Mesoamerica

Cultures of Mesoamerica

Mesoamerica was dominated by three cultures in the Pre-Classical (up to 200 CE) to Post-Classical periods (circa 1580 CE): the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec.

Learning Objectives

Identify distinctive trends and materials in each of these civilization’s art production

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Olmec people are known for extraordinarily detailed jade figurines and colossal heads of rulers made of basalt.
  • Mayan culture achieved an advanced system of hieroglyphic writing, a sophisticated calendar, and a productive system of art patronage .
  • The Mayan civilization rose very quickly. Although much of its art was lost to the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century, many stone and wood sculptures
    that attest to the Mayan’s distinctive religious beliefs still survive.

Key Terms

  • stelae: Upright stone slabs or columns typically bearing a commemorative inscription or relief design, often serving as gravestones. (singular: stela)
  • jade: An ornamental rock with green and blue properties.
  • Mesoamerica: A pre-Columbian cultural region extending from the southern part of Mexico to an area that comprises some parts of the countries of Central America.
  • hieroglyphic: A type of writing consisting of hieroglyphs, a largely pictorial character of the Ancient Egyptian writing system.

Mesoamerica is a region in the Americas that extends from central Mexico to northern Costa Rica. Three cultures dominated the pre-Columbian history of Mesoamerica: the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations.

Olmec Culture

The Olmec civilization, which flourished from 1200–400 BCE, defines the Pre- Classical period; the Olmecs are generally considered the forerunner of all Mesoamerica cultures including the Maya and Aztecs. Primarily centered in the modern states of Tabasco and Veracruz in the Gulf of Mexico, the Olmec people are known for creating an abundance of  small and extraordinarily detailed jade figurines. The figurines typically exhibit complex shapes such as human figures, human-animal composites of deities and gods, and animals like cats and birds. Although we don’t know the specific purpose of these jade objects, their presence in some Olmec graves suggests they served a religious purpose in addition to being signs of wealth and goods for trade.

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Olmec jade figurine: Small holes were drilled around the edges so that this figurine could be worn on the body with twine.

The Olmec are also known for building massive stone sculptures, many of which were discovered at La Venta in the modern Mexican state of Tabasco.  Made from basalt rock from the Tuxtla mountains to the north, the Olmec used this rock to create altars, stelae , and colossal heads. Each head is rendered as a distinct individual and is thought to resemble an Olmec ruler. Each ruler’s personality is represented in the distinct headdresses that adorn the sculptures’ heads.

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Olmec Colossal Head: Heads made from basalt boulders weighed anywhere between 6 and 50 tons.

Mayan Culture

Mayan culture peaked during the Classical period (ca. 200–900 CE) and featured complex organization of large agricultural communities ruled by monarchs. They built imposing pyramids , temples, palaces, and administrative structures in densely populated cities in southern Mesoamerica. The Maya had the most advanced hieroglyphic writing in Mesoamerica and the most sophisticated calendrical system. In Mayan culture, we also see one of the earliest systems of art patronage. Kings and queens employed full-time artists in their courts, many of whom signed their work. It’s thus unsurprising that the most common motifs in Mayan art are mortal rulers and supernatural beings.

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Mayan relief sculpture from Palenque, Mexico: The Mayans were among the most advanced cultures of Mesoamerica. Most of their art represents of mortal rulers or mythic deities.

In Palenque, Mexico (a prominent Mayan city in the Classical period), the ruler Lord Pakal commissioned a grouping of large structures that stand on high ground in the middle of the town. One of those buildings, the Temple of the Inscriptions, is a nine-level pyramid that is 75 feet high. The layers of the structure probably reflect the Mayan belief that the underworld had nine levels. Inscriptions line the back wall of the temple, giving the building its name.

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Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque, Mexico: The Temple is one of four structures commissioned by the Maya ruler Lord Pakal.

Aztec Culture

Mayan civilization was in decline by the time of the Spanish Conquest in the early 16th century, and by then the Aztecs controlled much of Mexico. The rise of the Aztec was quick. Once a migratory people, they arrived in the Basin of Mexico in the 13th century where they eventually settled on an island in Lake Texcoco; they called their new home Tenochtitlan. In only a few centuries, the Aztecs aggressively expanded their territory and transformed Tenochtitlan into a capital so grand that the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes remarked on its beauty en route to invade the city in November 1519.

Metalwork was a particular skill of the Aztecs. Unfortunately, very few examples of their characteristic small gold and silver objects survive. When the Spanish arrived, most were melted down for currency. Stone sculpture and wood figurines fared much better during the Conquest. Aztec sculpture, most of which took the form of human figures carved from stone and wood, were not religious idols as one might suspect. Instead of containing the spirit of a deity, monumental sculptures were made to “feed” the deities with blood and precious objects in order to keep the gods, who resided elsewhere in the temples, happy. These sculptures are the source of stories told by Spanish conquistadors of huge statues splattered with blood and encrusted with jewels and gold.

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15th century CE vase representing Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, storms and agriculture : The vase is from the glittering Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.

Colossal Heads of the Olmec

The Olmec culture of the Gulf Coast of Mexico produced the first major Mesoamerican art and is particularly known for the creation of colossal stone heads.

Learning Objectives

Describe the colossal stone heads made by the Olmecs

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Olmec built large cities with ceremonial centers. They also made small sculptures and figurines from many types of material. Using huge basalt boulders transported from mountains in another region, the Olmec produced at least 17 sculptures of human heads.
  • The monuments are thought to represent Olmec rulers because of their distinct facial features and adornments.
  • The heads date from between 1500 and 400 BCE.
  • The only example of a colossal head found in a region outside the Olmec’s domain is at Takalik Abaj in Guatemala.

Key Terms

  • Olmec: Ancient pre-Columbian people living in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, in roughly the modern-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco.
  • earspools: Cylindrical earrings that pierce the earlobe.
  • Preclassic period: Also known as the Formative period, dating roughly from as early as 1500 BCE to about 400 BCE.

The First Major Mesoamerican Art

The art of the Olmec, which emerged during the preclassic period along the Gulf of Mexico, was the first major Mesoamerican art. Across the swampy coastal areas of the modern Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco, the Olmec constructed ceremonial centers on raised earth mounds. These centers were filled with objects made from materials including jade , clay, basalt, and greenstone. Most of these objects were figurines or sculptures that resembled both human and animal subjects.

A vessel in the shape of a fish with the mouth as the spout.

Fish Vessel, 12th–9th century BCE: Olmec art frequently featured animal as well as human subjects.

While Olmec figurines are found abundantly in sites throughout the Formative period, monumental works of basalt sculpture, including colossal heads, altars, and seated figures are the most recognizable feature of this culture . The huge basalt rocks for the large sculptures were quarried at distant sites and transported to Olmec centers such as San Lorenzo and La Venta. The colossal heads range in height from 5 to 12 feet and portray adult males wearing close-fitting caps with chin straps and large, round earspools . The fleshy faces have almond-shaped eyes, flat, broad noses, thick, protruding lips, and downturned mouths. Each face has a distinct personality, suggesting that they represent specific individuals.

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Olmec Head No. 3 from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan 1200-900 BCE.: Olmec colossal heads are believed to be depictions of powerful rulers.

These massive basalt boulders were transported from the Sierra de los Tuxtlas Mountains of Veracruz. When originally displayed in Olmec centers, the heads were arranged in lines or groups; however, the method used to transport the stone to these sites remains unclear. Given the enormous weight of the stones and the manpower required to transport them over large distances, it is probable that the colossal portraits represent powerful Olmec rulers.

The discovery of a colossal head at Tres Zapotes in the nineteenth century spurred the first archaeological investigations of Olmec culture by Matthew Stirling in 1938. Seventeen confirmed examples are traced to four sites within the Olmec heartland on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Most colossal heads were sculpted from spherical boulders, but two from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán were recarved from massive stone thrones. An additional monument at Takalik Abaj in Guatemala is a throne that may have been carved from a colossal head. This is the only known example from outside the Olmec heartland.

Dating the monuments remains difficult because of the movement of many from their original contexts prior to archaeological investigation. Most have been dated to the Early Preclassic (or Formative) period (1500–1000 BCE) with some to the Middle Preclassic (1000–400 BCE) period. The smallest weighs six tons, while the largest is estimated to weigh 40 to 50 tons, although it was abandoned and left unfinished close to the source of its stone.

Teotihuacan

At its height, Teotihuacan was one of the largest cities in the world with a population of 200,000. It was a primary center of commerce and manufacturing.

Learning Objectives

Understand the importance of Teotihuacan as a religious, commercial, and art historical center

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The name Teotihuacan means Gathering Place of the Gods.

Key Terms

  • taludtablero: A design characteristic of Mayan architecture at Teotihuacan in which a sloping talud at the base of a building supports a wall-like tablero, where ornamental painting and sculpture are usually placed.

Located some 30 miles northeast of present-day Mexico City, Teotihuacan experienced a period of rapid growth early in the first millennium CE. By 200 CE, it emerged as a significant center of commerce and manufacturing, the first large city-state in the Americas. At its height between 350 and 650 CE, Teotihuacan covered nearly nine miles and had a population of about 200,000, making it one of the largest cities in the world. One reason for its dominance was its control of the market for high-quality obsidian. This volcanic stone, made into tools and vessels , was traded for luxury items such as the green feathers of the quetzal bird, used for priestly headdresses, and the spotted fur of the jaguar, used for ceremonial garments.

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Ceremonial center of the city of Teotihuacan, Mexico, Teotihuacan culture, c. 350-650 CE.: View from the Pyramid of the Moon down the Avenue of the Dead to the Ciudadela and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. The Pyramid of the Sun is at the middle left. The avenue is over a mile long.

The people of Teotihuacan worshipped deities that were recognizably similar to those worshipped by later Mesoamerican people, including the Aztecs, who dominated central Mexico at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Among these are the Rain or Storm God (god of fertility, war, and sacrifice), known to the Aztecs as Tlaloc, and the Feathered Serpent, known to the Maya as Kukulcan and to the Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl.

Teotihuacan’s principal monuments include the Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon, and the Ciudadela (Spanish for fortified city center), a vast sunken plaza surrounded by temple platforms. The city’s principal religious and political center, the Ciudadela could accommodate an assembly of more than 60,000 people. Its focal point was the pyramidal Temple of the Feathered Serpent. This seven-tiered structure exhibits the taludtablero construction that is a hallmark of the Teotihuacan architectural style . The sloping base, or talud, of each platform supports a vertical tablero, or entablature , which is surrounded by frame and filled with sculptural decoration . The Temple of the Feathered Serpent was enlarged several times, and as was characteristic of Mesoamerican pyramids, each enlargement completely enclosed the previous structure like the layers of an onion. Archaeological excavation of this temple’s earlier-phase tableros and a stairway balustrade have revealed painted heads of the Feathered Serpent, the goggle-eyed Rain or Storm God, and reliefs of aquatic shells and snails. The flat, angular, abstract style, typical of Teotihuacan art, is in marked contrast to the curvilinear style of Olmec art.

Close-up of the stairway with the painted heads and reliefs.

Temple of the Feathered Serpent, the Ciudadela.: Detail of pyramid, showing the alternating talud base and vertical tablero (left).

The Decline

Sometime in the middle of the seventh century disaster struck Teotihuacan. The ceremonial center burned and the city went into a permanent decline. Nevertheless, its influence continued as other centers throughout Mesoamerica and as far south as the highlands of Guatemala borrowed and transformed its imagery over the next several centuries. The site was never entirely abandoned as it remained a legendary pilgrimage center. The much later Aztec people (c. 1300-1525 CE) revered the site as the place where they believed the gods created the sun and the moon. In fact, the name “Teotihuacan” is actually an Aztec word meaning “Gathering Place of the Gods.”

Art of the Maya

Mayan art includes a wide variety of objects, commissioned by rulers, that depict scenes of both elite and everyday society.

Learning Objectives

Identify the key features of Mayan art from the Classic Period

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Maya blue was a distinctive color preserved for centuries due to its unique chemical composition; unfortunately, the technique involved in producing it has been lost.
  • The Maya carved stone portraits of their rulers as memorials.
  • There is an especially strong tradition of painting and sculpture in Mayan culture . Often sculpture was painted with distinctive dyes and techniques characteristic of the Maya.
  • Much Mayan art was commissioned by rulers to accompany them to the Underworld.

Key Terms

  • Stele: As stone slab placed vertically and decorated with inscriptions or reliefs. Used as a grave marker or memorial.
  • Maya blue: A unique bright azure pigment manufactured by cultures of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, such as the Maya and Aztec. Made from a combination of a particular kind of clay, indigo, and vegetable dye.

Mayan Portraiture

Strong cultural influences stemming from the Olmec tradition and Teotihuacan contributed to the development of the Mayan city center and the culture’s Classic artistic tradition. The most sacred and majestic buildings of Mayan cities were built in enclosed, centrally located precincts. The Maya held dramatic rituals within these highly sculptured and painted environments. For example, the grand pyramids of Copan and Tikal are among the most imposing buildings the Maya erected; each contains sculpted portraits that glorified the city’s rulers.

Stele H in the Great Plaza at Copan represents one of the city’s foremost leaders, 18-Rabbit, who reigned from 695-738 CE. During the ruler’s long reign, Copan reached its greatest physical extent and breadth of political influence. On Stele H, 18-Rabbit wears an elaborate headdress and ornamented kilt and sandals. He holds across his chest a double-headed serpent bar, symbol of the sky and of his absolute power. His features, although idealized, have the quality of a portrait likeness. The Mayan elite, like the Egyptian pharaohs, tended to have themselves portrayed as eternally youthful. The dense, deeply carved ornamental details that frame the face and figure stand almost clear of the main stone block and wrap around the sides of the stele. The stele was originally painted, with remnants of red paint visible on many stelae and buildings in Copan.

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Stele H portraying the ruler 18-Rabbit. Great Plaza at Copan, Honduras. Made of stone, 11′ 9″ high.  : Although a powerful ruler, 18-Rabbit eventually was captured and beheaded by a rival king.

Clay Sculpture

Many small clay figures from the Classic Mayan period remain in existence. These free-standing objects illustrate aspects of everyday Mayan life. As a group, they are remarkably life-like, carefully descriptive, and even comic at times. They represent a wider range of human types and activities than commonly depicted on Mayan stelae. Ball players, women weaving, older men, dwarves, supernatural beings, and amorous couples, as well as elaborately attired rulers and warriors, comprise one of the largest groups of surviving Mayan art. Many of the hollow figurines are also whistles. They were made in ceramic workshops and painted with Maya Blue, a dye unique to Mayan and Aztec artists. Small clay figures found in burial sites were made to accompany the Mayan dead on their inevitable voyage to the Underworld.

A figure of a large man leaning to the side with one leg out, as though in motion.

Ballplayer, Maya, from Jaina Island, Mexico, 700-900CE. Painted clay, 6.25″ high: Maya Blue is a pigment that has proven virtually indestructible, unlike other dyes and paints that have largely disappeared over time.

Painted Vases

The Maya painted vivid narrative scenes on the surfaces of cylindrical vases. A typical vase design depicts a palace scene where an enthroned Mayan ruler sits surrounded by courtiers and attendants. The figures wear simple loincloths, turbans of wrapped cloth and feathers, and black body paint. These painted vases may have been used as drinking and food vessels for noble Maya, but their final destination was the tomb, where they accompanied the deceased to the Underworld. They likely were commissioned by the deceased before his death or by his survivors, and were occasionally sent from distant sites as funerary offerings .

The Maya lord is depicted sitting, looking down and to the side. On the right, a courtier approaches him with offerings.

Detail of Enthroned Maya lord and courtiers, cylinder vase, from Motul de San Jose region, Guatemala, c. 672-830 CE : Ceramic with red, rose, orange, white, and black on cream, 8″ high.

Architecture of the Maya

The Maya had complex architectural programs. They built imposing pyramids, temples, palaces, and administrative structures in densely populated cities.

Learning Objectives

Describe the characteristic style and functional elements of Maya architecture in the Classic and Postclassic periods

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Maya grouped large architectural structures at the centers of major cities.
  • Pyramids and temples were used for religious purposes and built by rulers as memorials to themselves.
  • Administrative structures such as the Palace demonstrate the sophistication of Maya architecture and technology.
  • Maya architecture is ornate and elaborate, incorporating bas- relief , sculpture , and painted murals on the interiors and exteriors of structures.
  • The Mesoamerican ball game was a central part of ancient Mesoamerican cultural, religious, and political life.
  • The cities of Palenque and Chichen Itza, both in Mexico, contain iconic examples of Mayan architecture from the Classical and Postclassical periods.

Key Terms

  • roof comb: In a Mayan building, a masonry wall along the apex of a roof built above the level of the roof proper. Roof combs support the highly decorated false facades that rise above the height of the building at the front.
  • mansard roof: A roof with four sloping sides that become steeper halfway down.
  • aqueduct: An artificial channel for conveying water, typically in the form of a bridge supported by tall columns across a valley.
  • bas-relief: A kind of sculpture in which shapes are carved so that they are only slightly higher than the flat background.
  • balustrades: A kind of low wall placed at the sides of staircases, bridges, etc., made of a row of short posts topped by a long rail.

The Mayan civilization emerged during the late Preclassic period (250 BCE-250 CE), reached its peak in the southern lowlands of Guatemala during the Classic period (250-900 CE), and shifted to northern Yucatan during the Postclassic period (900-1521 CE).

Architecture in Palenque

In Palenque, Mexico, a prominent city of the Classic period, the major buildings are grouped on high ground . The central group of structures includes the Palace (possibly an administrative and ceremonial center as well as a residential structure), the Temple of the Inscriptions, and two other temples. Most of the structures in the complex were commissioned by a powerful ruler, Lord Pakal, who reigned from 615 to 638 CE, and his two sons, who succeeded him.

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Palace (right) and Temple of the Inscriptions, tomb-pyramid of Lord Pakal (left) : Palenque, Mexico. Mayan culture, late 7th century.

Temple of the Inscriptions

The Temple of the Inscriptions is a nine-level pyramid that rises to a height of about 75 feet. The consecutive layers probably reflect the belief, current among the Aztec and Maya at the time of the Spanish conquest, that the underworld had nine levels. Priests would climb the steep stone staircase on the exterior to reach the temple on top, which recalls the kind of pole-and-thatch houses the Maya still build in parts of the Yucatan today. The roof of the temple was topped with a crest known as a roof comb , and its facade still retains much of its stucco sculpture. Inscriptions line the back wall of the outer chamber, giving the temple its name.

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Temple of the Inscriptions (tomb pyramid of Lord Pakal) : Palenque, Mexico, 7th century

The Palace

Across from the Temple of Inscriptions is the Palace, a complex of several adjacent buildings and courtyards built on a wide artificial terrace. The Palace was used by the Mayan aristocracy for bureaucratic functions, entertainment, and ritual ceremonies .

Numerous sculptures and bas-relief carvings within the Palace have been conserved. The Palace’s most unusual and recognizable feature is the four-story tower known as the Observation Tower. Like many other buildings at the site, the Observation Tower exhibits a mansard roof . The Palace was equipped with numerous large baths and saunas which were supplied with fresh water by an intricate water system. An aqueduct constructed of great stone blocks with a six-foot-high vault diverts the Otulum River to flow underneath the main plaza.

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The Palace’s Observation Tower with mansard roof : Palenque, Mexico, late Classic period

Architecture in Chichen Itza

As the focus of Maya civilization shifted northward in the Postclassic period, a northern Maya group called the Itza rose to prominence. Their principal center, Chichen Itza, (Yucatan State) Mexico, which means “at the mouth of the well of the Itza,” flourished from the 9th to 13th centuries CE, eventually covering about six square miles.

El Castillo

One of Chichen Itza’s most conspicuous structures is El Castillo (Spanish for the castle), a massive nine-level pyramid in the center of a large plaza with a stairway on each side leading to a square temple on the pyramid’s summit. At the spring and fall equinoxes, the setting sun casts an undulating, serpent-like shadow on the stairways, forming bodies for the serpent heads carved at the base of the balustrades .

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El Castillo (the Castle) : Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico. 9th-13th century.

The Great Ball Court

The Great Ball Court northwest of the Castillo is the largest and best preserved court for playing the Mesoamerican ball game, an important sport with ritual associations played by Mesoamericans since 1400 BCE.  The parallel platforms flanking the main playing area are each 312 feet long. The walls of these platforms stand 26 feet high. Rings carved with intertwined feathered serpents are set high at the top of each wall at the center. At the base of the interior walls are slanted benches with sculpted panels of teams of ball players. In one panel, one of the players has been decapitated; the wound spews streams of blood in the form of wriggling snakes.

At one end of the Great Ball Court is the North Temple, also known as the Temple of the Bearded Man (Templo del Hombre Barbado). This small masonry building has detailed bas-relief carving on the inner walls, including a center figure with decorative carvings that resemble facial hair. Built into the east wall are the Temples of the Jaguar. The Upper Temple of the Jaguar overlooks the ball court and has an entrance guarded by two large columns carved in the familiar feathered serpent motif . At the entrance to the Lower Temple of the Jaguar is another Jaguar throne similar to the one in the inner temple of El Castillo.

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The Great Ball Court, Chichen Itza, Mexico Late Classic period, 551′ x 230′: The modern version of the Mesoamerican ball game is called Ulama and is similar to racquetball.

Ceramics of the Veracruz

Ceramic figurines are a hallmark of Classic Veracruz art. The Veracruz people produced a variety of small clay figures in multiple areas around the modern state of Veracruz, Mexico.

Learning Objectives

Describe characteristics of ceramic figurines from two parts of Veracruz known for ceramic production in the Classic and Late Classic periods

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Classic Veracruz culture produced ceramic figurines in multiple distinctive styles and depicting many types of people.
  • There are strong stylistic differences between ceramic figures from the cities of Remojadas and Nopiloa.
  • The highly ritualized Mesoamerican ball game was of crucial importance to the Veracruz culture and was represented in their art.
  • Smiling figures from Remojadas called Sonrientes are the most recognizable ceramic figures produced by the Veracruz people.

Key Terms

  • Mesoamerican ballgame: A sport with ritual associations played since 1,400 BC by the pre-Columbian peoples of Ancient Mesoamerica. The sport had different versions in different places during the millennia, and a more modern version of the game, ulama, is still played in a few places by the indigenous population.
  • Sonrientes: A type of ceramic figurine produced by the Veracruz culture. Literally translates to “smiling” in Spanish.
  • appliqués: In the context of ceramics, adding low-relief clay forms to hard surfaces for embellishment.

The modern state of Veracruz lies along the Mexican Gulf Coast, north of the Maya lowlands and east of the highlands of central Mexico. Culturally diverse and environmentally rich, the people of Veracruz took part in dynamic interchanges between three regions that over the centuries included trade, warfare, and migration. During the middle centuries of the first millennium, the artistically gifted Veracruzanos created inventive ceramic sculpture in diverse yet related styles.

Until the early 1950s, Classic Veracruz ceramics were few, little understood, and generally without provenance (known history). Since then, the recovery of thousands of figurines and pottery pieces from sites such as Remojadas and Nopiloa (some initially found by looters), has expanded our understanding and filled many museum shelves. Artist and art historian Miguel Covarrubias described Classic Veracruz ceramics as “powerful and expressive, endowed with a charm and sensibility unprecedented in other, more formal cultures.”

Figurines from Remojadas and Nopiloa

Remojadas-style figurines, perhaps the most easily recognizable from this culture, are usually hand-modeled and often adorned with appliqués . Of particular note are the Sonrientes (Smiling) Figurines, with triangular-shaped heads and outstretched arms. Figurines from Nopiloa are often molded and usually less ornate, without appliqués. The Sonrientes figure from Remojadas (below) provides scholars with an example of the clothing worn in ancient times, such as the loincloth and headdress. The flattened forehead on this smiling figure may represent the practice of intentional cranial deformation or may simply reflect an artistic convention. Many American cultures considered a flattened forehead desirable and used a variety of techniques to flatten the skulls of infants while they were still pliable.

This smiling figure stands with both hands in the air.

Smiling Figure, Late Classic Period, 7th-8th century, Remojadas, Veracruz, Mexico, 45.5cm high: Made of brown clay with white pigment. The figure contains both hand-modeled and mold-made elements.

Another smiling figure from the Remojadas region is a hollow ceramic sculpture representing an individual celebrating with music and dance. This bare-chested figure with open mouth and filed teeth stands energetically with legs spread and arms lifted as if caught in mid-motion. He wears a woven cap with geometric patterns, an elaborate skirt, circular earrings, a beaded necklace, and a bracelet. His face and body contain patterns evocative of body paint, including slight lines emanating from his lower eyelids and onto his cheeks. This sculpture evokes a festive dance or ritual accompanied by the rhythmic reverberation of the hand-held rattle and celebratory sound escaping from the figure’s open mouth.

This smiling figure stands with both hands in the air.

Smiling Figure, Late Classic Period, 7th–8th century : Remojadas, Veracruz, Mexico, 45 cm high

In contrast to Smiling Figures from Remojadas, the mold-made ceramic figure from Nopiloa below depicts a bearded, mustachioed male wearing a ballgame yoke around his waist to protect him from the hard, solid rubber ball used in play. There are cylindrical ear ornaments in his ears and beneath his arm, a baton-like object perhaps related to the local incarnation of the game. The rules and manner in which the Mesoamerican ballgame was played varied among contemporary sites and evolved through time. Surviving evidence suggests human sacrifice was a frequent outcome, but the game may also have been played for other purposes such as sport. The people of ancient Veracruz interacted with people from other Mesoamerican cultures, and this Nopiloa figure displays motifs commonly found in Mayan art. Knotted ties like those around this player’s wrist and neck connote captured prisoners in Mayan pictorial language. A motif similar to the Maya mat, a symbol of rulership, appears on the flanged headdress of the ballplayer. Like Mayan figurines of this type, the body of this figure is a whistle, a musical instrument used in ritual and ceremony .

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Ball Player Figurine, 7th–10th century, Nopiloa, Veracruz, Mexico, 27 cm. high.: Nopiloa, Veracruz, Mexico. 27 centimeters high.

Codices of the Mixtec

Mixtec culture had a unique and complex writing system that used characters and pictures to represent complete words and ideas instead of syllables or sounds. They made codices to document important historical events in their society.

Learning Objectives

Understand the uses and structure of Mixtec codices

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Mixtec codices were made of deerskin and folded in an accordion pattern. Only eight Mixtec codices survive.
  • Mixtec codices allow us to trace Mixtec history from 1550 CE back to 940 CE, deeper in time than any other Mesoamerican culture except the Maya.
  • Codices represented historical events on both a micro and macro scale for Mixtec nobility.

Key Terms

  • codices: Books constructed of sheets of paper, vellum, papyrus, or similar materials, with hand-written contents. Codex: singular
  • logographic: Type of written language in which the characters/pictures used represent complete words and ideas instead of syllables or sounds.
  • Mixtec: A Mesoamerican people who lived in southern Mexico before the rise of the Aztecs.

About the Mixtec

The Mixtecs were one of the most influential ethnic groups to emerge in Mesoamerica during the Post-Classic period. Never a united nation, the Mixtecs waged war and forged alliances among themselves as well as with other peoples in their vicinity. They also produced beautiful manuscripts and metal work and influenced the international artistic style used from Central Mexico to Yucatan.

During the Classic period, the Mixtecs lived in hilltop settlements of northwestern Oaxaca, a fact reflected in their name in their own language, Ñuudzahui, meaning “People of the Rain.” During the Post-Classic period, the Mixtecs slowly moved into adjacent valleys and then into the great Valley of Oaxaca. This time of expansion is recorded in a large number of deerskin manuscripts called codices, only eight of which have survived. Nevertheless, these manuscripts allow us to trace Mixtec history from 1550 CE back to 940 CE, deeper in time than any other Mesoamerican culture except the Maya.

Mixtec Codices

This codex is colorful and unfolded.

Mixtec Codex Zouche-Nuttall: Mixtec codices were made of deerskin and folded like an accordion.

Mixtec codices represent a type of writing classified as logographic , meaning the characters and pictures used represent complete words and ideas instead of syllables or sounds. In Mixtec, the relationships among pictorial elements denote the meaning of the text, whereas in other Mesoamerican writing the pictorial representations are not incorporated into the text. Common topics found in the codices are biographies of rulers and other influential figures, records of elite family trees, mythologies, and accounts of ceremonies .

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A Warrior Scene from the Codex Zouche-Nuttall:

The above detail from the Codex Zouche-Nuttall depicts a group of warriors conquering a town (an event noted by the warriors’ drawn weapons and the arrow piercing the hill). Above each participant’s head is a glyph, or pictograph , with a dot. The glyphs below the warriors are calendrical day signs. They are also, however, the names of Mixtec nobles; among this group, a person’s name was often his or her birthday.

Pre-Columbian Mixtec are mainly concerned with histories. They record events such as royal births, wars and battles, royal marriages, forging of alliances, pilgrimages , and death of rulers. In addition to the calendrical signs used for dating events and naming individuals, the Mixtecs used a combination of conventionalized pictures and glyphs to illustrate the type and nature of the event. One example is the wedding scene, usually shown as two individuals of opposite sex facing each other and sitting on jaguar-pelt chairs, as illustrated by a scene from the Codex Zouche-Nuttall which records the marriage of the legendary Mixtec King 8 Deer “Tiger Claw” of Tilantongo to Lady 12 Snake in 1051 CE.

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A Marriage Scene from the Codex Zouche-Nuttall:

This arrangement of the bride and groom is a purely pictorial convention, with no connection to the language. This means that no idiom or phrase in the Mixtec language that describing two people sitting face-to-face is a metaphor for marriage. However, the cup of chocolate held by Lady 12 Snake may represent the expression ynodzehua, which means “dowry” in Mixtec, where the root dzehua means “chocolate.” Chocolate or cacao was one of the most expensive and luxurious products in Mesoamerica, and cacao beans were used as currency. It is no surprise the word for dowry would be based on chocolate.