Friday, November 20, 2009

Books on the Olmec

In the course of doing some research, lately I’ve found myself dipping into two relatively recent books on the Olmec. One is Richard Diehl’s The Olmecs: America’s First Civilization (2004, Thames and Hudson), the other, Christopher Pool’s Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica (2007, Cambridge). A few days ago, I realized that these are the only general books on the Olmec written in many years. Michael Coe’s America’s First Civilization came out around 1968, and Ignacio Bernal’s The Olmec World was published (in English translation) in 1969. But I can’t think of a general, introductory book on the Olmec written between 1969 and 2004. It’s true that Jacques Soustelle published the English translation of The Olmecs: The Oldest Civilization in Mexico in 1984, but I’ve never thought of that as an original (or interesting) contribution to the field. He’s not an archaeologist, and I find the book merely a rehashing of published data which by that time were well-known.

That’s not to say there were no books on the Olmec published for 25 years. Coe and Dielh’s two volume In the Land of the Olmec came out in 1980 and David Grove published two books on Chalcatzingo in the 1980s, but all were site-specific treatments rather than general books on Olmec archaeology or culture. Similarly, several edited volumes (e.g., The Olmec and their Neighbors, Regional Perspectives on the Olmec, etc.) have appeared, but neither are these balanced general treatments of the topic. The same holds for various attractive “coffee-table” books that have been issued.

So Diehl’s and Pool’s books are particularly welcome, not only for their intrinsic merits, but also because they fill an important gap in the literature. A great deal of original archaeological research on the Olmec has been conducted in recent decades, but syntheses have been lacking.

Richard Diehl’s book is one of the volumes in Thames & Hudson’s Ancient Peoples and Places series. The series is noted for publishing general books on archaeological sites and cultures that are simultaneously technically accurate while also being accessible to educated audiences. Diehl’s volume follows the established pattern. It is written in an engaging and pleasant style while being packed with plenty of archaeological detail. Like other volumes in the series, The Olmecs is a handsome book. It is liberally illustrated, and even includes several color photographs. It is also printed on heavy glossy paper and is well-bound, creating a palpably hefty object. Diehl’s erudition on Olmec archaeology must be nearly unmatched. When this book was published in 2004, Diehl was celebrating 40 years of active fieldwork in the Olmec area, and he is a consummate field archaeologist.

Although Chris Pool can only boast a mere quarter century of fieldwork in Olman, the Olmec heartland, he has nevertheless managed to cobble together a very recondite and worthy review of the subject. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Cambridge book has a more academic and scholarly tone than the Thames & Hudson volume. Pool’s book is also longer, more technical, and includes more theory. For working archaeologists, these are all good things, but students may prefer to start with Diehl’s book.

In short, both books provide very credible and interesting summaries and interpretations of Olmec archaeology. For archaeologists like me, who work in neighboring regions of Mesoamerica and find it difficult to keep up on the literature, it is particularly useful to have these detailed discussions of the topic by highly competent and respected colleagues.

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