Tablet with incised symbols

900–500 BCE
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General Description

The sages of Olmec civilization etched their creed on polished stone artifacts and then rubbed red paint into the patterns. This small, carved greenstone tablet has been called the earliest example of Olmec hieroglyphic writing, but its incised symbols are not actually writing but represent the only known image of the Olmec concept of the cosmos.

The cosmic diagram has six parts. On the top is a "crossed bands" motif in a square, surrounded by thirteen nubs. The crossed bands are associated with sky or center (or sky-center) in most symbol systems of Mesoamerica. Thirteen reinforces the notion of sky, since there are thought to be multiple levels of the heavens in most Mesoamerican cultures. Below the "crossed bands" is a three-branched object with vegetation on the ends of the branches. This is most likely a representation of the World Tree (Cosmic Tree) that unites the levels of the cosmos. Flanking the World Tree are four ovals, which probably symbolize maize kernels or the four directions and their associated colors. Below the World Tree is a stepped motif that likely represents a mountain, pyramid-temple, or ancestor symbols. The curved element is analogous to the jaws of the earth, and the two vertical shapes may represent raindrops at the Three-Stone-Place, the center of the night sky. The three dots at the bottom of the composition are the most enigmatic part of the composition, and may refer to the number three symbolically. Ultimately, this plaque records the story of creation: it shows the World Tree sprouting out of Creation Mountain. The tree represents the renewed sky; the mountain represents the renewed earth; and the Three-Stone-Place represents the hearth, the place of First Father's rebirth as Maize.

It is unknown how such a plaque would have been used. It is not drilled for suspension, could not have been worn as a pendant, and is neither a ceremonial celt or other type of regalia. It may be analogous to the large mosaic pavements of the Olmec site of La Venta, Tabasco, and was perhaps was also buried at an Olmec ceremonial center as a reference to the cosmic entities served by local rulers and their people.

Adapted from

  • Carol Robbins, Label text, A. H. Meadows Galleries.

  • Carol Robbins, DMA unpublished material.