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Unit 5: 1000 BCE - 1980 CE

Indigenous Americas

Images 153-166

Main Ideas:

  • Before 1492, the Indigenous Americans were disconnected from Afro-Eurasia and developed their own lifestyle. This Unit's artwork showcases that unique lifestyle

  • Indigenous Americans often had much more extreme & personal relations with their Gods, and a lot of their artwork incorporates spiritual imagery to activate their Gods & natural/ancestral spirits


Ancient North American Art

  • Ancient Art from Present-day US: Often contains earthworks and other buildings that are designed around ceremonial purposes

  • Ancient Mesoamerican Art: Uses religious imagery (such as human sacrifices, bloodletting, wings, serpents, etc.) to emphasize the power of the Mesoamerican Rulers and to please the gods so that the Mesoamerican people can move to the afterlife after their death

Image 154: Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings



Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings


Montezuma County, Colorado


Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi)


450 - 1300 CE



  • Showcases how the Anasazi lifestyle revolves around ceremonial purposes
    • Composed primarily of Kivas (Underground circular spaces) and other architectural units related to kivas → Emphasizes how Anasazi lifestyle revolves around kivas

      • Kivas are fire pits also used for ceremonial purposes

      • Families lived in circular architectural units around kivas → Emphasizes the spiritual power of a kiva

      • Had some plastered and painted murals with geometric designs, plants, and animals

    • Largest Mesa Verde settlement is the Cliff Palace (photo above)

      • The location in a cliffside probably provides natural defense or maybe had some spiritual significance

      • Had a circular tower whose purpose is unknown

Image 156: Great Serpent Mound



Great Serpent Mound


Adams County, Southern Ohio


Mississippian (Eastern Woodlands)


c. 1070 CE


Earthwork / Effigy Mound

  • Associates the mound's visual characteristics with religious and astronomical significance
    • Appears to be a snake or a lizard

      • Mississippians believed reptiles (such as snakes & lizards) had supernatural powers as if they were the deity of the underworld

    • Head of the serpent aligns with the sunset on summer solstice, and the tail points to the sunrise on winter solstice

    • The spiral at the head could represent many things that all have spiritual connections to the sun

      • An enlarged eye, a hollow egg, a frog, or the swallowing of the sun → All of these relate to the sun, and the power of the sun relates to God

Image 155: Yaxchilán





Chiapas, Mexico




725 CE


Limestone (architectural complex)

  • All the structures allude to the power of the Mayan city of Yaxchilán and to its kings
    • Structure 33:

      • Elaborate roof-comb makes the building seem taller than it really is​

        • Has decorative friezes & niches, and a man is in the top center, which could be bird Jaguar IV (Yaxchilan's ruler) himself​

      • Has lintels that depict Bird Jaguar and his power as a ruler

      • Has typical Mayan architectural style: A rectangular vaulted building with a stuccoed roof comb

    • Structure 40:

      • Also has a typical ​Mayan architectural style (rectangular building with roof comb)

      • Has a stele that shows Bird Jaguar IV triumphing over his opponents → Emphasizes Bird Jaguar IV's right to rule

    • Lintel 25: 

      • Shows Lady Xook (or Lady Xoc) (wife of the king) performing a bloodletting ritual​

        • Seated at bottom right, she looks upward toward the vision serpent

        • She wears an elaborate huipil with quilted patterns and has an elaborate headdress with ear spools​

        • Holds a bowl in her left hand with pieces of paper stained with her blood

          • She's likely burning it so it can rise upward to the vision serpent

      • A figure emerges from the vision serpent's mouth, and it too has an elaborate headdress and ear spools

        • Also has a shield, spear, and war helmet → Emphasizes his power​

      • An inscription (in glyphs) in the top left corner mentions the date when King Shield Jaguar II ascended to the throne in Oct 681

        • Represents the power of the king as this lintel alludes to how God approves and supports the king's power​

Image 157: Templo Mayor



Templo Mayor (Main Temple)


Tenochtitlan (Modern Mexico City, Mexico


Mexica (Aztec)


1375 - 1520 CE


Temple: Stone
Olmec-Style Mask: Jadeite
Coyolxauhqui Stone: Volcanic Stone
Calendar Stone: Basalt

  • Templo Mayor: Architecture represents Mesoamerican religious beliefs
    • Tenochtitlan was divided into 4 quadrants, and Templo Mayor was at center of the city → The temple is like the Axis mundi of the universe (the Mexica cosmos)

    • Has a twin temple dedicated to Huitzilopochtli (god warfare) and Tlaloc (god fertility)

      • Together they symbolize the concept of “atl-tlachinolli”: How the Mexica were able to acquire power and wealth through military conquest and agriculture

  • Coyolxauhqui Stone: References the power of the Mexica’s main god, Huitzilopochtli
    • Mother of Huitzilopochtli gets impregnated → Coyolxauhqui gets mad and tells her 400 brothers to kill her → Huitzilopochtli is born and throws Coyolxauhqui’s body to the base of the stairs → Her body breaks into multiple pieces, and this is what the stone shows

      • Alludes to religious sacrifice of Coyolxauhqui toward the God Huitzilopochtli

  • The Calendar Stone (Aztec Sun Stone): Promotes the theme of order, balance, harmony, and symmetry in Aztec society
    • The description below is in order from the center to the outside:

    • Center is Tonatiuh, one of the Aztec sun gods

      • His hands claw a heart → A sacrifice was necessary to put the sun into motion

    • There are 4 squares around him → current year-cycle is called the 5th era (5th sun) or “four movement”

    • 20 glyphs (small rectangles) around them represent the 20 days of Aztec calendar

    • Rays point in the 8 cardinal directions → Represent the idea of the axis mundi, or a connection between the Earth and the Mexica cosmos

    • Outside band has 2 serpents that meet in bottom center

      • These are fire serpents, and they are associated with solar calendar and time as they carry the sun across the sky → Put time into motion

  • Olmec Mask: Represents how the Aztecs look to the past for guidance and how they build off of the Olmecs
    • Just like Europeans look to Romans, Aztecs looked to Olmecs for guidance

      • Olmecs lived in 1500-1200 BCE, long before the Aztecs, even in a different part of Mexico than the Aztecs

    • Made in smooth greenstone jade → Polished baby face with almond eyes looks very young and ideal

      • Olmec is like mother culture of Aztecs → Showing how Aztecs are building off of the Olmecs

Image 158: Ruler's Feather Headdress



Ruler's Feather Headdress (Probably of Motecuhzoma II)


Mexica (Aztec)


1428 - 1520 CE


Feathers (quetzal and cotinga) and gold

  • Represents a ritual connection between this world and the next world (since birds can fly between them)
    • Feathers like this were very common in rituals

      • Symbol of wealth and status, also part of warriors’ clothing

    • Extensive trade was necessary to acquire all these feathers → Represents interconnectedness of Mesoamerica as well as Aztec dominance & wealth

    • Also, birds can literally “fly” between this world and the next world → Represent how ritual and ceremonial dances with the feathers activate the birds to connect the living with the next world

Andean Art

  • Pre-Incan Art: Its buildings and artworks depict religious and spiritual objects to emphasize the spiritual power over their daily lives

  • Incan Art: Commissions grand, well-organized artworks to emphasize the sense of wealth, control, harmony, and order within the Incan empire

Image 153: Chavín de Huántar

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Chavín de Huántar


Norhtern Highlands, Peru




900 - 200 BCE


Architectural Complex: Stone
Lanzón and Lintel: Granite
Jewelry: Hammered Gold Alloy

  • Temple: Located in a spiritually powerful place as it was at the confluence of Huachesca & Mosna Rivers
    • Important pilgrimage site

    • Has many tunnels that project sounds from the inside to the outside → When you make a sound inside the building, it appears that the building is "speaking" with the voice of god

  • Lanzón: Shape of stone resembles a footplow → Emphasizes God’s power in ensuring a successful harvest
    • Lanzón means "great spear"

    • Left hand points down, while right hand points up → Signifies the connection between the Earth and heaven

  • Lintel: Has pictographs representing fields, water, mountains, and creatures → Represents God’s control over the natural landscape, agrculture, and fertility

  • Nose Ornament: Would’ve been worn by an elite, showing off wealth & power and allegiance to the Chavín religion
    • Has a serpent motif, symbolizing fertility and a creation force

Image 159: The City of Cusco



The City of Cusco, including Qorikancha (Inka main temple), Santo Domingo (Spanish colonial convent), and Walls at Saqsa Wayman (Sacsayhuaman)


Central Highlands, Peru




c. 1440 CE
Convent Added: 1550 - 1650 CE



  • City Layout: Represents the sense of order and power within the city
    • Axis mundi: Center of existence & a connector between Earth and heaven

      • Shaped like a puma with the fortress at the head of the puma → Emphasizes the power of the city (since pumas are powerful)

    • Divided into four quarters → Represents a miniature Inca empire (that’s also divided into four quadrants) → Shows how the Inca empire has a good sense of order and how Cusco is a display of Incan order & power

  • Qorikancha & Santo Domingo: Emphasizes Inca spiritual power
    • Qorikancha is a shrine dedicated to the worship of Inti (Sun God)

      • Sun’s worship is held above all other gods

      • Incas are believed to descend from the Sun

      • Had imaginary radiating lines to all other shrines in the empire → Showcases the power of this shrine

    • Santo Domingo was a Catholic convent built on top of an already-existing Incan shrine → Represents persistence of Incan style

      • Uses Incan architecture (trapezoidal doorways, polished rectangular stones, etc.) → Represents lingering Incan influence

    • Has a huge garden made with gold and silver → Meant to micic the natural landscape of the world → Emphasizes Incan control over the world

  • Saqsa Wayman: Represents the power the Incas have in controlling their population for labor
    • Labor tax allows for considerable manpower to haul the larger stones in place

      • Represents the power of the Incas over its realm

    • This is a citadel built on a hill → Emphasizes Incan power

Image 160: Maize Cobs



Maize Cobs




c. 1440 - 1533 CE


Repoussé on sheet metal & metal alloys

  • Part of a garden in an Incan temple (Qorikancha): Asserted the natural world as an Incan possession → Proclaimed their divine right to rule
    • Qorikancha (Image 159) had a garden of miniature llamas, corn, flowers, and people made of gold and silver

      • The fact that all these figures of natural objects are in the garden emphasizes Incan control over the world & over the cosmos

        • They're made of gold & silver → Emphasizes Incans' wealth​

      • Sometimes give these as offerings to Gods → Symbol of supernatural origin

    • This corn sculpture represents expert metalwork

      • Each individual kernel of corn was carved

Image 161: City of Machu Picchu



City of Machu Picchu


Central Highlands, Peru




c. 1450 - 1540 CE


Granite (architectural complex)

  • Emphasizes the power of the Incan empire, the Incan ruler, and the Incan cosmos
    • A royal estate for the 1st Inca emperor, Pachacuti<