Izapa Stela 5: A Modern-day Problem Decoding Yesteryear

Early Photograph of Izapa Stela 5, 1976, V. Garth Norman

Early Photograph of Izapa Stela 5, 1976
Photo: V. Garth Norman

On the Pacific coast of South America, where the state of Chiapas, Mexico meets the border of modern Guatemala, once lay the center of Izapan civilization. Various researchers and historians claim that this area was inhabited as early as 1500 BCE and date remaining artifacts somewhere between 650 BCE and 200 CE [1][2][3]. However, of those objects upon which scholarship focuses, no work may be as debated or as significant than one thrust into the spotlight in 1941 by archaeologist Matthew W. Stirling: Stela 5 [4]. A magnificent stela of intricate detail and engrossing beauty, this complex sculpture gives cause to many for inspiration and interpretation, often sparking passionate theories of supernatural proportions.

Adding to the mystique of Stela 5 is the fact that Izapa appears to be a unique culture whose comprehensive understanding proves elusive. However, several features of the Izapan site and its position near other Mesoamerican tribes explain their social and historical importance. Located in the Soconusco region on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, the site’s proximity to other important geographical features such as rivers and volcanoes, and its micro-climate with high annual precipitation, both create a rich, fertile environment perfect for agriculture and the collection of natural resources, i.e. sea salt [5]. Accordingly, the Izapa are noted for having been an important center of transit, trade, and religion, sometimes thought of as a pilgrimage point between Olmec and Mayan cultures [6][7][8]. In fact, one resource still in abundance there today may have been a prime attractor to the region. Cacao, a multipurpose natural resource that also acted as a unit of currency, was a seed of conflict as groups fought for control of its production and trade [9]. Furthermore, Izapa was also a point of convergence for many surrounding languages, with no less than five tongues in a 50 kilometer radius. Linguistic researchers acknowledge the enigma present in interpreting each language’s origins and exchange, similar to the enigma scholars face with Stela 5, determining if it is a marker of the diffusion and synthesis of regional visual culture [10].

At first glance, Stela 5 might daunt a viewer with its visual cacophony; the relief work is a composition rich with figurative symbols, mythological abstractions, and sophisticated organization of its forms [11]. Stela 5 was excavated as a part of what Stirling labeled Group A, a group of four mounds (numbered 55 through 58) organized in a quadrangle that held what are considered to be the principal sculptures of Izapa. Group A encompasses ten altars and twelve stelae, Stela 5 the first of a sequence of five stelae excavated next to each other at Mound 56 [12]. The carved surface is approximately 63 inches in height and width on a stone that is about 33 inches at its thickest point [13]. The overall shape of the stone is flint-like, a squarish upper portion that contains the composition and a triangular lower-third with unremarkable features [14].

To describe all of the visual elements on Stela 5 is a lengthy affair. Izapan Scholar Garth Norman of the Brigham Young University (BYU) New World Archaeological Foundation (NWAF) counts within the composition at least 60 individual depictions: human figures, flora and fauna, and other objects of ritual or indeterminate purpose [15]. Likewise, in her study “Izapa Relief Carving”, archaeologist Virginia G. Smith identified amongst twenty-four of the more complete Izapan stelae fifty separate visual traits, of which she determines Stela 5 has twenty-five. By comparison, the other stelae of Group A have eleven to nineteen traits each [16]. This saturation of elements and the complexity of their interrelation sets the monument apart as a unique, special feat [17].

To begin, Stela 5 is framed by top- and base-line designs, horizontal bands of scrolls, geometrical forms, and water and animal symbols. These framing designs are common throughout most of the well-preserved Izapan stelae. Visually they act as ground lines or planar extensions to a narrative and seem to serve as symbols for interpretation in their own right [18].

The focal point on Stela 5 is a horizontally-centered, eight-branched tree that vertically divides the composition into two parts. The remaining elements crowd around the tree, creating a canyon of activity organized on the strong diagonals of an implied upside-down triangle. The legs of this implied triangle are reinforced by their intersection with two of the largest person-like figures appearing in the composition, each wearing a deity mask and facing towards the tree [19]. Together these three elements — the large figures and the tree they face — comprise some of the larger volumes of form unembellished with incised detail, whose contrast to the otherwise busy composition acts as quasi-negative space. As such, they function as anchors in the fore- and backgrounds, drawing the viewer into the narrative by expanding depth through notional space.

This central tree is what brings much of the attention to Stela 5. Its identifiability as a fertile center of a bustling scene leads many to believe the stela is representative of a grand ontological allegory. Since Stirling’s illumination of the site, various researchers and pundits have attempted to elaborate the Izapan purpose through their visual artifacts, and often rely on Stela 5 as a key feature to their research. However, their intentions run a wide gamut. A discussion of several different scholarly examinations of Izapan sculpture will not only illuminate some of the defining features in the artwork, but also explain the passion and allure surrounding this super-composition.

In his 1973 paper “Izapan-Style Art: A Study of its Form and Meaning,” Mesoamerican scholar Jacinto Quirarte questioned whether Izapan artwork was “to be considered as formulating new solutions” in human subjectivity [20]. To perform an iconographic analysis of Izapan stelae, Quirarte first divided his attention to two specific areas: the top- and base-line designs which he also referred to as panels, and the actual narrative compositions and their wide array of symbolic representations and descriptive figures [21]. He takes the time to identify the manner in which forms are created: the implementation of line to either define form, express movement, or create inertia; creation of notional space or depth by overlapping forms or arranging proportional differences; lastly, categorizing each monument’s relief style as incised, low, or plano [22].

While Quirarte believes Izapan top-line designs might display heavily abstracted similarities to Olmec jaguar iconography, he prefers the notion that they express a more zoomorphic combination of feline, serpent, and bird characteristics to their form [23]. He points out the fact that the Stela‘s top-line panel appears to be connected with a stream of water running down the side of the stone, leading to the bottom-line panel [24]. He discusses the composition’s deliberate symmetry, and the presence of paired figures around incense burners and terrestrial dragons, saying that incision of line is the primary method to define form throughout the composition [25].

Qualifying Stela 5 as “the most complicated relief sculpture at [the] site,” Quirarte offers scant speculative interpretation of the work [26]. Instead, his analysis is concerned with interpretation of the whole body of Izapan sculpture through broader ideas, forming a basis for many subsequent researchers to start from [27].

View of Izapa Plaza B during initial archaeological investigation

Izapa Plaza B during initial archaeological investigation
Photo: Comision De Defensa Del Patrimonio Cultural

Three years later, Norman published his widely cited, definitive monograph Izapa Sculpture, providing detailed data on over 200 stelae, altars and monuments, as well as his own analysis. Norman’s photographs and accompanying tracings would remain standard reference material for years to come [28]. In fact, Quirarte wrote his work using imagery Norman had gathered and published in 1973 as a preliminary to the subsequent text.

Norman calls Stela 5 a “supernarrative,” saying the challenge of its interpretation equals that of ten other Izapan monuments combined [29]. He details the major features of the work as well as their relationships to some of the more minor details. He begins with the tree, speculating that its roots breach the base-line panel and creep towards moving water underneath the bottom-line panel. Similarly, he notes that the tree’s branches overlap the top-line panel, which he qualifies as “sky.” Norman then points out several fish, birds, and a composite serpent that all stand out in the composition [30]. He addresses the artist’s creation of movement by extrapolating implied geometries through the alignment of figures, comparing varying volumes of form, and examining the connections between actual serpentine contours that traverse the length of the composition [31]. He proceeds to discuss exhaustively each individual element and its relation to the whole; for instance, differences in figures’ head size and their possible hierarchical meanings. He makes comparisons of Stela 5 imagery with monuments from other sites and cultures, such as Tres Zapotes, Kaminaljuyu, the Hopi Indians, and Mixteca, particularly differences in deity depiction. Lastly, he expounds the relevance of the top- and base-line panels interruption by the tree [32].

Of these he believes that base-line panels generally imply a containment of supernatural powers within an underworld, mainly subterranean earth, while top-line panels express a “functional unity,” or the summarizing and interconnection of figurative symbols throughout the compositions using a sort of pictographic language [33]. Moreover, he discusses their likely relation to jaguar masks identified elsewhere in Mesoamerica, in accordance with Quirarte [34]. Finally, Norman posits that triangles present in the base-line panels operate as anchors to an additional matrix of organization and discuss how implied lines extending from their sides reorganize the composition in alternate narratives [35].

Concluding his analysis, Norman posits that Stela 5 is a “road-of-life” narrative, each figure and symbol an element identifiable by Izapans as part of a cycle of life and death. Believing the stela depicts a tree of life, he notes its purpose as a vertical connection between the waters of life below and the heavenly destination of above. Yet, he stresses the importance of contextualizing stelae considering the cosmological framework in which many Mesoamerican cultures operated, as well as the gestalt of a group from which each monument comes [36].

Three more associates of the NWAF, Gareth W. Lowe, Thomas A. Lee, Jr., and Eduardo Martinez Espinosa, expanded the work of Norman in their 1982 monograph Izapa: An Introduction to the Ruins and Monuments [37]. The group approached the analysis and interpretation of the site’s monuments differently, providing a thorough history of the Soconusco that discusses language, environment, terrain, and resources, as well as a narrative chronology of changes in artistic style over three millennia [38]. This history forms a backdrop to the hearty analysis Norman produced and acts as an immediate reference for the group’s interpretations. Additionally, they elaborate the categorization created by Stirling to group similar objects together and summarize the various differences between each category [39].

Within the monograph, Lowe authors an essay titled “Izapa Religion, Cosmology, and Ritual.” In it he attempts to “determine the basic religious philosophy and social purpose symbolized in the monuments and their placement” [40]. He discusses the integration of mythology and cosmology in creating what archaeologist Tatiana Proskouriakoff terms “complex symbolism,” imagery used not only for religious appeasement of the gods, but also for political strength [41]. Approaching Stela 5, Lowe identifies the “tree of abundance” as a central, important element and explicates the ideas of Norman’s analysis and conclusion [42]. He briefly discusses, as did Norman, possible taxonomic identifications of the tree, for instance ceiba or ramón [43][44].

However, where Norman expends much of his effort on symbol analysis through cross-cultural mythical extrapolation and proportional interrelatedness, Lowe focuses much of his discussion on the influence of the ritual calendar at Izapa. Equating an ability to track astronomical movements with not only divine, but political power, he describes a progression of objects used to mark the passing of time, ideas which intensify his affinity to Proskouriakoff’s position [45]. He counters, though, that Izapa’s neighboring volcanoes deemphasized a need for man-made astronomical markers, thus defining their sculpture as more socially or political relevant [46]. Nonetheless, Lowe reiterates the possibility Stela 5 contains strikingly similar Mayan and Aztecan calendrical iconography, whose cyclic nature would reinforce Norman’s “road-of-life” theory and even state a case for quantifying Stela 5 as a representation of the first day of the Mesoamerican calendar. He ends his essay discussing the chance that the monument is tributary, honoring maternal nurturance and agricultural abundance [47].

On the other hand, archaeologists such as M. Wells Jakeman — founder of the Department of Archaeology at BYU — interpreted Izapan artifacts in a much more controversial manner [48]. In a 1958 paper strictly concerned with Stela 5, Jakeman argued that it depicted a passage from the Book of Mormon concerned with a tree of life discovered by the ancestors of The Church of Jesus Christ, Latter-day Saints — BYU’s founder [49]. He compares the composition to symbols described in the story, mainly a fruit-bearing tree, its guardians, a nearby river, and a “straight and narrow path” [50][51]. Additionally, Jakeman’s work set off a string of subsequent derivative theories, many from hobbyists or apologists of the Mormon faith. One such example is fellow BYU archaeologist Ross T. Christensen, who for many years disseminated a chronology of information regarding the stela that ebulliently endorsed Jakeman’s proposals, a chronology still referred to today by apologia organizations [52].

Jakeman’s research and assertions were ultimately refuted by most of his colleagues, Norman himself characterizing the work as “invalid” [53][54]. Subsequent opinions from other scholars would affirm this invalidation, as well as rejecting other apologia efforts’ thin contextualizations and carbon-copy theories.

Artistic Rendering of Izapa Stela 5, Ayax Moreno 1999

Modern technology-assisted artistic rendering of Izapa Stela 5
Ayax Moreno, 1999

Such was the case forty-eight years later when NWAF-funded scholar John E. Clark and artist Ayáx Moreno created new illustrations of Izapan monuments, including Stela 5. Using a special technique whereby rubbings on transparent plastic were digitally layered with video-recorded imagery, the pair crafted a new illustration that considered more views of the stela in raking light, resulting in a new illustration with significantly increased detail and shadowing [55]. More importantly, Clark attempted to address the tree of life question under new light.

First, he extracts passages from the Book of Mormon that directly controvert claims Stela 5 is related to the early ancestors of Mormonism. However, he simultaneously opens the door to new inquiries by suggesting a different chapter in the Book of Mormon could be depicted in Izapan sculpture, though he does call the idea a “long shot” [56]. Perhaps what is most interesting as Clark negates Jakeman’s work and the ideas of other armchair Mormon archaeologists, he suggests negating all previous interpretations of Stela 5. Qualifying the earlier illustrations as “poor drawings” and equating them with “bad data,” he questions their contemporary relevancy [57]. The assertion could be viewed as bold since the NWAF also funded much of the earlier research, as well as a bit egotistical, though not completely unfounded. In Quirarte’s analysis of Stela 5, he admits that the sculpture’s complexity is exacerbated by the shallowness of its relief, its divisions of form between positive and negative space often indiscernible [58]. The imagery available during Quirarte’s time, and any unaided in-person observation, likely overlooked many questionable details. Of course the new Clark/Moreno Drawing ameliorates some of these problems, yet it remains to be seen how much the interpretation of Stela 5 changes once scholars begin new inquiries.

The question of noble intentions may always exist with research performed by BYU or their associates. While much of Izapa Sculpture has a decidedly secular and scientific tone to its observations, Norman does concludes his analysis with a short, hypothetical narrative he has written — essentially a prayer — taking place between two of the figures. The prayer is of no specific denomination nor does it suggest any Mormon connections. However, it is interesting to note that Norman is currently affiliated with the Ancient America Foundation, whose mission is “to disseminate information on archaeological and other cultural discoveries that throw light on the historical claims of the Book of Mormon,” as well as “bring greater understanding and appreciation to this sacred record” [59]. Whether Norman’s intentions have always been primarily apologetic or whether they were genuinely scientific is something each individual scholar will have to answer for themselves.

What seems most appropriate to religious considerations in Izapan sculpture is Mesoamerican mythology removed specifically from Christian interpretations, something Smith took the time to do in “Izapa Relief Carving”, but not without first stressing reservation to connect iconography with any religion [60]. Drawing on ideas suggested by anthropologist Roy A. Rappaport, Smith discusses Mayan and Aztecan cycle-of-life mythes, remarking that scenes depicted on Izapan stelae correlate with imagery described in the stories. Of particular interest are the top- and bottom-panels on Stela 5, possible references to a moment when “the sky fell, and the earth was flooded” [61]. If one believes Stela 5 is related to these mythes, then perhaps the composition depicts time after the deluge as “worthy people” gather in paradise [62]. Nonetheless, even if this paradisaical slant is irrelevant, Smith notes the significance of water for Izapan religious ritual, whose undertaking likely preceded the rainy season [63].

Smith focuses on the complexity of Izapan iconography in her conclusion, impressed with the volume and breadth of Mesoamerican themes it contains. She believes this is ultimately a demonstration of a highly adapted peoples in a unique environment responding with a unique culture in a unique style, and vehemently disagrees with any notion that Izapa is simply an artistic link between Olmec and Mayan styles, echoing Stirling’s sentiments on Izapa’s significance [64].

Stirling certainly felt Izapa was a special place, expressing disbelief that it had been mostly overlooked up to that point [65]. While he didn’t go much farther than a short description of Stela 5, it is one of his lengthier ones, and he pointed out all of the imagery scholars like Norman, Lowe, and Smith would work with [66]. But, the significance of and deliberation about Stela 5 have come a long way since writer Carlos A. Culebro, who made the first interpretation of the composition, said, “it represents a market scene under the Pochota or sacred ceiba tree” [67]. Perhaps Culebro is right. However, it does seem that such a magnificent, calculated, detailed work is more than just a record of a quotidian Izapan day.

Whether the enigma of Stela 5 is ever solved or to remain a mystery is an inconsequential question to belabor; the fact that scholars and viewers alike today still experience an emotional reaction from its imagery speaks to the artistic power of Izapan culture. If the Izapans were concerned with mortality, impermanence, or any of the other existential crises contemporary man confronts, our lasting enchantment and inquisition with their iconography prove the success of their efforts for life beyond a primal, mortal incarnation. Accordingly, Stela 5 and the other achievements of Izapan artists will forever fascinate anyone interested in the concern of imbuing visual culture with unequaled spirit, and further unbiased research, performed by organizations financially and academically unaffiliated with religious institutions, would greatly benefit our contemporary understanding of Izapans’ unique perspectives on being.


[1] V. G. Norman, Izapa Sculpture. (Provo, Utah: New World Archaeological Foundation, Brigham Young University, 1973-1976.) pg 1.
[2] J. Quirarte “Izapan-Style Art: A Study of its Form and Meaning.” Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, No. 10, 1993. pp 7-8.
[3] J. G. Kappelman. “Demystifying The Late Preclassic Izapan-Style Stela-Altar ‘Cult.'” Res, #45, 2004. pg 99.
[4] V. G. Smith. “Izapa Relief Carving: Form, Content, Rules For Design, and Role in Mesoamerican Art History and Archaeology.” Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, No. 27, 1984. pg 1.
[5] Norman pp 1-2.
[6] J. E. Clark. “A New Artistic Rendering of Izapa Stela 5: A Step toward Improved Interpretation.Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1999. pg 26.
[7] G. Lowe, T A. Lee, Jr., E. M. Espinosa. Izapa: An Introduction to the Ruins and Monuments. (Provo, Utah: New World Archaeological Foundation, Brigham Young University, 1982.) pg 3.
[8] Smith pg 1.
[9] Lowe, Lee, Espinosa pp. 1, 47-48.
[10] Ibid pg. 7-15.
[11] Norman pg 165.
[12] Lowe, Lee, Espinosa pg 159.
[13] Norman pg 166.
[14] Clark pg 22.
[15] Norman pg 166.
[16] Smith pp 9-18.
[17] Norman pp 165-166.
[18] Quirarte pg 9-18.
[19] Norman pg 168.
[20] Quirarte pg 5.
[21] Ibid pg 8.
[22] Ibid pg 9.
[23] Ibid pp 15-18.
[24] Ibid pg 18.
[25] Ibid pp 26-27, 30.
[26] Ibid pg 30.
[27] Ibid pp 32-33.
[28] Clark pp 23-24.
[29] Norman pg 165.
[30] Ibid pg 166.
[31] Ibid pg 168.
[32] Ibid pg 169-215.
[33] Ibid pp 26-31.
[34] Ibid pp 23-26.
[35] Ibid pp 193-194, 234-236.
[36] Ibid pg 329.
[37] Lowe, Lee, Espinoza pg vii.
[38] Ibid pp 7-72, 115-158.
[39] Ibid pp 75, 89-114.
[40] Ibid pg 269.
[41] Ibid pp 269-272.
[42] Ibid pp 272-273.
[43] Ibid pp 273-275.
[44] Norman pp 194-196.
[45] Lowe, Lee, Espinoza pp 275-278.
[46] Ibid pp 278-279, 299-305.
[47] Ibid pp 316-323.
[48] Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. “Memorial: Max Wells Jakeman 1910-1998.” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1998.
[49] Clark pg 24.
[50] Book of Mormon, The. Trans. Joseph Smith, Jr. (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981) 1 Nep. 8.1-36.
[51] M. W. Jakeman. “Stela 5, Chiapas, Mexico: A Major Archaeological Discovery of the New World.” Salt Lake City: Brigham Young University, 1958. pp 8-16, 25-30, 45-48, 59-62.
[52] Ancient America Foundation. Ancient America Foundation. Mission statement.
[53] S. W. Brewer. “The History of an Idea: The Scene on Stela 5 from Izapa, Mexico, as a Representation of Lehi’s Vision of the Tree of Life.” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. Vol. 8, No. 1, 1999.
[54] Norman pg 167.
[55] Clark pp 24-25.
[56] Ibid pg 33.
[57] Ibid pp 28-33.
[58] Ibid pg 30.
[59] Ancient America Foundation. Mission statement.
[60] Smith pg 34.
[61] Ibid pg 35.
[62] Ibid pp 34-35.
[63] Ibid pg 35.
[64] Ibid pg 48.
[65] M. W. Stirling. Stone Monuments of Southern Mexico. (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1943) pg 61.
[66] Ibid pg 62.
[67] Lowe, Lee, Espinosa pg 329.

¶ 2013·06·04