The archaeological site of Monte Alto, located in the department of Escuintla on the south coast of Guatemala, has long attracted attention because of its eleven sculptures, six in the form of colossal heads and five as "potbellies," rendered in what has come to be known as "Monte Alto" style. The site was occupied from Middle Preclassic times, circa 800 bce, until the beginning of Early Classic, circa 300 ce, during which period strong relationships were maintained with other coastal sites and Kaminaljuyu in the highlands. During the Early Classic period, Monte Alto succumbed to hostile invasions and was abandoned.
Potbelly sculptures are distributed along the piedmont zone of the Guatemala south coast, into the highlands at Kaminaljuyu, extending as far as western El Salvador. They date to the Late Preclassic period, circa 400 bce to 100 ce. Within their wider distribution they show sufficient resemblance to one another to indicate a shared cult or belief system. Their concentration at Monte Alto suggests it was a major cult center, probably for pilgrimages and special ceremonies.
The Monte Alto style pertains to boulder sculptures carved on a portion of a rough natural stone to portray colossal heads and potbelly figures. One head at Monte Alto is somewhat different, representing a stylized jaguar distantly related in theme to the Olmec Middle Preclassic style. The others exhibit a consistent non-Olmec design scheme, the style of the large heads being portrayed in a manner similar to those on the potbelly bodies. The face is characteristically sculpted in relatively flat relief and displays closed eyes, usually puffy or with an eye covering. It bears heavy jowls, straight lips, with a deep crease running from the bridge of the nose to the lower edge of the cheek. On the potbellies the chest and abdomen merge to form an enlarged rounded swollen body. The arms and legs are executed in low relief and extend across the large belly, almost as though appliquéd onto the surface. These sculptures lack the navel, collar (with one exception), and crossed legs that are often found on potbellies at other sites. The significance of these figures is not known.
See alsoLa Democracia; Mesoamerica; Olmecs.
Parsons, Lee Allen. The Origins of Maya Art: Monumental Stone Sculpture of Kaminaljuyu, Guatemala, and the Southern Pacific Coast. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, No. 28. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1986.
Popenoe de Hatch, Marion. "A Seriation of Monte Alto Sculptures." In New Frontiers in the Archaeology of the Pacific South Coast of Southern Mesoamerica, edited by Federick Bove and Lynette Heller. Anthropological Research Papers No. 39. Tempe: Arizona State University, 1989.
Marion Popenoe de Hatch