Bloomsbury Architecture Library - Mesoamerica, c. 1500 BCE–500 CE
Sir Banister Fletcher’s Global History of Architecture
Sir Banister Fletcher’s Global History of Architecture

Murray Fraser

Murray Fraser is Professor of Architecture and Global Culture at The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, UK and Vice-Dean of Research for The Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment. He has published extensively on design, architectural history and theory, urbanism, post-colonialism and cultural studies. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Visual Arts (UK), 2018


Peoples and Cultures:

Mixtec, Olmec, Pre-Columbian (American)

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Mesoamerica, c. 1500 BCE–500 CE


Mary E. Miller

Mary E. Miller is Sterling Professor of the History of Art at Yale University, USA. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Matthew H. Robb

Matthew H. Robb is Chief Curator of the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, USA. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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DOI: 10.5040/9781474207768-025
Page Range: 464–477

History and Geography

Generally accepted since the 1940s as an independent cultural region, Mesoamerica encompasses most of Mexico and the upper part of Central America; it is defined as the geographical zone stretching in latitude from 22 degrees north to 15 degrees north. But these boundaries knew no walls, and periodically cultural connections extended to lower Central America and the southwest United States, or ‘greater Mesoamerica’ (see Maps 14.1, and 24.1). Mesoamerica was exceptionally varied in its topography and biodiversity. Dominated by the three main climate types – tropical lowlands, temperate valleys and rugged highlands – almost all communities outside the Maya region were within a day’s walk of a different ecological zone. Mesoamerican settlements thrived from sea level to altitudes of 2,000 metres (6,600 feet) and everywhere in between. Slow-moving rivers with seasonal flooding along the Gulf Coast supported early agriculturists, who would make maize the anchor of all diets in the first millennium BCE. The snow-capped and volcanic Sierra Madre and other mountain ranges provided obsidian, basalt, tezontle and cinnabar for both construction and decoration. Some tropical regions receive up to 350 centimetres (140 inches) of rain annually, yielding dense hardwoods that defy termites; even most dry highland environments experience a sustained rainy season beginning in late June. Coastal architecture needed to withstand hurricane winds and drenching rains.

Archaeologists have assigned period names that roughly conform to the passing of the millennia: Formative (2000 BCE–100 CE), Classic (the first millennium CE) and Post-Classic (from 900 CE until the Spanish invasion of 1519). As far as possible, chronology is addressed in this chapter with respect to the modern calendar, rather using than these periodizations, but they will prove inescapable to any reader who pursues the study of Mesoamerican architecture further. Starting no later than 1500 BCE, villages began to demonstrate cultural sophistication, the kernel of what will come to be Mesoamerica.

The historical sequence of earliest, first and/or largest is constantly shifting in the archaeology of Mesoamerican architecture, but one date, recorded on a stone monument known as Stela 2 (more precisely a panel fragment) from the Pacific Coast site of Chiapa de Corzo, still stands out: 36 BCE. Although partial, this is the oldest recorded date on a Mesoamerican monument. A smattering of dates in a similar hieroglyphic system followed in the next century or so; evidence suggests the Maya had developed their own script around this same time. By the second century CE, the Maya regularly recorded historical (and mythological) events on public monuments that served as fulcrums of local dynastic histories at nascent city-states like Tikal. The rulers of sites in Oaxaca developed similar strategies, while those of the Central Mexican city of Teotihuacan mysteriously eschewed this kind of public history. One key event – the so-called ‘entrada’ of 384 CE, when a military force linked to Teotihuacan seems to have invaded Tikal and usurped its royal family – was recorded and remembered across the whole Maya region.

Culture and Society

Prior to the second millennium BCE, populations in Mesoamerica consisted largely of hunter-gatherers who moved across the landscape, following wild game and foraging for edible plants. The most important of these was the cultivar that became zea mays, more commonly known now as maize. Although its origins remain obscure, it likely developed from carefully managed hybrids of teosinte and other wild grasses. This ancestor of modern corn would be almost unrecognizable to the lay consumer, but over generations it became a more reliable and robust food source. Current evidence suggests early maize cultivation as early as the fourth millennium in locations in Puebla and on the Gulf Coast. The development of agriculture – particularly the triumvirate of maize, beans and squash that dominated the foodways of much of the Americas – is typically credited as triggering the shift from nomadic to sedentary village life. Architecture in this period is ephemeral, insubstantial, and leaves only traces of postholes and building outlines on the landscape. From around 2000–1500 BCE, these sedentary villages began to take on more robust and regionally distinct forms. Modest earthen platforms and wattle-and-daub houses characterize much construction. From these unassuming beginnings arose the great traditions of Mesoamerican architecture discussed below.

Many distinct ethnic groups populated these lands, speaking many different languages: these included the large group of Mayan languages to the south; Oto-Manguean in the centre and south; and the Uto-Aztecan group to the north. However, certain traditions were shared across the region for nearly 3,000 years: a vigesimal counting system (using a base of 20, rather than a base of 10) that included a 260-day calendar; the construction of stepped pyramids surfaced with stucco; a ritual game played with a rubber ball; and a diet based in maize agriculture. With these practices, early Mesoamerica demonstrated a surprising unity, despite ethnic differences.

As a primarily agrarian society, Mesoamerican culture revolved around the harvest, whatever the season or crop. The domestication and cultivation of maize dominated the rhythms of every life, from the lowliest farmer eking out marginal subsistence to the highest noble seeking to justify his or her continued status through complex mechanisms of understanding how, why and when the seasons passed as they did. Tracking these and other rhythms of nature led to the development of Mesoamerica’s distinct and robust calendrical systems (see Calendars); careful observation of the sun and other celestial bodies as they rose from east to west and tracked north to south on the horizon fostered a sense of order. The season of harvest and hunting was often likened to the ‘hunting of men’, or warfare, widespread in all periods of Mesoamerica. Chaos brought disruption – an unforeseen hurricane, volcanic eruption or damaging hailstorm could devastate crops, creating social upheaval that could be alleviated with a sufficiently robust and resilient trading network. These, in turn, brought exotic goods and esoteric knowledge to new markets, including precious greenstones, tropical bird feathers, and even cacao. From these systems emerged what we might see as social classes: farmers, artisans, traders, merchants, priests, scribes, nobles and rulers.


Whereas the architecture of Western countries traditionally draws bright lines between the urban, rural and natural realms, these borders were much more permeable in Mesoamerican architecture. It operates on principles of emulation, particularly of the features of what we would call the natural world. In this manner, mountains, rivers, lakes and fields form the metaphorical building blocks of pyramids, streets, patios and plazas. The scale of nature could be compressed to the scale of humanity, and vice versa. Pyramids, in particular, were understood to be sacred mountains, but reciprocity prevailed, and sacred mountains were also pyramids. Chambers inside and beneath pyramids make reference to caves, redolent with sacred connotations of emergence from restriction. Even basic infrastructure like water storage can be seen through a symbolic lens. Of great import is a kind of invisible architecture, in which elaborate buried offerings and earlier stages of buildings lay hidden under the surface. Knowledge of their existence, preserved by social memory, bore power like religious belief, in which the unseen often commands faith and participation in greater measure than the tangible. Elite residential architecture sometimes modelled itself on constructions of more humble origin, perhaps as a way of maintaining social cohesion.

Although there is clear evidence that architecture helped codify and regulate rigid social hierarchies, functional differentiation by gender or labour is harder to discern. Despite the vast number of buildings, city plans, ritual programmes and solutions to engineering problems that we can recognize today, we have almost no ancient indigenous reflections upon Mesoamerican architecture. Instead, we have to rely on a mix of archaeology and descriptions from colonial sources – along with the somewhat laconic first-millennium CE Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions that occasionally reference a building’s name, its patron, or the rituals that marked its dedication. Occasional colonial references inform us of the sources of Aztec building materials, with some such data also now confirmed by direct sourcing.

The formal diversity seen in Mesoamerican architecture is belied by the simplicity and consistency of its material foundations. First came wood of all sorts, along with other forest products, including the fronds of the Mexican fan palm (Washingtonia robusta), which has been woven into thatch roofs that sat atop wattle-and-daub walls from the earliest days. The Maya use the word otot to describe both this simple domestic space; in first-millennium CE inscriptions they use this same word for elegant palace spaces of permanent materials. Wooden cross-ties kept walls and vaults in place as construction went up; left in situ they provided useful beams for secure storage high in vaults and for the suspension of slung furniture, such as hammocks. The second basic material is stone, particularly limestone found across the region, deployed most simply for foundations and platforms; it was also often used as rough-quarried or reused rubble, sometimes cut and pieced into mosaic façades or finished ashlars. Central Mexican tezontle, a lightweight, igneous rock deployed particularly at Tenochtitlan and other Aztec centres, was easily hauled from the volcanic ranges surrounding the Valley of Mexico and cut into both rough and veneer stones. Heavy, dense, volcanic basalt was usually limited to sculpture, sometimes architectonic in scale but rarely used as building material per se. In Honduras, volcanic tuff, formed of compressed ash and easily worked when first quarried, hardened to a durable material for construction, sculpture and architectural ornament. Fragile adobe (a term that comes to Spanish from Arabic, for unfired, sun-baked brick) was formed of mud and straw and shaped with wooden moulds for uniformity of size; of course, it dissolves in rain. Wood and limestone came together to yield stucco (see Stucco ) and cement: vast bonfires reduced quarried stone (and concurrently, forests) to a fine white powder that could be reconstituted as a pliable artificial rock, used for mortar, plastering walls, floors and plazas, and forming the architectural ornament so characteristic of Maya buildings. Artisans applied paint to all these architectural forms, using pigments that include hematite (iron ore), both specular and flat red, but also various ochres for yellows and browns, carbon black, and Maya blue, the tenacious pigment made in a process in which rare palygorskite clay found in Yucatan and Oaxaca was then ‘dyed’ with indigo.

Caves and rock shelters offered refuge to the region’s early inhabitants, and certainly by 10,000 BCE humans had found ways to live and to thrive across the Americas altogether. The ephemeral remains of Mesoamerica’s earliest architecture probably lie on vanished coastlines or flooded riverbeds. From modest beginnings, Mesoamerican architecture developed independent but overlapping traditions that flourished all across the region and that beckon modern observers today, from the rambling structures that provide a glimpse into everyday spaces to the towering pyramids that crest above tropical rainforest canopies, providing panoramic vistas of surrounding landscapes. Different patterns of worship resulted in different architectural outcomes, and local topography promoted distinct architectural solutions.

Some of the earliest surviving architecture of Mesoamerica comes from swampy, riparian settings along the Gulf Coast of Mexico that yield artefacts, pottery, and evidence of house mounds on higher land. Monumental architectural effort emerges at San Lorenzo , where Olmec engineers canalized massive mounds with basalt troughs to carry water through and away, building switches and turns that reflected the ever-shifting currents of the surrounding waterscape. Some argue that the huge, 90-hectare (222-acre) mound of San Lorenzo itself may be artificial. In the process of raising earth above the swampy environment of the Coatzacoalcos River at their apogee between 1200 BCE and 900 BCE, the people of San Lorenzo may have created Mesoamerica’s first ‘water-mountain’. This basic concept, defined by the Aztec term altepetl, informed the next two-and-a-half millennia of monumental construction in Mesoamerica, in which an opening to the watery underworld and access to the sky converge in a single, sacred space.

Some 86 kilometres (53 miles) away, by around 800 BCE the Olmec had developed another island in the Tonalá River today known as La Venta . Some fundamental principles of Mesoamerican architecture and planning come into focus at La Venta: particularly, the pyramid-mountain; axial orientation, in which architecture and offerings are arranged along a central line; and buried offerings as architectural in scale as anything above ground. Known through and because of their invisibility, La Venta’s buried constructions required collective work crews that imported materials from afar. Their organization may have underpinned development of the larger urban order and introduced a trading or merchant class into Mesoamerica.

Figure 25.1.  Aerial view of La Venta, Tabasco, Mexico, looking northeast (constructed 900–400 BCE). Laid out 8 degrees west of north, La Venta is the earliest Mesoamerican site to display bilateral symmetry across its development. Although removed to museums in the mid-20th century, three colossal heads north of the pyramid once faced outwards to serve as powerful guardians of the sacred architecture.

The monumental sculpture of both San Lorenzo and La Venta and other Olmec sites includes colossal heads, some of which weigh over 20 tons (about 18 tonnes), and some of which were recycled from even larger altar-thrones. These gigantic and collective works were part of the architectural theatre of early Mesoamerica. Their stony permanence contrasts with most architecture across the region, made of perishable materials, particularly adobes. In this environment, buildings without effective roofs quickly turn to piles of mud; archaeologists must look for evidence of rotted postholes even to define buildings at all. It is the monumental sculpture that often points the modern observer to the existence of what no longer survives, particularly architecture.

The scale of Olmec pyramids, plazas, offerings and sculpture had a profound impact across Mesoamerica. Places as far away as Teopantecuanitlan, Guerrero, may have been part of a wide-ranging exchange network that included intermediate sites like Chalcatzingo and Zazacatla in Morelos. The presence of sculptural programmes at these sites, carefully aligned with stone-faced platforms and water features, suggests familiarity with Gulf Coast models. Our knowledge of architecture in the centuries immediately after 400 BCE drops off along the Gulf Coast; but by that time monumental construction had launched elsewhere: in the tropical rainforest of Guatemala, and the arid valleys of Oaxaca, and in the highlands of central Mexico.

Urbanization has been a key feature of the Valley of Mexico since the Formative Period right through into the present day. But the rapid expansion of Mexico City in the twentieth century, and ongoing development in the region generally, have greatly limited our ability to definitively identify and understand its beginnings. Although a number of villages populated the shores of Lake Texcoco in the first millennium BCE, modern knowledge of monumental architecture concentrates on Cuicuilco , where a round stone-faced circular structure with some sculptural additions dominated the landscape after 600 BCE, only to be buried in repeated eruptions of the volcano Xitle, leaving the rugged pedregal, or lava flow, largely unexplored and uninhabited until it became the locus of high-end development in the mid-twentieth century. Elsewhere, by the Late Formative Period, residents at a number of sites in the highlands had built monumental platforms oriented to mountains and volcanoes and horizon-based astronomical observations. These developments, as well as the emergence of distinctive talud-tablero façades, in which a sloping wall supports a vertical entablature, would come to full fruition at the site known today as Teotihuacan , which sits astride the Valleys of Mexico and Puebla.

Figure 25.2.  Aerial view of Cuicuilco, once on the southern edge of Lake Texcoco, Valley of Mexico (abandoned c. 100 BCE). Perhaps the earliest great pyramid of central Mexico, subsequently home to ancient Mesoamerica’s largest cities, the round pyramid at Cuicuilco suffered through various eruptions of the nearby volcano Xitle before the flow yielded complete destruction.

Ongoing excavations continue to alter our understanding of Teotihuacan’s emergence as Mesoamerica’s ceremonial centre and urban environment par excellence between 100 BCE and approximately 600 CE. The ancient city extended over some 20 square kilometres (8 square miles), occupied with increasing density as one approached its core. All its buildings align to a grid oriented 15 degrees east of north, as defined by the broad avenue of the Street of the Dead. Teotihuacan’s three main pyramids – known as the Sun (Key Buildings, fig. 25.10), Moon (Key Buildings, fig. 25.10) and Feathered Serpent (Key Buildings, fig. 25.11) – showcase different approaches to using monumental architecture as a strategy to manifest control of nature.

Figure 25.3.  Teotihuacan, Mexico, as seen from the Pyramid of the Moon, with the Pyramid of the Sun to left (constructed 100–500 CE). The great Way of the Dead terminated at the Pyramid of the Moon. Teotihuacan – situated astride the juncture of the Valley of Mexico, to the right, and the Valley of Puebla, to the left – was the most powerful city of its era, in commerce as well as in warfare.

In addition to its individual pyramids, Teotihuacan’s great architectural contribution consists of the city-wide deployment of an unprecedented and innovative solution to the basic problem of housing upwards of 100,000 people. Although the origins of the form remain unclear, by 500 CE there were perhaps 2,000 single-storey residential compounds on the grid. Occupied by extended families, the walled compounds consisted of labyrinthine floor plans typically centred on open-air patios, offering an unprecedented level of material comfort. Lower-status compounds were built with adobe; middle-status compounds with local tezontle and rubble for walls and wooden piers for roof supports, both covered with local concrete and gleaming stucco. Many compound walls were richly painted with complex imagery that operated like internal billboards, presenting state-level iconography with occasional inflections from elsewhere in Mesoamerica. Higher-status compounds augmented or replaced these murals with mosaic sculpture. In both floor plans and wall paintings, a sense of consistency across compounds suggests Teotihuacan’s planners sought to impose a visual and spatial order that would create social unity and suppress individuality.

For all its scale, dominance, and influence on the Mesoamerican landscape, Teotihuacan stood apart from Mesoamerica even as it occupied its centre. The tyranny of its right angles did not extend into the far distance. It did not replicate itself in the manner of an imperial capital, suggesting some resistance to its overwhelming uniformity by both contemporaries and followers. Some defining features of Mesoamerica, like ball courts and calendrical systems, are almost suspiciously absent (unless, as some scholars have argued, they are embedded within the plan of the city itself). Polychrome serpents and striding figures, created using templates, define walls of red grounds; they evoke the world outside as a strategy to socialize and control citizens inside.

During its apogee in the fourth century, Teotihuacan sat at the heart of a web with reach across Mesoamerica, and with particular connections to the Maya region and to Monte Alban, in Oaxaca. An enclave of Oaxaca-style burials provides evidence that Zapotecs lived at the great city within architectural frames we can recognize as purely Teotihuacano; similarly, there are clear signs that both Maya and Gulf Coast peoples took up long-term residence at the Central Mexican locus of power. These relationships certainly featured Teotihuacan warriors stationed far from home. But the military impact was shorter than the cultural one, in which Teotihuacan and its practices served as a longstanding model for Mesoamerica, with a reach to far-distant southern and eastern regions. The presence of talud-tablero façades outside of central Mexico is typically seen as evidence of direct contact with Teotihuacan. Though later cultures would modify this distinct building profile, these variants still seem to hearken back to this paradigmatic urban space. In its day, Teotihuacan was almost certainly known as a Tollan, or ‘place of reeds’, a term connoting mythic origin in proximity to water, cultural sophistication, and even suggesting the congregation of large numbers of people.

By 500 BCE, cultural and architectural developments in modern-day Oaxaca were launched on hill-top acropolises, most prominently at Monte Alban, a pronounced hill that commands views of the three valleys colonized early on by the Zapotecs. Site planners terraced the peak; this flattening was itself a major exercise in architectural engineering, with broad steps for agriculture and water management adjacent to a slightly sunken ceremonial precinct. The placement of Mound J on the centreline of the plaza suggests its ritual importance. The earliest construction may well be the Temple of the Danzantes , where about 300 carved slabs commemorate mutilated captives across its various façades, including some slim horizontal panels that served as steps, allowing for the re-enactment of signal triumphs. Chambered tombs were dug into the patios of houses.

Figure 25.4.  Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico, view to southwest (constructed 500–900 CE; in continuous use through Spanish invasion). The sunken courtyard (foreground) served as the heart of palace life for the reigning Zapotec lords at Monte Alban. Those privileged enough to access it passed first through the columned reception area (centre of photo). Beyond, stone structures echo the surrounding mountains and channel their power to the man-made world.

During the first millennium CE, the rulers of Monte Alban developed vast palace compounds at the north and south ends of the site, behind stairs and colonnades that limited visual and real penetration of private space. A supplicant from the plaza entered the ‘North Mound’ through what must have been an inviting, roofed colonnade; a very broad stair on the plaza gives way to a narrower one leading to a private courtyard. Two smaller palace compounds, constructed before 500 CE, featured tombs 104 and 105 and are notable for the elaborate paintings that line family tombs with supernatural subjects. Large stone slabs of the south compound were reset in a subsequent construction. A small ball court on the east probably connected to the north palaces, for example, but other structures, such as Compounds M and IV , remain enigmatic.

By the beginning of the first millennium BCE, the Maya had established themselves across Yucatan, Guatemala and adjacent regions. Some of the largest structures ever constructed in Mesoamerica were built in the Late Formative Period, especially in what is known today as the El Mirador Basin of Guatemala, encompassing the name site, El Tintal , Nakbe , and across the border in Mexico, Calakmul . Still largely buried in rainforest, El Mirador was a vast city: the Danta Complex approaches the height of the Sun Pyramid (Key Buildings, fig. 25.10) at Teotihuacan. Demonstrating the Maya capacity for water management as part of urban planning, these complexes clustered around reservoirs, but El Mirador was congested, offering few focused vistas, perhaps testimony to the vast population that had grown up by 100 BCE, the peak of construction. Stucco façades featured heads of deities that were 2 to 3 metres (6 to 10 feet) high, the scale of the colossal heads of earlier Olmec civilization. This is architecture of mass and volume, a demonstration of human will and organization on a vast scale. Yet many smaller buildings, some of great import such as Las Pinturas (Key Buildings, fig. 25.7) at the site of San Bartolo , were also erected, offering some of the earliest testimony of a unified religious belief system in Mesoamerica.

Figure 25.5.  Reconstruction of El Mirador, Guatemala (constructed c. 100 BCE). Although shrouded in heavy forest today and known through only limited excavations, El Mirador, certainly the largest city of its era, may have been the largest of the ancient Maya altogether, with massive stone and plaster structures atop yet larger platforms.

By no later than 100 BCE, smaller but nevertheless impressive pyramids with massive stucco deity heads appeared across the Maya lowlands, usually surviving today under multiple layers of subsequent architecture and revealed by the tunnels of the archaeologist or, unfortunately, the trenches of the looter. Maya architecture is one of accretion, building layered atop building, sometimes replicating and sometimes innovating, and only through deep archaeological exploration is an earlier practice revealed. At Cerros , Belize, the first massive structure was made of clean – that is to say, not previously used, as is typically the case – fill and rubble, as if in acknowledgment of new dictates of the gigantic deity heads applied to its exterior. Other structures, such as E-VII at Uaxactun (Key Buildings, fig. 25.8 and 25.9), may have provided cultural unification by marking calendrical cycles. At the end of the first millennium BCE, Maya sites suffered during a long-term drought, a chronic problem for city planners in the Maya region, and one that would lead to a boom and bust cycle of construction. Cerros was abandoned. Uaxactun soldiered on.

Despite certain stylistic and cultural unities, there was never a single dominant Maya authority, in contrast to the central position occupied by Teotihuacan. In the highlands of what is now Guatemala, the site of Kaminaljuyu featured talud-tablero façades in adobe, suggesting a desire to emulate the appearance but not the materiality of Teotihuacan architecture. This was combined with clearly local traditions and ancient antecedents – broad plazas and earthen platforms, dotted with carved stelae and altars, harking back to both Gulf Coast sites as well as contemporaries like Izapa and Takalik Ab’aj, closer to the Pacific Coast. Kaminaljuyu also developed significant hydraulic management systems, now largely obscured under Guatemala City. At both Tikal and Uaxactun, where the best data still prevail, early kings – and their battered representations – were buried both alongside and atop one another, forming the North Acropolis at Tikal and Group A at Uaxactun (Key Buildings, fig. 25.12), with tombs generally following a north–south axis often directly aligned with the staircases, preserved today amidst collapsing rubble. Local materials – say the sandstone of Tonina or the volcanic tuff of Copan – also underpinned aesthetic decisions that characterized a single polity. By the end of the eighth century, at Copan, the towering Structure 16, studded by tenoned sculptures of skulls, on the Main Acropolis had nine distinct setbacks rising up to a shrine-like structure at the top. Archaeologists have revealed one important tomb layered atop another from CE 400 or so onward, starting with the founding dynast, all ultimately invisible but forming a site of ancestral veneration.

Figure 25.6.  Reconstruction by Tatiana Proskouriakoff of view to east at the Acropolis, Copan, Honduras (constructed c. 800 BCE). Reconstructed to reflect archaeological knowledge around 1940, the Great Plaza, studded with early 8th-century portrait stelae, opened to the great Ballcourt (right), and thence to the Hieroglyphic Stairs and Acropolis. Built over 600 years, the Acropolis encased earlier buildings including the 8th-century BCE Rosalila, preserved with full polychrome stucco adornment.

This early pattern confirms the practice that would take root throughout from 350 to 800 CE, and possibly much longer, among the Maya people: the death of a ruler – and sometimes that of his wife or mother – drove much temple construction. The Margarita structure at the root of Copan Structure 16 held a royal woman’s tomb, and its exterior promulgated the founder’s name, Yax K’uk’ Mo’, or Great Quetzal Macaw, with intertwined birds of applied stucco coated with brilliant red and green; it was later ritually killed and covered in another, more vast structure. Only through deep archaeology do these and other buried structures come back to life.

Key Buildings

La Venta, Tabasco, Mexico (800–400 BCE)

The key Olmec site of La Venta features a clear plan, with several major buildings arrayed with bilateral symmetry on an axis 8 degrees west of north, focused on a horizon point we can no longer identify nor interpret; similar alignments pervade subsequent Mesoamerican site planning. The tradition of carefully curated and strategically placed underground offerings also begins at La Venta. Just one of the five great deposits at the site, Massive Offering 3 , for example, consists of 50 tons of serpentine (a dark-green mineral) buried 13 metres (43 feet) below the plaza surface, an effort of ‘making’ at 600 BCE as great as that of any monumental pyramid. In this vertical conduit bisected by the site axis, the concept of ‘centre’ is inscribed as a direction, an axis as fundamental to Mesoamerica as the points of the compass.

Above ground, the north-facing pyramid C-1 delimits a grand plaza with flanking, parallel structures in Complex A . With its furrowed, conical form, C-1 emulated volcanoes in the Tuxtla Mountains to the north, whose shoulders provided the raw materials used for the site’s monumental sculpture. Its interior remains unexplored. A semi-enclosed courtyard delineated by basalt columns follows, visually closing with another, lower pyramid, A-2 , which contained a tomb built from prismatic basalt columns, natural deposits of which have been found in central Mexico.

Mound J, Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico (400–100 BCE)

As is particularly evident in what archaeologists call Mound J, the early construction work that took place at Monte Alban deployed a form of corbel – in which courses of stone were stacked vertically until the topmost stones on each side could address one another – that was used to join two slabs slanted inwards. Such narrow chambers penetrate Mound J; the angled form is repeated in the building’s outline, which takes the form of a pointed blade directed towards the southwest, in apparent violation of the gentle bilateral symmetry of the surrounding plaza. Its unusual plan shape might well lead viewers to expect an astronomical purpose; the building can be aligned with the rising of the star Capella, yet perhaps only fortuitously so. Panels denoting conquests, some perhaps recycled from the Temple of the Danzantes , stud the exterior of the structure and also line some of the interior channels.

Las Pinturas Building, San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala (c. 100 BCE)

Las Pinturas is the name given to the multiphase Structure 1 at San Bartolo. A small structure (Sub-1) on the north side of an earlier pyramidal platform, it contains some of the most spectacular and earliest Maya mural paintings known to date. It was subsequently covered by a much larger stepped pyramid; the murals were partially revealed by looters, whose trench helped the archaeologist William Saturno to find the structure in 2001. The Las Pinturas building demonstrates that small, sheltered structures – in this instance perhaps a shrine or place of priestly instruction with exceptional murals – could follow the form and format of the perishable hut with its hip-roof-style interior and mansard exterior, all by 100 BCE. The paintings found within provide some of the earliest evidence for a narrative of Mesoamerican religion. The programme elaborates the story of the Maize God with Olmec revival characteristics, alongside key evidence of a shared and widespread belief system: world directional trees, penis bloodletting, and animal sacrifices, all in the context of rituals of accession and kingship. Some parts of the programme even suggest parts of the sixteenth-century Popol Vuh were in place centuries before.

Despite its importance, the building cannot be visited: archaeologists have explored it exclusively through trenches and tunnels, providing in reconstruction what cannot otherwise be experienced, and the paintings have been assembled in a laboratory from fallen stucco.

Figure 25.7.  Wall paintings in the Pinturas Building, San Bartolo, El Petén, Guatemala (c. 100 BCE). Discovered intact in 2001, the paintings reveal the extraordinary complexity of Maya belief, with continuities that survived until the Spanish Invasion and in some cases beyond. At left is depicted a Maya male carrying out penis bloodletting, and beyond him a ‘world tree’ with a great supernatural bird perched atop.

E-VII group, Uaxactun, El Petén, Guatemala (c. 100 CE)

The first known monumental construction at Uaxactun is called E-VII-sub, a radial tiered pyramid with stairs on all sides, along with three smaller pyramids facing it. It is, along with Mound J of Monte Alban (Key Buildings, fig. 25.4), one of the earliest known of the giant chronographic markers of Mesoamerica, and the simplest. From a point on the main stairway, the sun at dawn rises on the equinoxes directly aligned with the facing structure; likewise the sun travels to the north building during the summer solstice and the south at winter, then stopping and turning on its circuit of 365 days. From here, one can see that radial pyramids, particularly among the Maya people, create some sort of stage for the marking and maintenance of the passage of the seasons, incorporating horizon-based observations into architectural timepieces. Structure E-VII maintained this meaning and role over a several-hundred-year series of renovations in which all the structures took on new layers before being peeled like an onion by archaeologists in the 1920s and 30s. Many other E-Groups are known, but few offer specific points of observation.

Figure 25.8.  Reconstruction by… of E-VII-sub, Uaxactun, Guatemala (constructed 200 BCE–200 CE). Preserved by layers of later structures, vast supernatural serpents descend to the lower level of the façade of E-VII-sub, bearing the Maize God on their backs, and perhaps the Jester God at the highest level.

Figure 25.9.  E-VII-sub, Uaxactun, Guatemala (constructed 200 BCE–200 CE). E-VII formed a complex with three small temples used to mark equinoxes and solstices – one of Mesoamerica’s earliest chronographic markers. Viewed from the temple platform, the shrine was aligned to the equinoxes with the building directly facing, and to the south and north solstices with those to left and right.

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Mexico (c. 170–310 CE)

The west-facing Sun Pyramid is the largest of the three great stepped pyramids at Teotihuacan; at 63 metres (207 feet), it was also one of the tallest structures in the Western Hemisphere until the development of the skyscraper in the late nineteenth century. Although its modern appearance has more to do with an undistinguished reconstruction carried out in the early years of the twentieth century, its tiered, sloping structure reflects the challenges of supporting a coarse rubble fill faced with cut stone that was surfaced with a stuccoed, burnished surface. Recent data suggests it was built between 170 and 310 CE, largely in a single phase. Its very construction may have required the armature of urbanization that grew up all along the orthogonal grid. Its exterior sculptural programme seems to have combined fire and feline iconography. An artificial tunnel underneath may have been the locus of highly restricted foundational rituals, perhaps emulating the offerings made at the pyramid’s dedication; with tunnel and soaring pyramid, it embodied the concept of altepetl (‘water-mountain’, uniting the waters below with the earthy realm and the sky above), so important to Mesoamerica.

Figure 25.10.  Aerial view of Teotihuacan, Mexico (constructed 100–500 CE). Despite centuries of modern development and encroachment, Teotihuacan’s city grid remains visible today. Enclosed residential compounds that housed extended families and specialized craft workshops conformed to the grid and radiated beyond the city centre.

Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan, Mexico (c. 100–400 CE)

The Moon Pyramid, built in stages from 100 to 400 CE, each marked by elaborate dedicatory offerings, marks the northern end of Teotihuacan’s monumental sector. Intriguingly, the earliest small platform in this location does not adhere to the urban grid, suggesting this was a plan made as the city grew. Approached from the south, the looming mass of the distant Cerro Gordo, known in Aztec times as Tenan, or ‘our mother of stone’, and likely recognized as a sacred source of rain and bounty for centuries, dominates the Moon Pyramid. As one marches up the Street of the Dead, crossing the channel of the Río San Juan, through and across the multiple transverse platforms that block access to the site’s northern sector, the tiered pyramid grows larger, vanishes, and then appears yet larger until it replaces and becomes the mountain behind it, in one of Mesoamerica’s clearest examples of geomancy (the auspicious placing or arrangement of buildings, particularly in relation to prominent features of the landscape). The presence of animal predators in the Moon Pyramid offerings – some apparently kept alive prior to their burial in wooden cages – similarly suggests the need and the ability to incorporate the power of the natural world into the heart of the urban environment. Teotihuacano people channelled one into the other, manipulating both to prescribe spatial compression, political expansion, and social control across the landscape. If the tunnel-and-pyramid combinations seen at the Feathered Serpent Pyramid (Key Buildings, fig. 25.11) and the Pyramid of the Sun (Key Buildings, fig. 25.10) symbolically harness and resurrect the sun on its daily trajectory through the sky and under the earth, the Moon Pyramid takes the surrounding landscape as its geomantic power source.

Ciudadela and Feathered Serpent Pyramid (Temple of Quetzalcoatl), Teotihuacan, Mexico (c. 200–300 CE)

The Ciudadela (literally ‘citadel’ in Spanish, which it is not) is a vast enclosure south of the canalized San Juan River that roughly divides north from south on Teotihuacan’s grid. Its footprint is similar to that of the Sun Pyramid (Key Buildings, fig. 25.10), alternating architectural mass for spatial volume. Nestled along its eastern side is the Feathered Serpent Pyramid (or Temple of Quetzalcoatl), a six-level stepped construction. All four sides of the building, which measures 20 by 65 by 65 metres (65 by 215 by 215 feet), once displayed brilliantly painted monumental and mosaic sculpture featuring the eponymous serpent on the sloping taluds and vertical tableros. Serpent heads also punctuate the balustrades of the western façade, as if cascading down from a no-longer-extant superstructure. They perhaps mark the building as a symbolic Coatepec, or ‘hill of snakes’, like a number of so-named Post-Classic structures. Feathered serpents undulate across the short sloping taluds. Across the tableros, and undulating among conch, pecten and spondylus shells, the feathered serpents carry warrior headdresses and torches atop their rattlesnake tails. The heads and headdresses weighed several tons; they once repeated relentlessly around all four sides of the building, although preservation is limited today to the west façade. Congruent with the martial iconography are the large-scale offerings of human bodies, mostly bound young men with weapons and other accoutrements of a military caste, buried around the pyramid’s perimeter and in its centre, all pointing to the level of exacting violence underpinning Teotihuacan’s state power. Data from these offerings similarly suggest the building was dedicated around 200–250 CE.

Large and labyrinthine palaces framed the Feathered Serpent Pyramid to north and south, preventing any unscripted attendance. By 300 CE, another structure, today known as the Adosada (‘terraces’), for its obvious setbacks, covered the west façade, leaving it to be uncovered in pristine condition early in the twentieth century.

Recent and ongoing excavations underneath the Ciudadela plaza have revealed an earlier shaft and tunnel, complete with staged offerings that included vast quantities of exotic materials. This underground space, larger than the tunnel under the Sun Pyramid, complicates modern conceptualizations of Teotihuacan’s spatial rhetoric and accessibility. Its existence must have been known to wide sectors of the citizenry, creating a visible city above and an invisible city below.

Figure 25.11.  Feathered Serpent Pyramid, Teotihuacan, Mexico (constructed c. 200–300 CE). As revealed early in the 20th century, images of feathered serpents (or ‘Quetzalcoatl’) cascade down the balustrade and, with what look like ruffed collars, adorn the pyramid setbacks. As revealed early in the 21st century, a hidden chamber lay deep under the building, an isolated cave-like place of veneration.

Groups A and B, Uaxactun, El Petén, Guatemala (first millennium CE)

The Maya built dense stone and stucco architecture atop sturdy protrusions of limestone, often digging tombs down into the bedrock and using natural elevations to construct temples they understood as symbolic mountains. They connected the clusters together by building sacbeob (sacbe in the singular), elevated ‘white roads’ coated in layers of thick white plaster. Low-lying areas and depressions were shaped into reservoirs that could capture run-off from stuccoed plazas, recreating lakes and rivers in an urban setting. Uaxacatun Groups A and B, excavated by the Carnegie Institute in the 1930s, may have served as residential palaces for the site’s elite. Layer upon layer of construction housed luxurious tombs, reset stone monuments, and even – in the case of Structure B-XIII – a fifth-century mural. Similar residential complexes set within networks of massive causeways and clusters of construction can be seen at Tikal and Calakmul . Despite some new archaeological excavations, these complexes are best understood through reconstructions.

Figure 25.12.  Reconstruction by Tatiana Proskouriakoff of Groups A and B, Uaxactun, El Petén, Guatemala (constructed 1st millennium CE). Archaeologists in the 1930s carefully mapped Uaxactun, revealing the dense clusters of construction built atop sturdy limestone outcrops. The Maya built causeways above the swampy soils below, connecting the architectural groupings.

North Acropolis, Tikal, El Petén, Guatemala (100 BCE–700 CE)

The Maya may have chosen Tikal during the first millennium BCE for its abundant swampy ground, ideal for reliable agricultural production. In contrast, rocky outcroppings in both the Lost World Group and the North Acropolis made ideal sites of religious practice and political theatre, as dramatically stepped landscapes. Its earliest structures feature stucco façades typical of the Formative Period. From around 100 to 734 CE, it served as the city’s royal necropolis, with rulers’ monuments acting as memorial markers and public history. This history made material was not static. The stela commemorating the ruler buried in Structure 34 was turned upside-down, only the feet in view, as if in humiliation; and the stela commemorating the ruler buried in Structure 33 was hauled up to the top of that funerary pyramid in the eighth century and ritually interred in the final structure of the complex. A massive project from the University of Pennsylvania excavated and cleared much of the North Acropolis in the 1950s and 1960s, revealing many of these discoveries. Today it marks the heart of Guatemala’s most-visited archaeological site.

Margarita building, Copan, Honduras (c. 450 CE)

The preservation, colour and sophistication of the building that is dubbed ‘Margarita’ astonished archaeologists when it first came to light in the 1990s. The entwined quetzal and macaw emblazoned on the buried façade form the name of the dynasty’s founder, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’, or Sun-Eyed Blue-Green Quetzal Macaw, but the main burial within held a woman’s bones, perhaps mother or wife. Margarita contained two earlier structures, one containing the likely burial of the founder. Two enigmatic and presumably supernatural toponyms, one with the coefficient of 7 and the other of 9, denote the building as a sacred place. That subsequent builders sought to preserve the early structure is attested by the care with which it was buried, so that the layers of vibrant reds and greens remain brilliant today. These same builders helped preserve access to the burial within for generations, helping the building serve as a literal memory palace. Eventually this structure would lie at the heart of Structure 16 , a great nine-level tiered pyramid atop Copan’s Acropolis.

Further Reading

Berrin, Kathleen, and Virginia M. Fields (eds). Olmec: Colossal Masterworks of Ancient Mexico. San Francisco, Los Angeles, CA, and New Haven, CT: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; in association with Yale University Press, 2010.

Carrasco, David (ed.). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures: The Civilizations of Mexico and Central America (3 Vols). New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Coe, D., and Stephen D. Houston. The Maya. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2015.

Coe, D., and Rex Koontz. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Cowgill, L. Ancient Teotihuacan: Early Urbanism in Central Mexico. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Evans, Toby. Ancient Mexico and Central America: Archaeology and Culture History. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Fash, Leonard, and Leonardo López Luján (eds). The Art of Urbanism: How Mesoamerican Kingdoms Represented Themselves in Architecture and Imagery. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Pre-Columbian Symposia and Colloquia, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Hirth, G., and Joanne Pillsbury (eds). Merchants, Markets, and Exchange in the Pre-Columbian World. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2013.

Kowalski, Karl (ed.). Mesoamerican Architecture as a Cultural Symbol. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Kubler, George. The Art and Architecture of Ancient America. London: Penguin, 1962.

Marquina, Ignacio. Arquitectura prehispánica. Mexico: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Secretaria de Educación Pública, 1964.

Miller, E. The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2012.

Miller, E., and Megan E. O’Neil. Maya Art and Architecture. London: Thames & Hudson, 2014.

Quilter, Jeffrey, and Mary Ellen Miller (eds). A Pre-Columbian World. Washington, DC.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library & Collection; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Seis Ciudades Antiguas de Mesoamérica: Sociedad Y Medio Ambiente. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2011.

Sharer, J., and Loa P. Traxler. The Ancient Maya. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

Sugiyama, Saburo. Human Sacrifice, Militarism, and Rulership: Materialization of State Ideology at the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, Teotihuacan, New Studies in Archaeology. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Teotihuacan: ciudad de los dioses. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2009.

Townsend, F. (ed.). The Ancient Americas: Art from Sacred Landscapes. Chicago, IL: Art Institute of Chicago; Munich: Prestel, 1992.

Uriarte, María Teresa (ed.). Pre-Columbian Architecture in Mesoamerica. New York, NY: Abbeville Press, 2010.