The San Lorenzo Head in Houston

On a hot, June day of 1963, a large flatbed truck drives through the metropolitan area of Houston, Texas carrying cargo in a steel cage. Within the unbreakable enclosure resides not a living creature, but a nearly nine-foot tall basalt monolith from the jungles of Mexico. The monument, representing the head of an ancient Olmec ruler or deity, attracts the attention of many Houstonians as it embarks on its temporary home. According to the Houston Chronicle, the colossal Olmec head from the San Lorenzo archaeological site in Veracruz, Mexico, named San Lorenzo Head no. 2, overlooked downtown Houston. Head 2, positioned in front of Cullinan Hall of the Houston Fine Arts Museum, remained on display as part of the art exhibition, "The Olmec Tradition," from June 18 to August 25 of 1963. [1]

What unique characteristics did this colossal head offer to its visitors? What distinguished Head 2 from the other Olmec heads? To better understand this, a proper narrative of Head 2 requires a necessary contextualization. The mentioned context must feature a brief explanation of the monument’s “discovery” by Matthew Stirling, who introduced Head 2 into twentieth-century modern history. Additionally, the narrative must explore the monument’s quest from San Lorenzo to Houston, organized by James Johnson Sweeney, the Director of the Houston Fine Arts Museum. Through Stirling’s “discovery” and the great efforts accomplished by Sweeney, San Lorenzo Head 2 represented more than an ancient artifact; it symbolized the American appreciation of Pre-Columbian art and culture during the 1960s.

In 1945, archaeologist Matthew Stirling and his wife traveled to the Mexican state of Veracruz. The modern state of Veracruz was established in the Olmec region along the Gulf of Mexico. What remains of the Olmec in this specific part of Veracruz lies within three archaeological sites: San Lorenzo, Tenochtitlán, and Potrero Nuevo. Archaeologists often refer to these sites as San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán. In his 1955 paper to the Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin, titled “Stone Monuments of Río Chiquito, Veracruz, Mexico,” he recounted his first encounter with Head 2. A local village of indigenous people guided the Stirlings to the many Olmec monuments remaining in San Lorenzo. David Grove, author of "Discovering the Olmecs," states that Head 2 was the first of two heads Stirling observed and recorded. Due to the second head’s larger size, Stirling ultimately named it “’San Lorenzo Colossal Head 1,’ and the head seen earlier in the day, although found first, ‘Colossal Head 2’”. [2] Stirling left Head 2 in a 10-foot deep hole and drew a map in his notes to where the head rested.

The astonishing and unique appearance of San Lorenzo Head 2 distinguishes itself among the other discovered Olmec heads. Stirling offers a first-hand account report of the monument in situ. He found the head mostly buried underneath the trail from San Lorenzo to Tenochtitlán with only a small portion exposed to the surface. The head’s height measured 2.7 meters (8’10”) with a width of 1.9 meters (6’3”). He explained that the head lacked significant damage; nevertheless, it presented distinctive evidence of erosion. Long-term erosion caused the head to lose many of its detailed facial features. The specific eroded facial features are visible on the head’s left side, which faced upwards. The right side of the head, which laid completely buried in the soil, presented minimal signs of erosion and remained relatively untouched. Like the right side of the head, he explained that the earth perfectly preserved the rear segments of Head 2.

In his writings, Stirling made interesting conclusions regarding the positions of the San Lorenzo heads. He stated, “the San Lorenzo monuments appear all to have been intentionally overthrown and many of them cast into the ravines.” [3] He concluded that the monuments were later moved by the more recent indigenous people who currently occupied the San Lorenzo region. Could the disposal of these heads signify political or religious purposes? Amber VanDerwarker’s "Farming, Hunting, and Fishing in the Olmec World" provides context regarding Gulf lowland Olmec people. As part of the Gulf lowland Olmec groups, the people of San Lorenzo thrived during the Early (1400-1000 BCE) and Middle (1000-400 BCE) Formative periods. VanDerwarker illustrates the social and political construct present in the architecture of San Lorenzo. She states that the site offered “extensive mound-building and monument construction, symbols of the power wielded by regional leaders,” to which this assertion supports contextualization of an Olmec ruler or deity. [4]

Interested in the expansion of Pre-Columbian Mexican art throughout the United States, James Johnson Sweeney became fascinated in Stirling’s 1945 excursion to Mexico. As the director of the Houston Fine Arts Museum, he provided background regarding the acquisition of Head 2 in the art catalog titled "The Olmec Tradition," named after the exhibit. The relatively close proximity made the task of transporting the massive head successful. The board of directors accounted for Houston’s growing Hispanic population when considering a Mesoamerican art display. Sweeny desired an exhibition of the earliest Mesoamerican culture, which led him to the appreciation of colossal Olmec heads. With the assistance of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, Thomas Mann, a US ambassador to Mexico, met with Dr. Eusebio Dávalos Hurtado, the Director of Mexico’s National Institute of History and Anthropology (INAH). When Mann asked about Mexico loaning an Olmec head to Houston, Dávalos asked, “why not bring out the only known remaining head which is still in the jungle on the island of San Lorenzo?” [5] His advice influenced Sweeney to embark upon a quest into the Veracruz jungles.

In June of 1962, Sweeney arranged a flight to Mexico, where he would then board a private helicopter to San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan to film a documentary. With the local pilot having never heard of San Lorenzo, Sweeney relied on the 1945-1946 field notes of Matthew Stirling to guide him to the last colossal head, specifically Stirling’s map of the head’s location. The map guided Sweeney to multiple villages in the San Lorenzo region. Finally, Sweeney and the pilot circled the helicopter around the space where the villagers believed the head resided. Once both men spotted the head from the sky, the pilot landed the helicopter for Sweeny to get a closer look. The gentlemen failed to find the head on foot. The helicopter returned to the sky and hovered over Head 2 until Sweeney could reach it. The massive head rested on its side in the 10-foot deep hole that Stirling and his team had excavated years before. [6]

After many dilemmas, Sweeney finally removed the head from its home in the summer of 1963. The only way to safely transport the head from Mexico to Houston was by ship. However, Sweeney and his team of engineers, provided by the Consejo Nacional Turismo, needed to move the monument out of the jungle first. The absence of roads forced locals to clear a path for the sole purpose of transporting the head out of the jungle. With the help from machetes and bulldozers, the team crafted a suitable road for a large flatbed truck to approach the head’s resting place. The bulldozer flattened the ground around the resting spot of Head 2. With the proper tools, the men used the bulldozer to drag the head onto the flatbed. The truck experienced many issues along the newly constructed road, such as getting stuck in the thick mud and in two flowing streams. [7]

After a long trek, the head arrived in the more urban areas of Mexico, which made the delivery of Head 2 much easier for all parties involved. The truck entered the first real road in Ojapa and continued to the coastal town of Coatzacoalcos, where it eventually shipped to Houston. The crane aboard the ship transferred Head 2 onto yet another flatbed truck. The monument, now encased in a steel cage for its own protection, slowly moved through the metropolitan streets of Houston. The museum prepared a new resting area for the head in front of Cullinan Hall during its visit in Houston, where it would remain there until its return to Mexico. Head 2 would transfer to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. [8]

The summer of 1963 lay witness to Houstonians connecting with rulers of Pre-Columbian Americas. Head 2 and its accompanying artifacts showcased to Houstonians the significance of Olmec culture. The Olmec Tradition presented art that represented the history of Mexico, and in turn early North American history. Influential in its time, this exhibition would pave the way for recognition of the Hispanic population in Houston through the expression of ancient and modern art.