Located in the Veracruz state capital, the Xalapa Museum of Anthropology is the state’s primary museum. Many who visit, in fact, consider it to be the country’s top archaeology museum after the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. But what makes it so special?
Opened in 1986, the museum features over 25,000 artifacts from across the state of Veracruz. But its main claim to fame is its fantastic collection of Olmec artifacts. The Olmecs, who emerged around 1500 BC, are widely regarded as the Mesoamerican ‘mother civilization.’
Artistically speaking, the Olmecs are best known for their massive stone heads carved out of rough volcanic stone. In total, seventeen Olmec heads have been uncovered thus far, and the Xalapa Museum of Anthropology is home to nine of them.
Xalapa isn’t the only place to admire Olmec artifacts, however. The original Olmec heartland was located in what’s now southeastern Veracruz and the state of Tabasco. And many of the findings from the Olmec settlement of La Venta, Tabasco are on display in the city of Villahermosa.
We’ve already covered that outdoor museum, together with a comprehensive introduction to the Olmecs, that you can read here.
In the following guide to the Xalapa Museum of Anthropology, we’ll begin with the Olmec section, followed by the other exhibits which focus on later civilizations throughout the state of Veracruz.
The museum is open from 9:00-17:00, Tues.-Sun. and costs $60 MXN to enter. While all of the signage is in Spanish only, English audio guides can be rented for an extra 30 pesos.
For more information on reaching the museum and Xalapa itself, be sure to check the end of the article.
The Olmec Section
Stepping inside the museum, the first object you’ll encounter is Colossal Head 8, discovered in 1970. Like all the other giant heads at the museum, it was found at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, the earliest-known Olmec settlement.
Founded around 1500 BC, San Lorenzo is actually comprised of three Olmec settlements situated right by one another. It thrived for centuries before being abandoned around 900 BC, right around the time when La Venta, some 125 km away, began its ascent.
Head 8 is considered to be one of the best-preserved Olmec heads. Notice the shapes on its headband, which could either be jaguar claws or bird talons.
Across the entrance hall is Colossal Head 5, discovered in 1946. As you can see, its face is quite different from that of the previous head. Archaeologists believe, in fact, that each head depicted a particular ruler.
As you explore the Xalapa Museum of Anthropology, you’ll encounter numerous rooms off to the side which are partially outdoors. Thankfully, they’re roofed over to protect both the artifacts and visitors from rain.
In the first of these side rooms is Colossal Head 1, also known as ‘El Rey.’
His headband also features what appears to be a jaguar claw, while the circle in the middle may represent jade – the most precious material for the Olmecs and all subsequent Mesoamerican civilizations.
When viewed from the side, it’s surprising how flat and narrow many of these heads actually are. They were probably designed to be propped up against a wall of some sort.
Nearby are some monolithic stelae and altars which closely resemble pieces found at La Venta, Tabasco. One carved stele possibly depicts someone taking part in an agricultural rite.
Notably, it was discovered in central Veracruz – quite far from the Olmec heartland of southeast Veracruz and Tabasco. But by the time it was carved sometime between 900-400 BC, Olmec culture had already spread far and wide – even into Central Mexico.
The nearby altar meanwhile, depicts a figure emerging from a cave – a common theme in Olmec art. It possibly represents a being emerging from the underworld.
Back inside, the central hallway contains a unique set of four sculptures, consisting of a pair of human twins posing in reverence to two felines. The felines are likely jaguars, a common symbol the Olmecs used to denote royalty.
One wonders if these twins influenced later Mayan myths such as that of the Hero Twins. And on a side note, one can’t help but notice how the twins’ elaborate headgear looks similar to those of Egyptian pharaohs.
Also in the hallway is El Príncipe, a well-preserved sculpture discovered at Laguna de los Cerros in 1969.
Other notable sculptures include that of a human-jaguar hybrid, or were-jaguar. As mentioned, these sculptures surely represented a member of Olmec royalty.
Nearby are numerous other statues which represent a similar theme, though many have been decapitated.
Another common motif used by the Olmecs was babies, possibly as a way to symbolize the continuation of the royal lineage. Many of the ones on display here are ceramic.
As you’ll notice, some of them have oddly elongated skulls.
Numerous Mesoamerican cultures – not to mention many others throughout the world – practiced cranial modification. While it was presumably a way to distinguish the ruling elite from commoners, could another goal of this practice have been to activate otherwise dormant parts of the brain?
Continuing on, you’ll encounter a sculpture of a seated person – surely a noble – that was discovered in 1971. And if you thought you’d seen all the colossal heads, there are still plenty more to come!
In another room, you’ll find three colossal heads lined up in a row. Among them is Head 4, discovered back in 1946. This head is noticeably taller and narrower than all of the others.
Interestingly, Colossal Head 3 in the center is believed by some archaeologists to depict a woman. And notice how the headdresses of Heads 4 and 3 feature what appear to be four ropes, perhaps signifying cranial modification.
Colossal Head 9 on the left is the only one from San Lorenzo that appears to be smiling, though a smiling head was discovered at La Venta as well.
The Olmec exhibition continues in the main hallway. Interesting pieces here include an egg-shaped object with a face in the middle, possibly related to an ancient creation myth about the origin of mankind.
Among the most important pieces of Olmec art ever discovered is ‘El Señor de las Limas,’ crafted of green stone. The 55 cm-high sculpture depicts a man holding a young were-jaguar. Some believe it depicts a child sacrifice, though it may simply symbolize the concept of renewal.
Once stolen from the museum in 1970, it was later found in the United States and returned.
What follows is a comprehensive display of jade artifacts. The Olmecs were the first Mesoamerican culture to create jade death masks, a practice later copied by the Teotihuacanos and Mayans. The practice persisted for centuries, all the way up until the heyday of the Aztecs.
As mentioned above, jade was long regarded as more valuable than either silver or gold. And religiously, being buried with jade was regarded as a way to ensure a more favorable afterlife.
Approaching the final few rooms of the Xalapa Museum of Anthropology Olmec section, you’ll encounter Colossal Head 7, clearly in a worse state of preservation than the others.
The adjacent room, meanwhile, contains numerous heads of different mythological creatures and monsters.
You’ll also encounter various stelae and columns carved in geometric patterns. While not much is left of the original Olmec settlements, these pieces help us picture what original Olmec architecture may have looked like.
Interestingly, some stelae are marked with glyphs representing dates, revealing that it was the Olmecs, not the Mayans, who first invented the brilliant Mesoamerican calendar system.
Many of these later stelae and sculptures could be considered ‘post-Olmec,’ having been created after the turn of the millennium. Here we can see the beginnings of the ‘typical’ Mesoamerican art style that would be adopted by many later cultures throughout Mexico.
The Non-Olmec Exhibits
After the large Olmec section, you’ll find a series of exhibits focusing on artifacts from various cultures of central Veracruz, followed by the northern part of the state.
While we won’t be covering the non-Olmec artifacts quite as thoroughly, what follows is a summary of the notable highlights.
Unfortunately, the museum is not always clear about which specific culture created each piece, though they do mention the precinct where each object was discovered.
Some interesting pieces here include a funerary urn, made between 300-600 AD and discovered in Catemaco. Nearby, meanwhile, is a charming sculpture of a seated monkey with a round belly.
In one of the covered outdoor areas is a large monolith carved in the shape of a fierce jaguar. It was clearly influenced by the Olmec style. Also around here is a carved basalt skull from around 1000 AD.
Back inside, you’ll find a large assortment of ceramic pottery, figurines and sculptures. Most of these were likely created by a culture known as the Totonacs, who dominated Veracruz from around the fall of Teotihuacan up until the arrival of the Spanish.
One of the most remarkable pieces around here is that of the ‘Divine Trinity.’ The ceramic sculptures were discovered in the northern part of central Veracruz and were carved sometime between 300 BC–300 AD. They may have represented certain planetary bodies.
Nearby is a tall, lanky figure with a jolly expression. It depicts the god Xipe Totec, who represents both the cycles of nature and the concept of sacrifice.
In a side room, you’ll find a fascinating collection of mural paintings from a site known as Las Higueras. They date from around 600-900 AD and largely depict people performing various rituals and ceremonies.
While not quite as impressive as the murals of Cacaxtla or Bonampak, well-preserved Mesoamerican murals are quite rare to come by, so seeing these is a real treat.
The most-visited archaeological site in Veracruz is El Tajín, located in the north of the state near the town of Papantla. As one might expect, the Xalapa Museum of Anthropology contains a sizable collection from that early Totonac city.
Be sure to check out our dedicated guide to El Tajín to learn more about the artifacts.
One of my personal favorite pieces at the museum would have to be the clay sculpture of a seated Tlaloc, the rain god. Throughout Mexico, the deity was commonly depicted in a seated position. But this particular piece looks strikingly natural and lifelike.
Rather than an intimidating, all-powerful god, the hunched-over figure appears more like a teenager reflecting after a stressful day. The piece wouldn’t look out of place at a contemporary art gallery.
Also notice Tlaloc’s eyes. Throughout Mexico, he was commonly depicted with large round circles around his eyes, as is the case here. But combined with the realism of the posture and expression, he could be mistaken for a modern steampunk character wearing goggles!
Nearby is another interesting clay piece depicting twins. As with the seated Talaloc statue, it was found at a site called Ignacio de La Llave in the center of the state.
Another highlight of this section is a figurine of Mictlantecuhtli, the god of death, that was crafted sometime between 600-900 AD.
Many of the pieces in the following rooms come from a site called El Zapotal, a Totonac city that flourished from 600-900 AD, located south of the modern city of Veracruz.
A notable piece from El Zapotal is that of Cihuateteo, which represents a woman who died during childbirth. In ancient times, such women were revered in the manner of fallen warriors.
Discovered in the area of Tlalixcoyan, an interesting set of statues depicts Tlaloc and his consort Chalchihuitlicue, overseers of a paradise realm known as Tlalocan. Notice how different Tlaloc looks here compared to the clay sculpture mentioned above.
Near the end of your tour of the Xalapa Museum of Anthropology, you’ll encounter more basalt monoliths. And another room features various stelae from around the north of the state.
While aside from El Tajín, Veracruz may not be very well-known for its archaeological sites. But thanks to this excellent museum, it’s clear that the coastal state is one of the most culturally rich parts of the country.
Even if you’re not basing yourself in Xalapa, the state capital of Veracruz, the Anthropology Museum can be visited as a day trip from the city of Veracruz, with the one-way bus journey lasting about two hours.
The bus will drop you off at the main bus terminal, from which you’ll need to take a taxi or public bus to the city center. After that, you’ll need to transfer to another bus bound for the museum.
Once in the center, look for a bus that says ‘Camacho-Tesoreria’ on it. The bus from the bus terminal should drop you off right by where these buses pick people up. But with no signage, it can be a little confusing.
If you can’t figure it out, go ask someone at the tourist information kiosk set up by the main square.
Leaving the museum, simply wait at one of the bus stops along the main road and hop on a bus bound for ‘Centro.’ You’ll then need to find another bus to take you to the main terminal.
The best place to stay in Veracruz would have to be its historical center. Some highly-rated hotels in this area include Hotel Mar y Tierra and Hotel Baluarte, which only go for around $30-40 USD per night.
In my case, I wanted somewhere in between the historical center and the bus station, so I chose an Airbnb that was walkable from each. But frankly speaking, Veracruz is one of those cities that has a striking contrast between its historical center and everywhere else. While I didn’t experience any issues, I found much of the city to be dirty and grimy. Considering how Uber operates in the city, staying in the center is the best idea.
As mentioned above, another option is to stay in José Cardel, which would make your journey to both Quiahuiztlán and Cempoala a lot shorter. If you’ll then be traveling onward to Papantla to visit El Tajin, staying in José Cardel would give you a head start for that journey.