This month, LiveScience announced the analysis of an unusual artifact from the underwater archaeological site of Arroyo Pesquero in Veracruz.
As an important nexus of Olmec culture, the Arroyo Pesquero region flourished in 900-400 BCE, about ten kilometers away from La Venta. According to the original journal article from Ancient Mesoamerica, Arroyo Pesquero is best known for its underwater offerings of Olmec masks, celts, and other sculptures:
When describing the Arroyo Pesquero artifacts in the Museo de la Universidad de Veracruz, Medellín (1971:19) noted that “[t]he muddy river bottom in which these masks were found yielded more than 2,000 crude stone axes, fragments of pyrite mirrors, anthropomorphic figurines with Colossal Head traits, three other functional masks…” (Quoted in Wendt et al. 310).
Both the Ancient Mesoamerica and the LiveScience articles describe surface etchings. According to LiveScience:
…the artifact has designs on it that are difficult to put into words. It contains rectangular shapes, engraved lines and a cone that looks like it is emerging from the top.
The interview with Carl J. Wendt in LiveScience suggests that the object could be the base of a bloodletter or finial from a “ruler bar”. The exact imagery, however, remains contentious. In the journal article, Wendt et al. point to the Cascajal block and studies of Olmec iconography to argue that the abstract design refers to an ear of corn.
The artifact does resonate with iconography on inscribed celts such as some recorded in the Linda Schele Drawings Archive (Schele No.4522 and No.4523). One of these recorded artifacts (shown right) hails from the Arroyo Pesquero region, but the iconography appears throughout the region of Olmec artistic influence.
Wendt postulates that the artifact ended up in the river alongside thousands of other objects as an offering. As a location where fresh meets salty water, Arroyo Pesquero perhaps held important implications in Olmec cosmology. The lack of structures that date to the Middle Formative period – when the ancient people left a majority of such offerings – also communicate the location’s importance as a ritual site rather than as a place of habitation.