Olmec: An Exercise in Scale

Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico is the perfect exhibition to show the range of artworks an objects conservator can work on. The pyramid from Complex C at the Olmec site of La Venta is first object represented in this exhibition that I helped conserve.  At the beginning of the exhibition you will see a large color photograph of this pyramid showing the result of the conservation treatment.


In 1989 I met archaeologist Rebecca Gonzalez-Lauck when I was part of a team teaching an in situ conservation course for the Getty Conservation Institute at Tiwanaku in Bolivia. As a result of this project, Gonzalez-Lauck invited me to the Olmec site of La Venta to look at problems she was having with the erosion of one of the pyramids. Due to uncontrolled people traffic, the sides of the pyramid were wearing down and rainwater was further enhancing this erosion.

We decided that people would need to have access to the top of the pyramid by a stairway built along the back of the pyramid, following a curve that would prevent water erosion. Materials used to build the stairway were carefully chosen to efficiently drain and absorb the water, and sturdy enough to withstand people traffic, thereby avoiding the creation of ruts and channels. Great care was also taken with the design so that the stairway integrated into the natural landscape. As you can see in the image, above, the results of this intervention were very successful.

On a completely different scale, the other object I have conserved in this exhibition is the Hollow Baby Figure Holding a Ball.

This 12-inch high ceramic figure had been completely over-painted so that it was hard to know which portions were original.  After carefully removing all of the paint from the surface, the original ceramic surface was revealed, as well as a central section of fill material. This central section was toned to a neutral gray color that was not visually jarring, yet still made it clear to the viewer that this section was not original.

Come see for yourself!  Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico runs February 19-May 8, 2011 at the de Young. Click here to download a coupon for $5 off admission through March 13. You can also use the coupon code OLMEC when ordering tickets online.

–Lesley Bone, Objects Conservator