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The Ancient Americas

The Ancient Americas

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will introduce the art and architecture of the ancient Americas.

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Tutorial

An introduction to art early Mesoamerican art.

Video Transcription

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello, I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History With Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's lesson is about the Ancient Americans. As you're watching the video feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as many times as you feel is necessary. And as soon as your ready we can begin.

Today's objectives, the things you are going to learn today, are listed below. By the end of lesson today you'll be able to identify and define today's key terms, describe the art of the Olmec, describe the layout of the city of Teotihuacan, and the form of the structures at the site, and describe important elements of a mural found at Teotihuacan.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is Mesoamerica, a region that extends from Central Mexico Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Olmec, the first civilization in Mexico. Teotihuacan, an expansive archaeological site in the basin of Mexico containing the largest pyramids built during the pre-Columbian Americas. Talud-Tablero, a style of architecture characterized by a platform structure on top of a sloping surface, also referenced as the slope-and-panel style, often seen in pyramids built during the pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. And I'll show you an example of that. Continuing Quetzalcoatl, Mesoamerican deity whose name means feathered serpent. Pre-Columbian, an adjective referring to cultures that existed before the arrival of Columbus to the Americas 1492. And Axial Plan, the horizontal arrangement of the elements of a building or town along a central axis.

The big idea for today, is that the art and architecture of the ancient Americans are the products of civilizations that developed after the migration of humans across the Bering Strait.

So when in history are we looking? Well, we actually go back before 0 AD to 900 BC through 400 AD, so about 1,300 years.

The Americas includes all the major land masses of the Western hemisphere including North America-- which includes Mexico-- Central America, and South America. And it's believed that early indigenous Americans probably crossed the Bering Strait sometime during the last major glaciation period on earth when sea levels were lower revealing a land bridge between the continents of Asia and North America called Beringia.

Now the hypothesis is that some humans continued south, settling in the areas of modern day Mexico, Central America, and South America. Today we'll be focusing on Mesoamerica, a region that extends from Central Mexico, includes Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, looking in particular at the locations of La Venta and Teotihuacan.

Now many Mesoamerican cultural traditions can be linked to the Olmec culture. There's frequent volcanic activity in this area providing a healthy supply a basalt stone within travelling distance of this area. Basalt is a type of volcanic stone created from magma that cooled quickly producing tiny crystals, as opposed to the larger crystal formations of slower cooling granite. Now this colossal head from La Venta, of an Olmec ruler carved in basalt, is a huge sculpture approaching 10 feet tall and weighing many several tons.

It's believed that the features are rather individualized and are a depiction of an actual person rather than a deity, for example. The sheer size of the statue reflects the power and importance of this individual.

Now another example of artwork from La Venta is this jade ceremonial axe in the shape of a jaguar human. It sounds like a bad guy. Now these were were figures, like not where like where is he. But were like werewolf. And they're human animal hybrids that were thought to be used as votive statues for religious offerings to the gods. They're made of jade, which is a very hard stone.

So ancient indigenous cultures are often portrayed as primitive by the unfamiliar. But these were very advanced civilizations with an extensive understanding of mathematics and astronomical phenomena. He instructed major cities that were economically important cultural centers of politics and religion. The city of Teotihuacan was an Olmec metropolis, probably the largest pre-Columbian city in the new world with a population around 150,000 as it fluctuated somewhere around there. And lies just Northeast of modern day Mexico City. It inspired later super city designed by the Aztecs.

Now it's laid out on an axial plan, divided into quarters by two primary axis that run north, south and east, west for about four miles. Now there are a number of massive pyramids within the city. The Pyramid of the Moon-- which is an Aztec name-- would be in the bottom center of the picture if it wasn't cut off. The Pyramid of the Sun-- which we're going to look at-- is also an Aztec name. And is in the top left of the picture.

Now here's another view of the Pyramid of the Sun, which I'll show you in just a moment to give you some information on Teotihuacan. So here's another view of the Pyramid of the Sun. And one but one of the notable design features of the buildings is the use what's called Talud-Tablero architecture. The Tablero were often decorated with sculpture reliefs, as in this example from the temple of the feathered serpent, or the temple of Quetzalcoatl.

Now the buildings of the city would have been covered with brightly painted murals, such as this example from within an elaborate apartment complex. Now these would have been apartment complexes, or residential complexes, for the elite people within the city, not just a regular apartment complex. Not it depicts what appears to be a masked goddess, which I'll show you in just a moment. Get some of this information in first.

So it depicts what appears to be a masked goddess, which is shown with her face with the blue circle fixed upon a pyramid, shown in orange, shooting some liquid goodness out of her hands. And on either side of her headdress-- her really big headdress-- are two human hearts, which indicate the importance of human sacrifice to this community and its role in ensuring the blessings from what may be the city's patron deity.

All right, that brings us to the end of the lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives to see how we did. Now that you've seen the lesson are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you describe the art of the Olemc? Can you describe the layout of the city of Teotihuacan and the form of the structures at the site? And describe important elements of a mural found at Teotihuacan, the mural that we just looked at?

And again, the big idea for today is that the art and architecture of the ancient Americas are the products of civilizations that developed after the migration of humans across the Bering Strait.

And there you go. Thanks for joining me today. I'll see you next time.

Citations

Image of North America Map Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Location_North_America.svg; Image of Mexico Map Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:MEX_orthographic.svg; Colossal Head; Creative Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mexico.Tab.OlmecHead.01.jpg Jade Axe; Creative Commons: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:British_Museum_Olmec_jade_votive_axe.jpg Teotihuacan; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:View_from_Pyramide_de_la_luna.jpg Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, Creative Commons via (WT-shared) at wts wikivoyage, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mex.JPG Goddess Mural Painting from Tetitla Apartment, Teotihuacan; Creative Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tetitla_Teotihuacan_Great_Goddess_mural_(Abracapocus).jpg Detail of Temple of Quetzalcoatl, Teotihuacan, Creative Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Teotihuacan-Temple_of_the_Feathered_Serpent-3035.jpg 

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Mesoamerica

    A region that extends from central Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

  • Precolumbian

    An adjective referring to cultures that existed before the arrival of Columbus to the Americas in 1492.

  • Olmec

    The first civilization in Mexico.

  • Teotihuacan

    An expansive archaeological site in the Basin of Mexico containing the largest pyramids built during the pre-Columbian Americas.

  • Axial Plan

    The horizontal arrangement of the elements of a building or town along a central axis.

  • Talud-tablero

    A style of architecture characterized by a platform structure on top of a sloping surface. Also referenced as the slope-and-panel style. Often seen in pyramids built during the pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

  • Quetzalcoatl

    Mesoamerican deity whose name means 'feathered serpent'.