Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 7, 2000
Jeff Kowalski Mesoamerican Architecture as a Cultural Symbol Oxford University Press, 2016. 432 pp. $125.00 (9780195079616)

Mesoamerican Architecture as Cultural Symbol is one of the latest in a series of recent works on architecture in ancient Middle America. Jeff Kowalski’s volume joins The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs, by Linda Schele and Peter Mathews (Scribner, 1998), and Stephen Houston’s edited volumes Function and Meaning in Classic Maya Architecture (Dumbarton Oaks, 1999), and Royal Courts of the Maya (with Takeshi Inomata, Westview Press, 2000). But unlike these volumes, which focus only on the Maya, Mesoamerican Architecture as Cultural Symbol addresses architecture as a carrier of cultural meaning in most of the major traditions of Mesoamerica, including treatments of the Olmec, Maya, West Mexican, El Tajin, Xochicalco, Tula, Mitla, and Aztec cultures. The wide focus of this volume and its theoretically robust approach are sure to make it a touchstone in pre-Columbian studies.

An introductory chapter establishes the theoretical framework of the volume and also explains the title. Mesoamerica is that geographical region in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras wherein all the ancient peoples shared traits such as the ballgame, complex calendars, hieroglyphic writing and books, ritual bloodletting and human sacrifice, complex pantheons of deities, organized priesthoods, and state level society based on sacred shamanistic kingship. As for the “cultural symbol” of the title, Kowalski relies on authors such as Clifford Geertz for an anthropological conception of culture as a system of patterns, codes, and behaviors shared by all members of a society.

As in other fields of ancient and non-western art history, pre-Columbianists work closely with colleagues in archaeology and anthropology. These disciplines often approach the same material from markedly different viewpoints. Kowalski’s introduction establishes that he views culture, ideology, and architecture as central to any definition of a society. Relying on the studies of Spiro Kostof, Lee Anne Wilson, and Donald Presiozi, he underscores that architecture is a “built environment” by which most societies encode their cosmology, cosmogony, history, and social structure. These efforts will seem like stating the obvious to specialists in Western art. They are aimed at pre-Columbianist colleagues in the social sciences who sometimes view culture, ideology, and architecture not as central, but rather as secondary to such material aspects as economic base, trade, social inequality, and the control of resources.

Kent Reilly opens the volume with an article demonstrating that the Olmec civilization established many of the Mesoamerican patterns of architectural meaning as early as 1200 BCE. Generally speaking, one of the major goals of Western architecture has been to create ever-larger covered interior spaces, from the Pantheon to Berg’s Jahrhunderthalle to the Seattle Kingdome. Many Western activities, from sacred rituals to sports events, take place indoors, and our architecture serves these needs. In ancient Mesoamerica, most rituals and public events took place outdoors, and in general permanent architecture was never conceived to enclose large spaces. Interior spaces in Maya and Aztec temples alike were small and probably almost as poorly lit as they appear today. Monumental architecture instead functioned to create terraces, platforms, and armatures decorated with dynastic and cosmological sculpture programs. The same also served as backdrops for rituals conducted by political and religious elites. And finally, in Mesoamerican architecture, the negative spaces shaped by buildings, the plazas and processional ways, are often as significant as the physical architecture. Together the “built environment,” to use Presiozi’s term, of both structures and framed spaces most often served to recreate in permanent form the space and time of creation, often linked to royal lineage founding events.

The La Venta Olmec constructed a massive platform punctuated by both an effigy volcano (Pyramid C) and by massive buried greenstone mosaic pavements and layers of colored clay. Such buried architecture should remind readers of the earthworks of Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Charles Ross, and others; in fact, Heizer’s father was among the archaeologists who excavated La Venta in the 1940s and 1950s. The La Venta buried features functioned literally to create the underworld underfoot, which the Olmecs and other Mesoamerican peoples conceived as a watery locale. Likewise, the great effigy volcano pyramid functioned to model a feature of the sacred landscape in the human cityscape.

Eduardo Matos Moctezuma’s discussion of the Aztec Great Temple demonstrates how architecture at the end of Mesoamerican prehistory still functioned to model cosmology and cosmogony. The events and places recreated by the Great Temple—Coatepec, or Snake Mountain, and Tonacatepetl, the Mountain of Sustenance—were specific to Aztec cosmology. The structure, however, reflects functional similarities to earlier Mesoamerican architecture such as how the Aztec buried water-related offerings in the substructure of the temple’s left side. Since this side was dedicated to the water deity Tlaloc, such offerings literally created a watery environment beneath worshippers’ feet, much as we saw at La Venta. Other specific features of Templo Mayor architecture such as the twin pyramids, flanking shrines, and the enclosing Coatepantli, or serpent wall, also have antecedents at the earlier Central Mexican cities. Matos bolstered his arguments with references to the works of Mircea Eliade, who wrote often on sacred modeling and architecture in traditional societies.

Le Corbusier’s oft-quoted dictum of “Architecture or revolution” serves as an appropriate starting point for Cynthia Kristan-Graham’s discussion of the Toltec capital of Tula. For Kristan-Graham, the ruins of Tula illustrate how art and architecture can help create and reinforce the image of the state. Tula’s residents decorated their civic structures with carved images of all the principal groups in the polity: marching merchants, standing rulers and warriors, and defeated lords and warriors. These groups and their architectural placement together reified the state and literally created an image of the kinds of people who populated these structures in antiquity. Kristan-Graham makes an effective analogy to Kantorowicz’s 1957 study The King’s Two Bodies in discussing how in ancient Mesoamerica the king’s body and its image functioned as metonyms for the larger body politic. The Tula Toltec expanded this model to include other key social groups.

John Pohl’s discussion of the Mitla lintel paintings and their architectural setting makes an important contribution to Oaxacan studies. Although Mitla is miniscule in comparison to sites like Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan, its relative lack of monumental architecture bears little relation to its importance during the Postclassic period. Two distinct ethnic groups—Zapotecs and Mixtecs—considered Mitla a sacred city and seat of an oracle. They gathered in the Mitla courtyards for drinking, feasting, and to use hallucinogens. They also buried their kings in vaults beneath the compound floors. According to surviving pictorial manuscripts and sixteenth-century descriptions, Mixtec and Zapotec lords would also gather at the site to recount and interpret their ancient lineage histories. Pohl argues cogently that the Mitla mural cycles illustrate the cosmogonies of the Zapotec, Mixtec, and Tolteca-Chichimeca peoples, and connect these mythic events with historical ancestors. The Tolteca-Chichimeca were a somewhat shadowy group who entered Oaxaca from elsewhere and were seen as bearers of foreign culture and prestige during the postclassic period.

Four of the fifteen articles in Mesoamerican Architecture deal with sites in the Yucatan Peninsula, and as a unit illuminate this somewhat neglected area of Maya studies. Jeff Kowalski and Peter Dunning discuss how the Nunnery Quadrangle and other Uxmal structures create a permanent model of Maya cosmology. David Freidel and Charles Suhler discuss how two unusual structures at Yaxuna may have been built as dance platforms with trapdoors for the dramatic appearance of ritual practitioners. One is reminded of the various secret screened entrances into the Chaco Canyon great kivas, as at Casa Rinconada. Meredith Paxton’s discussion of the Temple of the Frescoes at Tulum is a significant contribution to the almost nonexistent literature on Mexico’s most visited archaeological site. And finally, although the Temple of the Warriors at Chichen Itza was excavated, reconstructed, and published more than sixty years ago, Andrea Stone’s article in this collection is the first major modern study of this architectural group. As at Tula, the Temple of the Warriors features many low relief images of priests and warriors in the sanctuary, on benches, and on scores of columns which crowd the temple base. Stone observes that the consciously opposed images of priests and warriors throughout the structure likely reflected the dual nature of rulership at the site. Unlike most other Mesoamerican cities, kingship at Chichen Itza seems to have played a secondary role to the city council, a governmental form called multepal in the local Yucatec Mayan language.

Mesoamerican Architecture on the whole is an important contribution to ancient American studies. Aside from a handful of the illustrations being below par, this reviewer saw no major problems with the art historical contributions offered here. Architectural studies in American antiquity have lagged far behind iconography and other approaches. Kowalski’s volume should help to close the distance.

Khristaan D. Villela
College of Santa Fe, New Mexico