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Sculpture of Meso-America
(Olmec, Mayan, Aztec)
Human and animal figures are common as well as hybrid creatures (like the Assyrian)
humans often depicted with elaborated headdresses and jewelry
upright stone slabs covered with carvings and inscriptions.
used as religious and civil monuments; displayed portraits and deeds of deities and human rulers
common figure of Mesoamerican plazas
Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations all prized jade above all else (including silver and gold)
They thought jade was "the stone of heaven"
believed that jade had medicinal properties and honored dead leaders with jade masks and jewelry
Olmec: rarely portrayed naturalistic but rather with a combination of feline and human characteristics
Mayan: Kukulcan's Jaguar Throne- a jaguar with jade eyes and spots
survived chiefly in forms of small figures and vessels sculpted from stone and clay (similar to the 1st sculpture in history-Venus of Willendorf- which was small and compact while showing the time period and way of life)
colossal heads (most famous Olmec sculptures): stone busts which stand over 6 feet high
Were Jaguar: Olmec motif and a supernatural entity; almond shaped eyes; down turned/open mouth; cleft head
along with jade, basalt was extremely important to the Olmec; was used it to make colossal heads and the thrones for their rulers; basalt is solidified lava and symbolized the earth’s fiery power; basalt was transported by raft along the coast and by river just like how the stones for Stonehenge were transported
alters: were either rounded or rectangular, sometimes resting on three of four legs; some are figurative (e.g. Copan turtle alter) or have some relief image and carving on the top (e.g. Caracol)
excelled in carving three-dimensional statues of humans and deities in human form meant to be seen from every side.
General Art of Meso America
The Olmec used a large number of media such as jade, clay, basalt, greenstone, etc. Art was naturalistic and most subjects were human or human-like. Artwork came in all sizes, from tiny celts and figurines to massive stone heads.
Mayan art was a reflection of their lifestyle and culture. Early art was primarily religious pieces, expressing activities such as human sacrifice, warfare, and religious rituals.
Ancient Aztec art was very lifelike. The main reason of their art was to express their religious and mythological beliefs. They used iconographic symbols and metaphors to communicate these beliefs (example, the eagle represented the warrior and the sun, a conch represents fertility and life, etc.) Much of their art reflected their appreciation for a wide variety of insects, birds, fish, and other animals.
Sculptures represented their myths, dreams, and illusions of life. They made them monumental as a visual symbol and force of an idea, awing and frightening spectators to impose an impression of power from the State. In religious pieces gods were also often depicted and resembled different animals. Stories were commonly written in pictograms, describing recent conquests, sacrifices, or just daily life. Statues, handmade pottery, pillars and other things were mainly made of stone. Art was also often made of gold, silver, copper, jewels, feathers, coral, clay, and many more.
They used insects, vegetables, shells, and minerals to create colors and used oil to make the colors brighter. Feathers from tropical birds were used in making elaborate headdresses and clothes for the nobility and royalty.
A "vague year" of 365 days divided into 18 months of 20 days with 5 extra days at the end of the year. Based on the solar year
A "Sacred year" of 260 days with each day having its own unique number and symbol pairing. Called the "count of days"
A "calendar round" that combined the two years, creating a cycle of 52 solar years
The Mayan name for the vague year was
, a month was a
, and the extra 5 days were the
monumental stairs: the giant Hieroglyphic Stairway of Copan; every block is carved with hieroglyphic inscriptions; this text represents the most important rulers in the history of the site (Copan); longest known Maya hieroglyphic text
The name for the sacred year was
Monumental stonework, such as the colossal heads sculpted from basalt, and cave paintings, are the most recognizable features of Olmec art. To transport the colossal heads it is believed that such hefty blocks were likely moved on sledges to riverbanks and rafted downstream along the seacoast and then upriver.
The Olmec artists were centuries ahead of their time, believed to precede all other great Mesoamerican cultures. The art seemed to have a political or religious purpose; many pieces show gods or rulers. When portraying these rulers they often portrayed them as part human and part beast to make them a supernatural creature. A common theme in Olmec art is the use of “were-jaguar”, which is a human mated with a jaguar.
Art was composed of delineation and paintings on paper and plaster. Sculpture was made of Obsidian, carvings in wood, bone, shells, jade and stone, clay and stucco models, and terracotta figurines from molds. Their sculpture expressed a reflection of themselves, their lifestyles, and their culture. Not only used it decoration, it was also commonly traded. They made great sculptures that embellished temples, stela, monuments, and buildings. The Maya somehow transported enormous stones from distant quarries, and lacking metal tools they only used tools made of stone to carve their intricate designs.
Mayan kings commissioned finely crafted works to furnish their palaces, such as carved thrones and throne backs, and often had depictions of ancestors or gods, or stories of warfare. Art was not only for royalty, many artifacts were found in common households.
Also used the Long Count calendar, which was unique to the Maya and Epi-Olmec. It allowed them to measure time over great expanses.
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"Interior Temple of Kukulcan." Interior Temple of Kukulcan. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2013.
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Scott, John F. Mexican, Central, and South American Art. New York, NY: Facts on File, 1996. Print.
1 Kin = 1 day
1 Uinal = 20 Kins
1 Tun = 18 Uinals (360 days)
1 Katun = 20 Tuns (7,200 days)
1 Baktun = 20 Katuns (144,000 days)
Long count date consists of the number of baktuns, katuns, tuns, uinals, and kins followed by the calendar round date.
Each unit of time was represented by a carved glyph and number and organized vertically on a column.
Baktuns were limited to 13 for the entire cycle.
The zero date, 126.96.36.199.0 4 Ahau 8 Cumku, was set on august 11 or 13 of 3114 BC.
One cycle of the long count calendar is equivalent to 5,139 years
known for the carving of stone (from ordinary volcanic rock to semi-precious stones like jade)
accomplished Aztec sculptors carved large images of the gods that were displayed in temples and public spaces; these sculptures represented the Aztec religion and were part of intricate rituals
The sacred calendar name was
The calendar round was called
or "bundle of years"
They used special reeds to keep track of the years in the calendar round, and when the 52 years was over, the bundle was burned.
Meso American Architecture
c. 1200–c. 100 B.C.
Means rubber people-named by Aztecs; called themselves Xi
Grew out of hunter gatherers into subsistence farmers and eventually started settlements
Three main locations: San Lorenzo, La Venta, Tres Zapotes
Characterized by colossal basalt heads
Revolution/invasion caused them to lose power
Olmec cities were centered around a grand ceremonial mound
first to make two stories and two floored houses
. The mound was heavenly decorated with beautiful, detailed and sometimes frightening stone carvings that often depicted innumerable deities and gods
cities were laid out in difference districts on a grid formation separating the farmers, artisans and merchants.
They used multicolored clay on the floors, floor mosaics, and basalt columns to add commotion to buildings
Underneath cities and towns, the Olmec created an underground, stone draining system
Buildings were adorned with roof combs and carved freizes in stone and stucco, as well as intricate stone carvings, statues and paintings.
The Maya were a series of city states, organized in clusters of buildings and homes surrounding the city center which usually contained important public buildings such as temples and palaces
They built on irregular shaped higher ground to avoid dampness and floods associated with their tropical forest home, making the plazas look unorderly and rarely neat
Later periods of mayan cities were built on higher hills with high walls surrounding most of the city for defense.
. Plaster and cement were easily produced because of the abundance of limestone and flint, allowing them to build impressive temples with step pyramids
. Modest homes were constructed of wooden poles and thatch, which was easy to rebuild if the wood or thatch rotted or wore away.
Aztec architecture was monumental, with purposes of adhering to strong religious beliefs and to manifest power
they constructed buildings with limestone rocks and adobe bricks
The most impressive and monumental architecture can be found in Tenochtitlan, an overwhelming city that was built upon small islands and marsh lands
Tenochtitlan was well planned; its aqueduct’s, canals, roads, and buildings were constructed by highly skilled masons
Temples were built for religious purposes and often resembled mountains, Aztec cities often competed against each other to create the best temples
250–900 A.D. (Classic) and 900–1521(post-Classic)
Classic- Maya Highlands: Tikal, Copan, Palenque
Stelae and monuments used to record history and writing
Series of disasters caused cities to collapse
Post-Classic: Maya Lowlands: Chichen Itza, Tulum, Coba
Codices used to record history, all but 3 burned
Conquered by Spanish in mid 1500s
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Nomadic tribe that moved down into valley of Mexico
Settled Tenochtitlan on an island in Lake Texcoco
Created vast and thriving empire, at height about 500 cities
Conquered by Hernan Cortes in 1521
Spanish drained the lake and settled Mexico City on top
The sun stone was carved in the 15th century and represents the fifth and last age.
The sun god Tonatiuh is depicted in the center, with the previous four sun gods surrounding. The 20 days of the sacred calender are shown in one of the rings.
It is now at Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology.
Interesting facts about Meso American Architecture
some pyramaids were used to hold revered leaders
primary function for tombs were to serve as dramatic stages for relgious rituals and civic ceremonies
meso american pyramaids were held at the heart of the city
the structure of the pyramaids were built by each generation, each generation would add something new to the temples
the temples revealed the strong connection the meso americans had with their gods
labor force to construct the temples/pyramaids consisted of about 15,000 meso american men
aztec temples were called Teocalli-which meant god houses.
"The Aztec Empire." Early Civilizations in the Americas Reference Library. Ed. Sonia G. Benson, Sarah Hermsen, and Deborah J. Baker. Vol. 3: Biographies and Primary Sources. Detroit: UXL, 2005. 151-155. Student Resources in Context. Web. 4 Dec. 2013.
Benson, Elizabeth P., Beatriz de la. Fuente, and Marcia Espino. Olmec art of ancient Mexico. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1996. Print.
"The Mayas and Their Ancestors." Early Civilizations in the Americas Reference Library. Ed. Sonia G. Benson, Sarah Hermsen, and Deborah J. Baker. Vol. 3: Biographies and Primary Sources. Detroit: UXL, 2005. 73-76. Student Resources in Context. Web. 4 Dec. 2013.
"Olmec Culture." Early Civilizations in the Americas Reference Library. Ed. Sonia G. Benson, Sarah Hermsen, and Deborah J. Baker. Vol. 2: Almanac, Vol. 2. Detroit: UXL, 2005. 275-297. Student Resources in Context. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.
Meso American (Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec)
By: Alex Giles, Nisha Shah, Tara Haddock, Sam Fasking, and Taylor Johnson