Art & Art History ETDs

Publication Date



The purpose of this paper is to describe some of the relationships which exist between Olmec and Maya art by comparing style and iconography of the Olmec altars and the Maya zoomorphs of Quiriguá and Copán. A stylistic analysis of these Olmec and Maya monuments indicates that Olmec sculpture included both three-dimensional and two-dimensional compositions; Maya sculpture suggests development from the two-dimensional into a more complex and dynamic three-dimensional arrangement of forms. The great importance of the more or less stylized features of the jaguar, of the serpent, and of grotesque creatures combining both reptilian and feline aspects emerges from descriptions of the Olmec and Maya monuments. It is possible that both the Olmecs and the Maya worshipped the sun and fire, water and rain, and that they saw symbolic representations of the natural elements in the jaguar and snake, among other animals. The complexity of the agricultural pantheon of the sun most likely manifested itself in calendrical rites, rich in offerings, which may also have included human sacrifice. After Tatiana Proskouriakoff‘s study, which arrived at a dynastic theory for the placement of the stelae at the Maya site of Piedras Negras, David Kelley analyzed the placement of monuments at Quiriguá, and he concluded that Zoomorphs B, G, and P at Quiriguá commemorated the ascension of Quiriguá rulers. What may have been the central feature of the Olmec altars--that is, their association with the fertility rites--became a ritual background for the dynastic ceremonies in the classic Maya period. Monuments at Tres Zapotes, Izapa, and various other sites in Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras suggest links in a visual line of descent that connects the Olmec and Maya motif.



Document Type


Degree Name

Art History

Level of Degree


Department Name

UNM Department of Art and Art History

First Committee Member (Chair)

Mary Elizabeth Smith

Second Committee Member

Jacob Jerome Brody

Third Committee Member

Douglas Roland George