Art history discussion
one paragraph Observational respond for each quation
1.What is the role of astronomy and the feathered serpent God, Quetzatcoal? Please briefly describe the relationship between gods, goddesses and Mesoamerican ruling
strategies practiced by spiritual/political leaders.
2. look closely and carefully at the masks discussed by Neil MacGregor in the BBC link. Please point out something that looks simplified, schematized, abstract or
minimal in these masks. Be specific as possible.
3.You would need to discuss some of the elements in the head discussed by macgregor that are naturalistic.
Link (Links to an external site.)
Discussion: rulers and their portraits
While discussing the Olmec Stone Mask, MacGregor mentions another carving from the same site, the colossal Olmec head:
Discussion: rulers and their portraits
He notes that it is in a rather similar style, “simplified and schematized, somewhere between minimalism and an abstraction.”
MacGregor is talking about the style of these two Olmec pieces. Paying attention to style is crucial in art history. By style, art historians mean the way
something is depicted (as opposed to what is depicted.)
Note that MacGregor is referring to something visible in the carving. We should not be taking his word for it–we should be able to see it, too.
point out something in the Olmec Stone Mask that looks simplified, schematized, abstract or minimal. Be quite specific in explaining what you are talking about–you
can’t assume that we all think the same bit of it is the nose, for example.
And here is an alternate task: Point out something about the Olmec mask that is in a naturalistic style. But don’t repeat what McGregor has already pointed out.
From La Venta in Mexico, where you have seen the heads, and masks we move further inland closer to present day Mexico City, namely to the site of one of the largest
and densely populated Pre-Classical metropolis that fulfilled a central civic, economic, and religious role for the region and indeed for much of Mesoamerica. Laid
out in a grid pattern with the axes oriented according to astronomical entities, such as the moon and
After you read the links from Metropolitan Museum of art below, I’d like you to consider the role of astronomy and the feathered serpent god, Quetzatcoatl. This will
be the topic for our observation Discussion this week. We will revisit the relationship between gods, goddesses and Mesoamerican ruling strategies practiced by
spiritual/political leaders again.
Link (Links to an external site.)
Link (Links to an external site.)
CHRONOLOGY: MESOAMERICAN TIMELINE
Archaeologists divide Mesoamerican civilizational development into three major time periods: the PreClassic or Formative period extending from 1500 B.C. – A.D. 300,
the Classic period extending from A.D. 300-950, and the PostClassic period extending from A.D. 950-1521.
THE PRECLASSIC PERIOD
As Mesoamerican populations developed more intensive agricultural techniques, political specialists began to govern their societies. Doubtless the roles of emerging
paramount chiefs evolved from positions once held by powerful spiritual leaders. Eventually, population increase led to competition for localized resources and the
mechanisms by which political leaders organized cooperative farming ventures could be applied just as effectively to mobilizing military forces. In this way PreClassic
leaders secured the powers they needed to centralize authority. Incipient forms of writing begin to appear as early as 500 B.C. in Oaxaca. Between 500 and 200 B.C.
precocious ceremonial centers emerged in the Maya lowlands at sites like El Mirador, Nakbé, Cerros, and Uaxactún.
THE CLASSIC PERIOD
The Classic period was characterized by the emergence of urban state societies throughout Mesoamerica. The foremost was Teotihuacán. Boasting a population of over
100,000 inhabitants, it was one of the largest cities in the world between A.D. 200-700. The Zapotec citadel of Monte Albán rose to dominate much of the present state
of Oaxaca. Enduring civic-ceremonial centers like Tikal, Calakmul, Palenque, Copán and scores of other powerful lowland Maya city-states, evolved from precocious
PreClassic communities located deep in the heart of Guatemala’s Petén jungle. By A.D. 300, monuments with hieroglyphic texts describing divine origins illustrate the
transformation of social organization from chiefdoms to institutionalized kingship. Then by A.D. 900, most of the great centers had been abandoned, some after
experiencing continuous growth for over a millenia. There are many theories postulated to explain societal collapse, but no single factor tells the whole story. Most
ideas focus on the fundamental instability of Classic elite socio-political organizations compounded by environmental degradation; climatic changes and the depletion
of resources due to overpopulation. Some areas witnessed a brief florescence of secondary-states between A.D. 800-1200 – an era sometimes called the Epi-Classic.
Ceremonial centers such as Uxmal, Xochicalco, Cacaxtla, and El Tajín were renowned for their outstanding artistic developments in intricate mosaic stone facades and
THE POSTCLASSIC PERIOD
During the PostClassic period, regional governments became highly segmented and commercially oriented. Emphasis was placed on the development of “great houses,”
networks of enclosed rooms and courts ideally suited not only to royal feasts that were an integral part of long distance alliance formation, but also to the
proliferation of an unequaled level of art and craft production. It was at this time that competition for access into elite exchange networks became so pronounced that
traders and craftspeople were driven to seek out the rarest and most exotic materials to maximize the value of their gifts. The technology for smelting gold, silver,
and copper, was introduced from Central and South America, while turquoise mined in the American southwest was exchanged for the plumage of Scarlet Macaws. Never
before had the Mesoamerican economy been exposed to so many rare materials from such far away places. After the fall of Tula, a Toltec city-state that dominated
Central México from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries, Aztec peoples moved south to Lake Texcoco. Eventually they were able to affect the balance of power in the
region to such a degree that they were granted royal marriages with venerable Toltec families. By 1450, the Méxica, now the most powerful of seven original Aztec
groups, incorporated their former rivals and together they conquered an empire. Eventually, they gave their name to the nation of México, while their city of
Tenochtitlán became what we know as México City today.
Image – Figure 5. – San Lorenzo Head. San Lorenzo Head #6. Olmec portraits are the first expressions in art of the emerging systems of social stratification that
would characterize Mesoamerican civilization.
Image – Figure 6. – Olmec jade mask. Watercolor impression of an Olmec jade mask carved as the face of a human transforming into a jaguar. Objects of jade and other
precious stone served as early forms of chiefly wealth but also displayed the intimate connection between paramount leaders and the supernatural.
Image – Figure 7. – Carved stone slabs. Carved stone slabs depict mutilated captives at Monte Albán; the earliest testament to the role that warfare played in the
rise of Mesoamerican states.
Image – Figure 8. – The great Avenue of the Dead. Religious ritual at Teotihuacán focused on the great Avenue of the Dead, a 145 foot wide processional boulevard that
bisected the city. To the left towers the 200 foot high (65 meters) Pyramid of the Sun.
Image – Portion of Figure 9. – Quiriguá Stela E. Quiriguá Stela E is typical of Maya monuments that emphasize the institution of divine kingship over the
glorification of individual personality. Symbols displayed in lavish ritual dress signify the generations of royal ancestors and gods from whom this lord claimed
Image – Figure 10. – Temple 1 at Tikal. Temple 1 at Tikal was dedicated to the admiration of a ruler whose elaborate tomb was found within the center of the base of
Image – Figure 11. – Warrior columns at Tula, Hidalgo. Warrior columns at Tula, Hidalgo. Tula ultimately established itself as an early PostClassic inheritor of
social and religious institutions first established at Teotihuacán.
Image – Figure 12. – The Zapotec-Mixtec palaces of Mitla. The Zapotec-Mixtec palaces of Mitla were adorned with intricate mosaics of stone work. The Late PostClassic
era throughout southern México was characterized by an emphasis on palaces as centers of administrative and ritual activity.
Image – Figure 13. – Aztec temple and stone monuments. An Aztec temple and stone monuments discovered in excavations at Tenochtitlán, the Aztec imperial capital known
today as México City.
Origins of Civilization
The term “Mesoamerica” refers to a geographical area occupied by a variety of ancient cultures that shared religious beliefs, art, architecture, and technology that
made them unique in the Americas for three thousand years – from about 1500 B.C. to A.D. 1519 – the time of European contact.
Mesoamerica is one of our planet’s six cradles of early civilization. Many aspects of the ancient cultures of Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and México
continue to the present and several of these cultural inventions and traits have spread throughout the world.
Some important definitions to keep in mind before we start with Mesoamerica is that of dating. We will come back to this in the next section but for now please
remember that the term Prehistory is determined differently in the Western civilizations . You might remember that:
Prehistoric refers to societies which have not developed writing, reflecting the idea that history is something we write. They are also called Stone Age, because
people made tools from stone–they had not yet figured out how to make metal.
Archaeologists divide the Stone Age into three stages, based on where people got their food:
• Paleolithic (from the Greek for old and stone): people gather wild plants and hunt animals.
• Mesolithic (from the Greek for middle and stone): people begin to plant food crops and live with animals.
• Neolithic (from the Greek for new and stone): people farm and raise animals for food.
We will see how this definition is altered in the Mesoamerican civilization in the next section.
ORIGINS OF CIVILIZATION
The principal factors that contributed to the origins of Mesoamerica’s civilizations are debated by scholars working throughout the region today but most believe that
the inequalities between rulers and ruled, a condition of all early civilizations, developed with the consolidation of social power by chiefs who coordinated
agricultural labor and supervised the storage and redistribution of crop surpluses that ensured group survival against drought and other natural calamaties.
Between 15,000 and 5,000 B.C., human populations subsisted largely as migratory hunters and foragers until the domestication of plants, especially maize, beans, and
squash, provided them with surpluses that enabled year-round settlements to thrive.
Anthropologists tend to think of early tribes as egalitarian societies who restricted the accumulation of personal wealth by continually circulating food and materials
through reciprocal exchange networks. But while food-sharing and gift-giving may have promoted trust and bound tribal members together, the ability to generate
surpluses with plant cultivation would have created status differences. Ambitious individuals could begin capitalizing on a basic primate condition, the most
successful long term leaders are not necessarily the strongest, but the most generous.
Once foods had been domesticated as staples, they would have been available to any population interested in shifting from foraging to agriculture and sedentary life.
Agriculture can support large populations but it demands ever more intensive forms of cultivation. Mesoamerican people met the challenge by developing a wide variety
of agricultural techniques, from terracing mountain sides to digging canals or even creating artificial wetlands. Mesoamericans domesticated dogs and turkeys, but wild
animals like deer were naturally drawn to gardens where they could be easily captured and tethered. The cultivation of fruit trees attracted a wide variety of tropical
birds whose colorful plumage was coveted for displaying wealth and prestige.
Image – Figure 1 Early cultigens probably appealed to tribal curers as medicines, but were later nurtured as special feast foods by enterprising tribal leaders seeking
to enhance their social status. Grains of incipient maize derived from a simple grass like teosintle were too small to constitute a staple. At first, they were
probably selected to make something comparable to tesguino, a mildly intoxicating beverage. The western hemisphere is renowned for its diversity of hallucinogenic
plants. Many were believed to facilitate communication with the supernatural. Gods and ancestors were consulted to learn the sources of disease in this way. Click on
Image for more detail.
Image – Figure 2 The successful development of agricultural intensification allowed Mesoamerican civilizations to build surpluses that not only insured themselves
against catastrophies like drought but also led to social specialization and ultimately to the creation of specialized classes of merchants, warriors, artisans, and
aristocracies of kings. Nowhere in the world was so much energy invested in domesticating plants and the tremendous variety in our own diet, much of which we take for
granted today, is largely due to Indian ingenuity.
Image – Figure 3 Mesoamerican peoples were sufficiently impressed with their accomplishments as agricultural engineers that they even commemorated foods, like squash
for example, in artistic masterpieces of precious greenstone.
Image – Figure 4 As “big men” were called upon to sponsor tribal feasts, they enlarged their own quarters and expanded the open yards surrounding their dwellings to
accommodate more of their clients. Eventually prestige came to be marked by house size, and chiefs used their dwellings to display their elevated status by literally
raising their homes on artificial platforms and restricting surrounding space to specialized ritual activities. From these humble beginnings came the magnificent
palaces, temples, and plazas that continue to awe us today.