Member Studies the Olmec's Trade Networks
Bitumen samples help anthropology professor
Carl J. Wendt analyze ancient civilization.
Feb. 16, 2006
by Mimi Ko Cruz
Before the Maya and Aztec, there were the Olmec (1200-500
B.C.) people who lived along the southern gulf coast of Mexico.
Carl J. Wendt, assistant professor of anthropology, wants
to know how they existed.
He's got a clue: bitumen, also
known as asphalt or tar, the by-product of decomposed organic
Wendt spent last summer collecting bitumen samples from
natural seeps in Veracruz and, with fellow researcher Shan-Tan
Lu, compared the geochemistry of the samples with archaeological
bitumen discovered during excavations from the Olmec region.
"It was a real challenge to find the seeps," Wendt
said. "We went from village to village to village and
found 15 sites where we collected bitumen samples."
Much of the bitumen found was adhered
to tecomates (large neckless pots). The pots, Wendt said,
were most likely used to "cook the tar."
"This stuff was processed and used as waterproofing
and repair material for watercraft, building material, adhesive
and decoration," he said, adding that bitumen most
likely was traded because it was found in various places
outside the region, including an ancient gravesite 300 miles
from the coast, where it was buried with a 40- to 45-year-old
Analysis of the bitumen can provide information about trade
networks of the Olmec, Wendt said.
"I think studying bitumen can
lead to more understanding of ancient peoples and technologies,
how people got by on a day-to-day basis and how people
interacted with each other."
Archaeologists have investigated bitumen uses in ancient
settlements in Egypt and Mesopotamia and found it was used
for many purposes, including waterproofing boats and building
construction. Wendt was the first to investigate bitumen
sourcing in the Olmec region.
"The significance of this tar is that it is a tool
that helps us figure out how the Olmec people interacted
with each other," Wendt said.
"Did the Olmec, one of the oldest
civilizations in the Americas, trade with other regions?
Did they have ritual visits and feasts? Were the families
who owned the bitumen more powerful than others?"
Wendt hopes to find the answers with further research. Presently,
he is writing grant proposals for funding in support of a
return to the Olmec region, where he and possibly a team
of archaeologists can gather more bitumen samples and study
Last summer's research was funded by the Foundation
for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies Inc. "The
research was the first-stage in a multi-stage project of
collecting data that will provide for inferences on the development
and organization of the region's political, economic
and social systems," Wendt said.
The project developed out of his doctoral
research in the same area, said the researcher, who earned
his doctorate in anthropology from Pennsylvania State University
in 2003, with a specialization in anthropological archaeology.
Hired to teach at Cal State Fullerton last fall, Wendt has
been engaged in archaeological fieldwork in Mesoamerica since
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