A group performing a ritual poured grape juice, oil and other liquids over four Olmec “colossal head” stone sculptures, badly damaging some of Mexico’s most prized archeological relics, authorities said on Monday.
Experts will try to remove the stains from the porous stone using special solvents but warn the treatments could be time-consuming and costly, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History said in a statement.
Two people were detained for damaging the pre-Hispanic sculptures, which are displayed in the La Venta park in the Gulf coast state of Tabasco, the institute said. It did not give details on the group or what ritual they were trying to perform.
Four of the thick-lipped, glowering carved heads and 19 other Olmec carvings were heavily stained by the suspects on Sunday.
“This act was carried out by persons performing an apparent ritual,” the institute said. “As part of the ceremony, they poured oil, grape juice, salt water and other substances” over the heads, a tomb, altars and other structures.
The artifacts are displayed in an open-air setting meant to replicate the jungle region in which the Olmec culture flourished starting about 3,200 years ago.
The Olmecs are often referred to as the “mother culture” of the region that later saw the rise of the Mayas and Aztecs, and the colossal stone heads are often considered the most emblematic pieces of their art.
The government news agency Notimex quoted Tabasco Governor Andres Granier as saying the park would have to be temporarily closed until the statues are restored.
The Aztecs and Mayas daubed ceremonial structures with the blood of human sacrifice victims. But pouring substances like grape juice and oil over statues does not figure in most historical accounts of pre-Hispanic religions.
The institute said the treatments might have to be applied repeatedly and could cost about 300,000 pesos (US$21,750).
In a statement, it said that the grape juice “stains any surface almost permanently.”
The heads appear to wear helmets and a total of 17 have been unearthed to date in Tabasco and Veracruz state. No two are alike.
They range in size from 1.5m to 3.4m and the largest heads have been estimated to weigh between 25 tonnes and 55 tonnes.
The institute said it had filed a criminal complaint with federal prosecutors.
The incident comes amid a growing debate about how to protect Mexico’s archeological artifacts from human intervention.
A project to install illumination equipment for a nighttime light show at the famed Teotihuacan pyramids outside of Mexico City has drawn criticism from preservationist groups, who argue the pyramids are being damaged by holes drilled into the stone to anchor the gear.