Sculpting the narrative : the material practice of Epi-Olmec art and writing




Strauss, Stephanie Michelle

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From approximately 350 BCE to CE 550, artist-scribes in Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec produced inscriptions using one of the most complicated hieroglyphic systems known from the ancient world. In the 2nd century CE, a group of such literate sculptors carved the La Mojarra Stela, one of the great masterworks of ancient Mesoamerican stone sculpture. This two meter tall monument bears a richly carved bas-relief protagonist and an inscription of over 500 hieroglyphs. Although this extraordinary inscription and others like it have fueled decades of academic debate, little is known about the people who produced this “Epi-Olmec” hieroglyphic program, and previous studies of these artifacts have focused almost exclusively on questions of linguistics and decipherment and not material context or iconographic content. The object of this dissertation is thus to create a robust and working definition for an Epi-Olmec visual culture system, using both inscribed and uninscribed objects to explore the various ways in which Epi-Olmec artists, scribes, patrons, and audiences engaged with elite art and writing. This dissertation is the first project to approach Epi-Olmec hieroglyphic writing as but one component of a greater suite of Isthmian sculptural practices from the Late Formative to Early Classic periods. In the following chapters, I present and synthesize the consistent features of Epi-Olmec sculptural practice, from the materiality of sculptural surfaces, to narrative themes and stylistic features, to the dialogue between Epi-Olmec texts and images. The dissertation also includes new illustrations of a variety of proposed Epi-Olmec monuments, and novel insights are further provided by a structural study and formal analysis of the extant Epi-Olmec inscriptions. This original work is further set against discussions of monumental display in early Mesoamerica and the development of ancient hieroglyphic writing systems worldwide. This analysis of Epi-Olmec monumental practice and the structural and formal qualities of Epi- Olmec inscriptions has much to contribute to the study of hieroglyphic writing in the New World, as well as the development of secondary writing systems more broadly. Ultimately, this dissertation explores how Epi-Olmec sculptural narratives inscribed messages of power onto the ancient Mesoamerican landscape, whether they bore hieroglyphic passages or not



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