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Ancient Olmec Carving Returned to Mexico

In mid-May 2023, an enormous stone sculpture carved by Olmec artists from volcanic rock more than 2,000 years ago, was returned to Mexico after decades in the U.S. Its return was heralded by scholars and government officials alike.

The Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) (National Anthropology and History Institute) announced that Mexican government officials have recovered the statue after it was seized by the Manhattan District Attorney office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit.

The carving weighs almost a tonne (2,200 lbs), and is almost 1.8m (6 feet) high. It most likely dates to the Middle Preclassic Period between 800–400 BCE. The statue was allegedly stolen from Chalcatzingo (central Mexico) during the 1960s – the exact circumstances leading to its appearance in the U.S. are unclear.

The stone shows Tlaltecuhtli – a pre-Columbian Mesoamerican deity, whose name is most often translated as “Earth Monster.” This god is symbolised as a squatting toad-like creature with huge claws, a gaping mouth, and crocodile skin. The mouth and its open jaws represent the entrance to the underworld. Its skin represents the surface of the earth.

Mexico’s secretary of foreign affairs, Marcelo Ebrard, verified the return in April 2023, “The Olmec piece most sought after by Mexico has been recovered and is about to return to its home, from where it should never have been stolen.” He described not having the sculpture in Mexico as like “living with an open wound.” He said, “This gives us back something that explains where we come from.

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