- Mesoamerican architecture refers to the structures of the various cultures that existed in modern-day Mexico and parts of Central America, including Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and parts of Nicaragua. After the arrival of Hernán Cortés in November 1519, European influences began gradually and inextricably to alter the course of Mesoamerican history. Yet in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, many important cultures already existed: Olmec, Teotihuacan, Maya, and Aztec, together with their related civilizations and ancestors. Human existence in the Americas can be traced back more than 15,000 years, when Paleolithic peoples moved from North America through Mesoamerica, Central America, and into South America. Current scholars believe that these peoples entered the Americas via a land bridge along the Bering Strait. They cultivated squash, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, and corn, and they domesticated animals. Among these peoples is found the development not only of temporary shelters but also permanent architectural monuments that confirm the establishment of a hierarchical social structure and ritualized beliefs. Although Mesoamerican cultures developed in different ways, they were also closely linked by trade. For example, the Olmec peoples, who settled along the Gulf of Mexico, used jade and obsidian quarried in other parts of Mesoamerica. Through such contact, they developed similar religious beliefs, as seen in the ceremonial ball game and their creation of a mathematically sophisticated 365-day calendar. The architecture of these diverse communities also reflects a partially shared cultural back-ground; what survives today reveals a series of monumental ceremonial centers with broad roads that led to intricately carved stone temples and massive stepped pyramids.Based primarily on a study of the Maya, scholars have divided the history of this region into the Pre-Classic (1500 BC-AD 300), Classic (300-900), and Post-Classic (900-1500) periods. The Olmec peoples were the first culture to assert a surviving style of art and architecture during the Pre-Classic Period, when they established communities along the Gulf of Mexico by clearing the dense forestation for farmland and pastures, while constructing massive earth mounds used for political and religious purposes. Similar to the social structure first codified in Mesopotamia, these priest-kings probably had sole access to the sacred man-made mountains, while most people must have lived in wood and thatched dwellings clustered outside the ceremonial center.The location, called San Lorenzo for its Spanish name, is the earliest known Olmec site, dating to about 1200-900 BC. La Venta rose to power around 900-400 BC, and both sites were abandoned around 400 BC for unknown reasons. While San Lorenzo displays the earliest evidence of a possible ball court, La Venta is known for its pyramidal earth mound that may have been stepped or tiered. The mound is oriented on a north-south axis and located at the south end of an open square. Stone-lined drainage ditches define the ceremonial center, suggesting that water may have been used in various religious rituals. Small carved jade figures, as well as larger basalt sculptures, have been excavated at La Venta. The jade carvings often feature a human head in the process of transformation into an animal, usually a jaguar, suggesting the shamanistic ritual of shape-shifting. The large basalt sculptures feature monumental heads, each different, which might represent the ruling elite. The strongly axial direction and design of Mesoamerican architecture refers to the three levels of the universe—the sky, the earth's surface, and the underground—linked together, much as in Buddhism, by a vertical line uniting the three. Further research on the Olmec culture suggests that the Olmec might have introduced writing to Mesoamerica, traditionally attributed to the Maya. They certainly played an important role in laying the foundation for the subsequent rise of the Teotihuacan and Maya civilizations.Teotihuacan, located just outside modern-day Mexico City, became the first urban center in Mesoamerica, reaching a size of nine square miles at its high point (from AD 350 to 650) and a population of about 200,000 people, which made it the largest city in the world during its peak. This city was not only prosperous due to its thriving obsidian market, but farmers also cultivated the fertile land in the surrounding terraced hills. By the 750s, the ceremonial center burned, and Teotihuacan society declined, for reasons still unknown. However, because the later Aztecs maintained this center as the place where the gods created the sun and the moon, it was preserved until the 1500s as a sacred pilgrimage site and is therefore better preserved than many Mesoamerican monuments. Like the Olmec centers, Teotihuacan is designed in a strongly axial direction, with one broad north-south avenue flanked by a series of temples and pyramids, including the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Sun. Mesoamerican pyramids form an interesting comparison to the Ancient Near Eastern stepped ziggurats, such as the Nanna Ziggurat in Ur from the 2100s BC, and the Ancient Egyptian stepped pyramids, such as that of King Djoser from the 2600s BC. Similar in width to many of the largest Egyptian pyramids, those at Teotihuacan are shorter; they do not rise up into a point but lead up a flight of stairs that pauses at several platforms and finally arrives at a flat top with a temple. Due to its elevated height, the temple certainly would have been used to provide a closer connection between god and man.Rather than assuming a specific typological influence from one region of the world to another, however, it is entirely possible that this type of monument appeared simultaneously across a variety of cultures simply in imitation of elevated natural shapes. The Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan was built over a cave with a spring and is covered in a veneer of painted stucco over stone. Both this and the smaller Pyramid of the Moon are each surrounded by a flat, open square with a series of platforms that emulate on a smaller scale the form of the pyramids. At the far end of the center, the Temple of the Feathered Serpent features a slope-and-panel construction, in which the sloping base supports a panel that is intricately carved with geometrically squared and abstracted images of the feathered serpent. Increasing in size several times, the newer temple would each time completely encase the older version, probably to accommodate a larger population and to update the style and imagery found on the temple. This urban center also features a residential area, which is highly unusual in that housing in most cultures is built outside the ceremonial center. Here, the palaces of the elite reveal a stratified culture; the largest homes, some with as many as 45 rooms, are located closest to the center of the complex, while more modest homes are found farther away from the religious complex. All are one-story buildings, however, with rooms arranged around a series of court-yards and protected by tall walls. Another unusual aspect of these homes is that they feature the true fresco technique of wall painting, traditionally attributed to Ancient Roman or Renaissance societies. In this technique, paint is applied to stucco before it fully dries, so that the paint sinks into the plaster and creates a permanent bond, creating an extremely durable surface.While these frescoes give us a better idea of Teotihuacan culture, it is the Maya civilization, located directly across Mesoamerica in the area of the Yucatan in modern-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras, that has been the most thoroughly studied Mesoamerican culture to date. That is because this civilization existed during the arrival of the Spanish colonizers in the early 1500s. Because the Maya, like the Inca of South America, built their cities in very fertile tropical areas, they could produce a high yield of food on relatively small plots of land. Therefore they were able to maintain heavily populated urban centers. The Maya are best known for their hieroglyphic writing and sophisticated mathematical principles such as the concept of zero, used before it was understood in Europe. This mathematics allowed for the creation of a remarkably accurate annual calendar unmatched in Mesoamerican culture. Maya architecture is best seen at Tikal and Palenque, as well as the later Chichen Itza and Uxmal. While many other Maya sites are currently under excavation, these cities all reveal the use of architecture for display, that is, to support a rigidly hierarchical society by suggesting its superiority and authority through monumental construction.The city of Tikal, which could accommodate 70,000 inhabitants at its height, featured a ceremonial center entirely elevated on a platform that connected the buildings via elevated paved roads running out toward the residential areas. One of the main pyramids, called Temple of the Giant Jaguar, encloses the tomb of Ah Hasaw, who ruled Tikal in the first decades of the 700s. The stepped pyramid has nine tiers, which probably symbolize the nine layers of the underworld and thus its funerary context. Steep, narrow stairs run across the tiers and rise directly up to a shrine at the top. This shrine consists of two narrow rooms with a steeply corbelled vault on the roof. A carved crest, called a roof comb, is located on top of the roof; it was originally painted in bright colors, much like the reds, yellows, white, and earth tones of Maya ceramics. The main pyramid at Chichen Itza reflects an even closer connection between astronomy and architecture: during the evenings of the fall and spring equinox, the setting sun casts an undulating shadow that seems to run up and down the central stairway. These pyramids of Post-Classic Maya architecture continue to feature a stepped pyramid of nine tiers, topped by a square platform and temple, but at Chichen Itza, the pyramids are shorter and wider. With the use of more columns and broader lintels, these structures feature broader galleries and larger interior spaces. The monuments are always surrounded by open spaces cut out of the dense forestation, suggesting human control over nature. In addition, the pyramids rise above the tree canopy, which would have allowed for a rarely held unobstructed view of the land, accessible only to the priest-king. Because the Maya ball courts, which consist of an open, rectangular space enclosed by tall walls, are found in close proximity to these religious monuments, ritualistic connotations have always been associated with the ball game. The actual rules of the game—and the fate of the losing team—remain shrouded in mystery, although Maya ceramics and carved stele reveal dramatic scenes of human bloodletting and sacrifice.These fascinating rituals are also seen in the later Aztec culture, in which the Aztecs added to earlier Mexica and Maya beliefs their own set of gods and goddesses. It was the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan that greatly impressed the army of Cortés. Upon their arrival in 1519, they enthusiastically described the straight causeway and the city, which seemed to appear magically out of the water like a shimmering image of monumental stone buildings. This description comes from the fact that Tenochtitlan was originally located on an island in Lake Texcoco, which was connected to other islands via elevated roads traversing the surrounding marshland. The Aztecs rose in power from their origins as a nomadic people living in central and northwest regions. They settled around modern-day Mexico City and established a powerful empire beginning in the 1200s. Once the Spanish soldiers conquered the Aztec Empire, they settled in the area of Tenochtitlan and began to build what would become the center of Mexico City, with the Cathedral of Mexico City occupying the site of Tenochtitlan's ceremonial center. Only in the 20th century have reconstructions allowed visitors to better understand the monumental architectural sophistication of the ancient Aztec Empire.See also MACHU PICCHU, PERU.
Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. Allison Lee Palmer. 2008.
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