Meso America Map of Central America

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Meso America * Map of Central America

A few themes to stress = art as a form of communication, the intersections between art and ritual, and the continuity of cultures

- Pre-Colombian MesoAmerica

- Isthmus (thin strip of land connecting two larger ones usually with water on both sides) of Tehuantepec (in Mexico) is the dividing line between Mexico and Central America

- Pre Classic, Classic and Post Classic divisions made by scholars

- built symbolic architectural mountains- temples on top were “caves” to connect to the spirit world

- roads and buildings often aligned to points on the horizon, heavenly bodies – link of cities with heavens

- attempt to link this world with the other world through ritual, art, architecture, numerology and the calendar

- many peoples had a 260 day ritual calendar, 13 gods each ruled over 20 days- every day had a distinct spiritual character and meaning. They hoped to gain some control over the spiritual powers that dominated their existence.

The Olmecs 1200-400BCE

- The Olmecs lived in the low-lying Gulf Coast area of what is now Mexico in about 1200-400B.C.E. at sites such as San Lorenzo (the earliest), Tres Zapotes, Laguna de los Cerros and La Venta.

- seen as one of the founding culture of MesoAmerica (Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and pacific coast of El Salvador- home of pre-Colombian civilizations.) also contemporaneous cultures located in the Valley of Oaxaca. 

- preliterate (some glyphs) therefore prehistoric

- first to make representational art on a large scale (maybe the first to make representational art at all!)

- Monumental sacred complexes, massive stone sculpture, ball games, chocolate drinking and animal gods were features of Olmec culture which would be passed on to all those who followed this first great Mesoamerican civilization- Aztec and Maya.

- The Olmec civilization presents something of a mystery, indeed, we do not even know what they called themselves, as ‘Olmec’ was their Aztec name and meant ‘rubber people’.  Just archeology left!

*Olmec stone mask, c. 900-400BCE,Olmec, greenstone, (jade),13 x 11.3 x 5.7cm

- The Olmecs worked mainly in stone and particularly favored jade, or greenstone, which they believed had distinctive properties linked with fertility and procreation.

Olmec art is very distinctive and clearly reflects their religion.


*Monument 52 from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, showing a classic were-jaguar figure.

- The Olmec apparently had gods, or at least powerful supernatural beings, which were worshipped or respected in some way. Their names and functions - other than in the most general sense have been lost over the ages.

- they often represented phenomena such as rain, the earth and especially maize

- gave special significance to the animals present in their environment, especially those at the top of the food chain such as jaguars, eagles, caimans, snakes and even sharks, identifying them with divine beings

- The Olmecs also liked to mix animals to create weird and wonderful creatures such as the were-jaguar, a cross between a human and a jaguar, which may have been their supreme deity. (Jaguar is largest of the big cats, goes in water, camouflaged, etc. )

- The were-jaguar figure is characterized by a distinctive down-turned mouth with fleshy lips, almond-shaped eyes, and a cleft head similar – it is said – to that of the male jaguar which has a cleft running vertically the length of its head.

- It is not known what the were-jaguar represented to the Olmec, and it may well have represented different things at different times.

- The jaguar also is important for shamans who often associate the jaguar as a spirit companion or nagual, which will protect the shamans from evil spirits and while they move between the earth and the spirit realm.

- The jaguar is said to possess the transient ability of moving between worlds because of its comfort both in the trees and the water, the ability to hunt as well in the nighttime as in the daytime, and the habit of sleeping in caves, places often associated with the deceased ancestors.

- they worshipped a sky-dragon (a sort of caiman creature with flaming eyebrows) 

- they believed four dwarves held up the sky, possibly representing the four cardinal directions

- The feathered snake-god especially, would be transformed into the major gods Kukulcan for the Maya and Quetzalcoatl for the Aztecs.

- The Olmecs seem to have had a particular reverence for natural places which connected with the important junctions of sky, earth and the underworld. For example, caves could lead to the underworld and mountains which had both springs and caves could offer access to all three planes

- Olmec deities are represented in surviving stonecarvings, cave paintings and pottery. In most Mesoamerican art, gods are depicted as human-like, but are often more gruesome or imposing.

- Infants were a recurring theme in Olmec art.

*A life-size ceramic 'baby' figurine from the Olmec civilization of Mexico, Mesoamerica, 12th-9th century

- baby image- One of the gods most commonly rendered in small sculpture was God IV (names aren’t known so given numbers), sometimes called the Rain Baby, who is a toothless human baby with an open-mouth, cleft head (cranial deformation) and headband- unclear meaning

- Baby-face figurines often present a mixture of human and animal traits, with features such as a feline mouth with down-turned low corners, a flaring upper lip and 'flaming' eyebrows.

- Their bodies are naked and show no indication of gender.

- sometimes with the addition of strips of crinkled paper hanging at the side of his face (another feature seen in the gods of later cultures and representing the paper and rubber sap strips which were burnt during rites as the smoke was thought to propitiate rain).

- These "were-jaguar" infants are also carved on monumental altars and stone sculptures, lying on the lap or in the arms of a person.

*Olmec artwork showing a were-jaguar baby being held

8.16 * Kunz Axe. Olmec culture. c. 1000 BCE. , Jade, height 11” (28 cm).

(called Celts by Gardner’s)

- example of the smaller scale carvings also made (a ceremonial Axe head- not ever used as an axe)

- often buried under ceremonial courtyards or platforms

- a “were- jaguar”= almond-shaped eyes, small nostrils, prominent canine teeth, a large, flaring upper lip, and sometimes a central forehead cleft and a feature called “flame eyebrows.”

- example of a hybrid creature which represents a god

- spirits or shamans transformed into spirits. (part of a myth of a jaguar mating with a woman and having a baby= were jaguar. The baby is sometimes shown devouring the mom while breastfeeding.)

- could be connected to the kings- A dangerous, powerful, intelligent animal with a distinctive personality that moves with ease on water and land. Why wouldn't you want that in a king?

- could also be examples of deformation in children- encephalitis or down syndrome- maybe due to inbreeding among the elite- see them as special?

- far from agreed upon meaning

- carved from translucent blue green jade (jade is seen as more valuable than gold! The Spanish conquistadors trade green beads for gold to take advantage!)

- used stone tipped drills and abrasive materials

- has the same stylistic feel as the huge heads but in small form

- often ritually buried their carvings…

- These "were-jaguar" infants are also carved on monumental altars and stone sculptures, lying on the lap or in the arms of a person.


- Olmec religious activities were performed by a combination of rulers, full-time priests, and shamans. The rulers seem to have been the most important religious figures, with their links to the Olmec deities or supernaturals providing legitimacy for their rule

*jade perforator, 1200-400 B.C.E., Olmec, jadite, 38 x 3 cm, Mexico

- Perforators were used in self-sacrifice rites, which involved drawing blood from several parts of the body.

- Some representations of Olmec rulers show them holding bloodletters and/or scepters as part of their elaborate ritual costume.

- Bloodletting was performed by the ruler to ensure the fertility of the land and the well-being of the community. It was also a means of communication with the ancestors and was vital to sustain the gods and the world. These rituals were common throughout Mesoamerica.

- Bloodletting implements were also fashioned out of bone, flint, greenstones, stingray spines and shark teeth. They vary in form and symbolism. Handles can be plain, incised with a variety of symbols associated to certain deities, or carved into the shape of supernatural beings. The blades, ending in a sharp point, are sometimes shaped into the beaks of certain birds, such as the hummingbird, or into a stingray tail.

The three sites of San Lorenzo, La Venta and Laguna de los Cerros all had a bilateral symmetry in their planning and at La Venta the first pyramid in Mesoamerica was constructed. 

8.14 * Colossal head, from San Lorenzo. Olmec culture. c. 1200–900 BCE. , Basalt, height 9’ (2.75 m).

- The most striking legacy of the Olmec civilization must be the colossal stone heads they produced. These were carved in basalt and all display unique facial features so that they may be considered portraits of actual rulers.

- The heads are incredibly naturalistic, and possess an impressive individualism.

- All portray mature men with fleshy cheeks, flat noses- their physical characteristics correspond to a type that is still common among the inhabitants of Tabasco and Veracruz

- Some even feature crossed eyes, which some art historians interpret as signifying a trance-like state. This suggests that the individuals represented may have utilized hallucinogens as a means of transporting themselves to a supernatural realm.

- Combo of individual and stereotypical- mix of individualized features (like a ruler) and stereotypical (like a god) – maybe a special god that protected the throne?

- The ruler often wears a protective helmet (from war or the ballgame) and sometimes show the subject with jaguar paws hanging over the forehead, perhaps representing a jaguar pelt worn as a symbol of political and religious power.

- The fact that these giant sculptures depict only the head may be explained by the belief in Mesoamerican culture that it was the head alone which bore the soul.

- one of 10 heads found at the city of San Lorenzo, early important Olmec center

- carved from large basalt boulders that came from 80 miles away (probably floated down river)

- The heads can be up to nine feet high and weigh twenty-eight tons. 

-The stone from which they were worked was, in some cases, transported 80 km or more, quarried from the nearby Tuxtla Mountains, presumably using huge balsa river rafts.

- great sense of authority! Somber face

- contours follow the shape of the boulder

- the heads span 300 years (1200-900 BCE) and could represent the 10 kings that each could have ruled 30 years!

- 2 of the heads were carved from a large rectangular stone perhaps to connect to the throne and seat of authority.

Slide * Monument 4 : Height 2.26m (7.41 ft). With discoverer Dr. Mathew Stirling in 1939. Current location, La Venta Park-Museum, Villahermosa.

  • Shows scale

Slide * One more head from San Lorenzo

  • Olmec heads were frequently re-carved or even defaced after their death. The act of ritually defacing the stone may have served as a means to physically “mark” the former ruler’s death. This practice also enabled Olmec artists to recycle the immensely heavy basalt boulders

La Venta- Olmec city that rises up after San Lorenzo was destroyed for unknown reasons (900-400BCE)

- As a ceremonial center, La Venta contains an elaborate series of buried offerings and tombs, as well as monumental sculptures. These stone monuments, stelae, and "altars" were carefully distributed amongst the mounds and platforms. The mounds and platforms were built largely from local sands and clays. It is assumed that many of these platforms were once topped with wooden structures, which have long since disappeared.

8.15 * Reconstruction drawings of La Venta, Tabasco. Olmec culture. c. 900–400 BCE:
(a) principal pyramid; (b) ball court; (c) quadrangle; (d) late burial mounds

- carefully planned city layout- pre-meditated architectural layout!!! precisely aligned ceremonial precincts

- open rectangular plaza

- platforms and monuments set on each of the 4 sides of the plaza

- central axis is 8 degrees west of North- link city/ritual center to otherworld of gods- external emphasis of the center towards cosmic features (probably for astronomical reasons)

- 110 foot high conical pyramid – no stairs, no temple topper

- perhaps a volcano replica (passageway to the underworld as a gateway to the otherworld???)

- may have been where they buried the ruler (whose huge carved head is near..)

- homage to mountains and the life giving water they produce?

- recent work by Rebecca Gonzalez-Lauck has shown that the pyramid was originally a rectangular pyramid with stepped sides and inset corners, and the current shape is most likely due to 2500 years of erosion.

- Much of the iconography at the site reflects its environmental diversity and stresses the importance of the ruler's role in mediating between the watery realms occupied by fish, alligators, and sharks, and the earthly realm of agricultural and animal fertility.

* photo slide of the Great Pyramid


*Map slide

  • Lived 1. Central area through Guatemala to Belize 2. Southern highlands of Guatemala 3. Northern Yucatan Peninsula

  • Had 50 major cities at its height (late 700’s)

  • City states (some confederacies= association of sovereign states)- NO ONE RULER (like Greece!) different kingdoms

    • Rulers directed trade, politics, war, religion, rituals

    • Strong city states (and rivals) were Calakmul and Tikal

    • Relations between the kingdoms were complex. There was negotiation, trading and inter-marriage, as well as invasion and warfare.

  • Platform temples, center of the city

    • Palaces- center of government and luxury accommodations

    • Also- lesser residences, temples and plazas, ball courts have been identified.

    • Ball courts=two parallel walls between which a ritual game using a rubber ball was played.

  • impressive artworks, including polychrome ceramic vases and carved stone monuments portraying their rulers.

    • Art glorifying the gods helped the rulers into the afterlife! Big art patrons!

Writing: Fully LITERATE people! sophisticated writing system

  • elaborate calendar system known as the Long Count to provide dates

8.17 * Maya hieroglyphic inscription from lintel (displayed vertically), Temple IV, Tikal, El Petén, Guatemala. 741 CE. , Wood, height approx. 19” (48.25 cm).

  • Found on vases, manuscripts, monumental sculptures and buildings, portable objects (made of shell, obsidian, bone, wood, jade and other stones) and screenfold books, called codices

  • Mix of pictographs (stylized images) with phonograms (signs for spoken sounds in Mayan language)

  • it was discovered that the script combined signs representing whole words with signs representing syllables. Certain glyphs were recognized as naming specific people and cities (known as Name Glyphs and Emblem Glyphs respectively).

  • The origin of the script is complex and far from clear.

    • from the sixteenth century Spanish missionaries destroyed Mayan codices (screenfold books) and made them learn the Spanish alphabet. As a result, the Mayan language was lost

    • only identified as a writing system by scholars during the nineteenth century.

  • We can read about 85% of the characters

  • We have learned about who ruled, how and about the gods!

  • inscriptions deal mainly with calendrical and astronomical information, and historical events such as alliances, wars, lineages and marriages.

(click) Maya inscriptions were most often written in columns two glyphs wide, with each such column read left to right, top to bottom.

*Slide- more glyph details

* Mayan Calendar

- The Maya didn't invent the calendar, they developed the calendar further and it's still in use in some Maya communities today.

- The Mayan Calendar consists of three separate corresponding calendars,

- the Long Count-  is an astronomical calendar which was used to track longer periods of time, what the Maya called the “universal cycle”. Each such cycle is calculated to be 2,880,000 days (about 7885 solar years).

- The Mayans believed that the universe is destroyed and then recreated at the start of each universal cycle. (It was set to end in 2012…)

- the Tzolkin (divine calendar)- It is a 260-day calendar, with 20 periods of 13 days used to determine the time of religious and ceremonial events.

- Each day is numbered from one to thirteen, and then repeated. The day is also given a name (glyph) from a sequence of 20 day names.

- The calendar repeats itself after each cycle.

- the Haab (civil calendar)- a 365 day solar calendar which is divided into 18 months of 20 days each and one month which is only 5 days long 

- The calendar has an outer ring of Mayan glyphs (pictures) which represent each of the 19 months. Each day is represented by a number in the month followed by the name of the month. Each glyph represents a personality associated with the month.

- The Haab is somewhat inaccurate as it is exactly 365 days long. An actual tropical or solar year is 365.2422 days long. In today’s calendar we adjust for this discrepancy by making almost every fourth year a leap year by adding an extra day.

-Time is cyclical in the calendars and a set number of days must occur before a new cycle can begin.

- The calendars are used simultaneously.

- The Tzolkin and the Haab identify and name the days, but not the years. The Long Count date comes first, then the Tzolkin date and last the Haab date. A typical Mayan date would read: 4 Ahau 8 Kumku, where is the Long Count date, 4 Ahau is the Tzolkin date and 8 Kumku is the Haab date.

- Dates are written out as five numbers separated by four periods, such as (The ancient Maya represented these not with numerals, of course, but with their own hieroglyphs.)

- it is kind of like a car odometer in which each number represents a set of 1s, 20’s (not 10’s), etc.)

- The Calendar Round is made from the interweaving of the Tzolk’in and Haab calendars. In the Calendar Round, any given combination of a Tzolk’in day with a Haab day will not repeat itself, until 52 periods of 365 days have passed.

- (Any historical or mythical event spanning more than 52 years required the ancient Maya to use an additional calendar, the Long Count.)

- Very accurate

  • Dots (one) and bars (5)

  • and stylized shells (meaning "zero"). First to use ZERO as a place holder. (Indians use it for math)

  • Base 20 system

  • World was “created” in what is equivalent to August 11, 3114 BCE

The calendar dates on monuments, buildings etc. along with the glyphs give us a really great picture/understanding/first hand account of the culture- better than that of Europe at the same time!- original documents! Not the European later written documents paraphrasing the original ones!!!

  • * cartoon slide- (really an Aztec calendar)

  • Misinterpretation of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar was the basis for a popular belief that a cataclysm would take place on December 21, 2012. December 21, 2012 was simply the day that the calendar went to the next unit of Mayan time (about 19 years).

Xibalba and Mayan Painting

Xibalba= place of Fear, city of dead at the base of the 9 levels of the underworld, ruled by 12 Mayan gods of Xibalba that personified distinct forms of suffering like sickness, fear and pain

  • Mayan elite believed they lived with the gods before coming to earth- buried with vessels and books to help them (like Egyptian)

  • Elite believed they would return to the their celestial homes upon death- started off in Xibalba

  • If they survived the many torturous levels of Xibalba they would rise up through the Tree of Life (roots in Xibalba and branches in heaven pointing to the North Star) and live in the heavens with ancestors and gods

8.18 * Section of the Dresden Codex, Postclassic period. Bark paper coated with fine stucco, height 18” (20.3 cm). Sachsische Landesbibliothek, Dresden. Scala, Florence.

- It is the oldest book written in the Americas known to historians. (Of the hundreds of books that were used in Mesoamerica before the Spanish conquest, it is one of only 15 that have survived to the present day!)

- The Dresden Codex consisted of 39 sheets, inscribed on both sides, with an overall length of 11.7 feet

- one the few surviving books (we have lots of pots) that depict Xibalba

- climate and material made them perishable…(only 6 feet left today)

- The books were folded and consisted of bark paper or leather leaves with an adhesive stucco layer (lime paste) on which to write; they were protected by jaguar skin covers or, perhaps, wooden boards.

- Originally, the manuscript had been folded in accordion folds. (*on click)

- red, black and the so-called Mayan blue. (on click*)

- The Maya blue pigment is a composite of organic and inorganic constituents, primarily indigo dyes derived from the leaves of añil (Indigofera suffruticosa) plants combined with palygorskite, a natural clay which, mysteriously, is not known to exist in abundant deposits in Mesoamerica.

- depict numbers, dates, gods, history and astrology

- used to predict auspicious days

*Next slide is a different detail page.

- Reading and writing were elite functions in Maya society, and scribes were minor royalty, related to nobles or sometimes even to the king.

- By immortalizing a king's victory in battle and ready communication with the gods, a scribe played an important and highly visible role in maintaining the king's power.

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