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Archaeology Faculty 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 materials.

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 man.

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 it.

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 1995.


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Carl Wendt
Carl J. Wendt, assistant professor of anthropology, studies trade networks of the early peoples along the southern gulf coast of Mexico through their use of bitumen, otherwise known as asphalt or tar.

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