendary since then.

DS 11:16
What did they find there?

GS 11:17
Well at La Venta there were more heads. There were three in a row, that¿s all they saw the first time. And they went over to some of the other sites. I guess San Lorenzo was toward the end. He discovered this great site, San Lorenzo on an enormous plateua in the S.E. Santa Cruz area. They went up there and found these gigantic stone heads rolled into ravines. And I think there were 8 or 9 heads there. There¿s a total now of about 19 of these things or 20 maybe, but he was the first to bring all of them to light and have them drawn and everything. And then at one of the sites, at Tres Sapotes, where the head had been, they found a monument, and the monument had a date on it. Now we had known from the Maya and other things in Mesoamerica on how they dated things. And this had a number on it and Matt assumed that it was the same system. All the Maya dates were running between AD 300 and 900 or something like that, or as they thought at the time between about the birth of Christ and 600, they were a little wrong in the correllation at that time, but. The monument that he had foudn at tres Sapotes was dated about 300 B.C. Now we know that monumnet was really dated to 36 B.C., they changed the correllation. But still, it was the earliest monument dated that was found in the Americas and this really gave a springboard to his hypothesis that the Olmec were really early.
DS 12:57
And he originally dated it by the level of the soil it was in?

GS 13:02
No, he dated it by looking at the numbers because they had figured out the Mesoamerican calendar system. A German epigropher...had figured out from the Mayan manuscripts that he had in hand, about how the calendar worked. And when they found this thing it looked like the same system but it was much earlier. It would be like finding....something that said January 1st 36B.C., of course that wouldn¿t be right, but.

DS 13:32
And he found things other than these monumental stone heads.

GS 13:37
Oh yes. They were excavating and finding offerings of little jade figures and little votif axes that were carved out of jade and polished highly and engraved with figures. They found jade figurines of people. At one site, at La Venta, they found a group of figurines that had been arranged in a scene and with little axes there to represent columns or a building or something. And the Olmec had apparently placed this thing very carefully and then buried it and then came back 300 years, 200 years later, check on it and then buried it again. So they were, they were kind of weird, but they kept track of what they were doing.

DS 14:21
Do you have any idea why they buried all of that art work?

GS 14:23
They probably, as sort of offerings. It was all fertility symbols. The jade axes in a way represented precious things. They represented corn with a husk on it, they represented new human life. These were really loaded things, they weren¿t axes. They were shaped like them but they were precious ceremonial objects that probably never saw a moment of wear.

DS 14:51
They weren¿t just doing this for the convenience of people like you and Matthew Stirling?

GS 14:55
No, they believed in their universe of probalby 3 layers of underworld, the real world, and the celestial realm. And the various colors and directions and sacred places and mountains and caves and rain, rain in the form of small children whom they would often sacrifice apparently to the rain god. Just as the Maya did later and the Aztecs would.

DS 15:24
Let¿s talk about the collosol heads...for someone who has never seen one, what does it look like?

GS 15:34
It¿s just a big head. there¿s almost 20 of them now. They range in size from about a yard tall to one that¿s about 11 feet tall that is still in its quarry....they portray individuals because they¿re all very different. The first one that was found and several others, have a slightly african look people have said. In fact, Jose Melgar, who published the first account, called them Ethiopian or something like that. We know now that there is no other evidence to connect it with an overseas place. Some people think they look Chinese, some people think they look native american. All the evidnece is, a lot of the evidence is in but not all of it. So we¿re still keeping track of origins because we¿re not quite sure about the Olmec. But it seems that this was just the art style of the time. And that it was a native american civilization theat made these and whatever origins they may have had across the Atlantic or the Pacific has certainly been lost in time so far. And we¿ve never found any artifacts from anywhere else to suggest a connection.

DS 16:45
....It¿s a little mysterious where they came from.

GS 16:56
It is. But we, the more people that excavate in Mexico and Central America, they see a what they call pre-classic (this is the very earliest of the developmental periods down there of civilization) a general pre-classic occupation that was becomming obsessed with religious and fertility concerns and it seems like this Olmec phenomena grew out of that in a way. And maybe it was an individual genious here or there who thought up some things like calendar mathematics and how to figure the movement of the heavens and what to look for in the sky and all of that.

DS 17:35
The places where the heads were found are far removed from the places where they were quarried, correct?

GS 17:44
That¿s right. Sometimes 100 miles or so. And to get something that weighs 26 tons or whatever across land of that nature or across rivers, or down rivers, or up rivers is very difficult. I don¿t know how they did it. I don¿t know whether they carved the heads and then brought them or brought rough boulders and carved the heads in place.

DS 18:06
Is this a mystery on par with Easter Island say?

GS 18:09
Sort of. Although Joanne Tilberg (?) and others are certainly figuring out the Easter Island mechanisms and all. And I¿m sure that people working, like Susan Milbreath, David Grove, and others who are working on the problem of monument carving and transportation will probably figure it out.

DS 18:28
All of these heads had this incredible head gear. Can you describe this head gear and what it might be?

GS 18:36
A safety helmet it looks like. Some of the head-dresses or helmets look like they¿re made out of jade beads, the convention in stone to represent jade beads. But most of them look like football helmets, and we think maybe they were ball-playing helmets. Because the ritual ballgame in mesoamerica as we know it was a strenuous and demanding exercise that was not just an athletic contest but a highly loaded ritual in which the spherical ball served as metaphors for celestial bodies and the losers were really lost. We hear that they were sacrificed but we¿re not sure of the rules of the game.

DS 19:19
And many of these statues...were damaged in some way.

GS 19:26
Some were. It looks like if a ruler succeeded another maybe the earlier ruler was defaced literally and rolled into a ravine. Or perhaps the others were left up for rituals of defacing, we¿re not sure.

DS 19:45
From the evidence that we have, what kindof life do you suppose these Olmec people lived?

GS 19:53
Corn farmers living in thatched houses of wood. Square houses probably 12 feet square or so, just like they live in now in the area. And probably participating in the agriculural cycle, depending on water. They had levies and irrigation and all sorts of things going on there. And they punctuated their year with probably devotion to the cause of public works and religious efforts to help in civic construction and other things that would enhance the status of the elite.

DS 20:30

GS 20:34
Well we don¿t know what happened to them. We don¿t know exactly what language they spoke. We have some monuments and some people, John Justiceson and Terrance kauffman with some of our grant money, are working on a reconstruction of some of the languages that they may have spoken in the area. Because there was another monument that came to light in the 1980s that showed a writing system that originated in that area by the 1st century A.D. that was not like another we had seen. It only occurred in two other artifacts and one was a little statuette that¿s in the Smithsonian institution that was found near Tutzla (?) that had the same script on it. But this thing the Lamajarastila (?) that came to light in the 80s had like an inscription of 500 glyphs. And they¿re just working on the stuff now, it¿s just amazing things.

DS 21:27
A lot of people think that everything has been discovered that can be discovered, that¿s certainly not true with the Olmec.
GS 21:33
The Olmec or anybody. Every week I get a notice of a new ruin or even a big city that I can¿t match it with anything we know about. So I just have to tell people to keep looking and let us know what you¿re finding.

DS 21:50
Is that where the future lies in the Olmec study, in the language?

That¿s part of it. The future also lies in maybe doing a little more archeaology in the area because by comparison say with the Maya...the Olmec archaeology has lagged a little behind and we need a little balance. We also need to take advantage of non-obtrusive methods. you know it¿s so expensive now to dig and to get big machinery and to figure out the logistics and everything. Things like ground-penetrating radar and satellite imagery are really coming to bear as ways of getting around the program so that we can have some of the data at not much of the cost that we used to have to do. Because simply the money, as is correct, the priority of archeaology can¿t be considered that high when you¿ve got hunger and all sorts of things happening at the same time and disease.

DS 22:52
I suppose there would be a few who would say why do archeaology at all...why do we have to go around digging holes in the ground anyway?

GS 23:06

DS 24:37
Another nice thing about archaeology is that generally it doesn¿t lie, does it?

GS 24:42
Well, it can lie. Nothing can lie so effectively as archeology sometimes. It¿s, that¿s why the collection and recording of the data is so important. In other words there can be several interpretations and very often interpretations can change, but if we still have data, and I will say here that Matthew Stirling¿s documentation of his discoveries, even had he not interpreted them, would still be owrthy of interpretation now, so careful was he. And that¿s what we like. And that¿s the difference between an archeaologist and say, a looter who digs up the stuff and doesn¿t publish.
DS 25:19
So he published?

GS 25:21
He published. And his field records are all over the Smithsonian archives, the archives of anthropology.

Is that what partly makes him a great archaeologist?

GS 25:32
Oh yeah, to make the knowledge available. And through the National Geographic Magazine he must have had dozens of articles of archaology of various areas. And he contributed readily to the old indians book that we did at Geogrpahic. And many many articles on the Olmec. ¿Jewels of Jade in a Mexican Swamp¿, I mean the titles of the articles are wonderful. But they¿re so informative and the old black and white photographs showing these things coming out of the ground are truly a wonderous memorial to good work.

DS 26:06
He almost sounds too perfect.

GS 26:08
Maybe so. But let¿s let him rest at that. He is I think. You know, he would have been 100 a couple of years ago and I gave a talk at the Smithsonian about Matthew and Marion and their work, Richard Stewart. And that was the month, I think the next month, there was a full moon on the day of Matt¿s birthday, on his 100th birthday, on what would have been it, and I told the audience that they could look up at that full moon and remember some of the great works in american archeology. And a very nice human being to boot.

DS 26:40
Do you supposewe¿ll ever know what happened to the Olmec people?

GS 26:50
Maybe. Maybe not. We¿ll probably never know it throoughly and we¿ll never know it in a non-controversial way. There¿ll always be someone disagreeing. All the interpretation of any of this is not a single opinion, but it¿s sort of a consensus. And there¿s always disagreeiment, there¿s always a range of opinions that go from negative to positive. Whether we¿re talking about...there¿s a majority of opinion of consideration of science that¿s scientific truth, whatever that is. And sometimes it changes, as the consensus changes. And that¿s why we must beware those who comes along and say I¿ve found something that rewrites all of the textbooks. That¿s seldom true. I can¿t think of an example off hand, but anyway, we work at it.

DS 27:50
Just one more about the Olmec. What would be your best guess as to what happened to them?

GS 27:56
I think they merged with other peoples there. People moved around a lot, trading and raiding and those sorts of things. And I think the ideas that the Olmec had that travelled along the trails, that Jaguars were sacred and that people and jaguars were combined and certain supernatural beings and that people had companion spirits and pyramids represented the layers of the heavens and directions had color symbolism and corn was sacred and a piece of green corn was equal to a human baby...all these notions of fertility and all, I think the ideas of what became mesoamerica all merged into the other peoples and they kept doing the same sorts of things that were variations of the theme. And later they built cities....So they were all working on the same ideas. They were all sort of the Olmec. And underneath every Maya site, at least in the lowlands, there¿s always sort of an Olmec-like it¿s all very mysterious and appealing.

DS 29:16
Do you see Olmec faces?

GS 29:19
You see Olmec faces all the time. It reminds me of a cartoon I saw once in one of the magazines with someone walking by with a baby carraige with a family, and the man and the little baby had faces that looked rather like Olmec heads and they were passing a museum where there was a collosol head on display and the man turned to his family and said, it doesn¿t look so darned mysterious to me. So you get this kind of thing all the time. And I¿ve often wished that Gary Larson would get interested in Mesoamerican archaology a lot because he could probably teach us about observing how things are.

DS 29:54
So these theories they came from Africa...actually when you go to La Venta, you see these faces?

GS 30:06
See these faces, sure. See the native americans ultimately came from Asia anyway. So you get a physical resemblence with the different migrations that came over, the various indian and eskimo migrations. Then in the arch you get things like the Olmec heads where you get people saying, oh those helmets, they are, tehy look like Mandinko (?) from the 18th century. Well maybe they look like it, and this is interesting because a lot of things look like things and that¿s the hardest hting in archeaology is to figure out what Bill Freedman, the old cryptographer used to call the `index of coincidenc¿. What Gold Finger, he was talking to James Bond, when you look for various points of similarity and try to figure a connection, Gold Finger told Bond the third time he caught him in his yard, he said ¿once is happenstance, twice is coincidence and thrice is enemy action¿. And that¿s sort of how we go with these things.

DS 31:05
Let me just ask you one more thing about Stirling. Does any memory stick out in your mind about what kind of person he was, just being with him?

GS 31:18
When I came to Washington in 1960, I was an archaeology student. I had a bachelor¿s degree in Geology. I wanted to work at National Geographic and I did, I had just gotten a job there. I went out to his house and he greeted me, it couldn¿t hve been a more courteous and thoughtful episode had I been a total colleague from many decades. And he supported me in things and we talked about things and I will never forget that. The other memory I have was when I was in high school back in 1947 or 48. I worte to the Smithsonian and asked them to please send me all you have on American Indians, one of those letters. And Matthew Stirling wrote me a long letter back and sent me a copy of bulletin 137 of the bureau of American ethnology called the indians of the S.E. United States and I still have it. So it¿s a long connection. You know, I thought the man was superhuman but he was one of the nicest people I ever met and his wife Marion too.

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