General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 22 Nov 2017/7 Movement
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Click to see Tec's summary for kids Painting of Aztec settlements in the Lake Texcoco area

Ideas for EXPLORING TEMPLE DESIGN...

The population of the Valley of Mexico at the time of the Spanish Conquest was roughly 1 million; then there were another 2-3 million living in the surrounding valleys of central Mexico. Most Aztecs lived in cities: the entire shore of 12-mile-long Lake Texcoco was dotted with settlements ranging from small villages to large cities. The 6 biggest (including Tenochtitlan) had populations from 20,000 to 300,000; at least 40 smaller towns had populations from 2,000 to 20,000. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Painting of Lake Texcoco, Tenochtitlan and environs, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 1: Painting of Lake Texcoco, Tenochtitlan and environs, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec city architecture, generally, was what is called ‘monumental’ - built to impress, and laid out carefully and mathematically in key directions based on the cardinal points. Many Aztec towns and cities had been founded a century or two before by the migrant tribes from Aztlán (the mythical homeland shared by all the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico), and their layout followed tried and trusted designs/plans. By tradition, at the heart of a city was the sacred central zone, made up of a rectangular public plaza bordered by important government and religious buildings. Most often these included, apart from the main temple-pyramid at the centre, a ballcourt, palaces, government offices and schools.

Pic 2: General view of the ancient city of Teotihuacán
Pic 2: General view of the ancient city of Teotihuacán (Click on image to enlarge)

Whereas in their art (particularly their sculpture) the Aztecs hero-worshipped the Toltecs, in their architecture they were inspired by the builders of ancient Mexico’s most spectacular city, Teotihuacán - in fact, Tenochtitlan may have been an imitation of Teotihuacán, the ‘city of the gods’ (actually its original name is unclear) and birthplace (according to the Aztecs) of the Fifth Sun or world era. Its alignment with the stars, its neat grid plan, its huge pyramids built to imitate the mountain shapes behind it... even its units of measure were adopted by the Mexica in their (re)constructions of Tenochtitlan.

Pic 3: Details of construction materials from Teotihuacan
Pic 3: Details of construction materials from Teotihuacan (Click on image to enlarge)

Aztec technologies involved in architecture and building were quite simple yet impressively effective: to quote just one example, provided by Michael Smith - ‘the lime plaster used for floors and walls was a form of concrete whose production made use of several separate chemical reactions, and some examples remain as hard as modern concrete even after 500 years.’

Pic 4: The first steps...
Pic 4: The first steps... (Click on image to enlarge)

Enough background blurb - time for some ‘nitty-gritty’ details of (house and) temple design: from simple beginnings, magnificent and grandiose structures evolved... The Aztecs, being the last in a long line of great ancient Mexican cultures, were able to learn from and take advantage of all that had come before; the good thing was, they all shared many of the same ideas when it came to culture and aesthetics - what Ignacio Marquina called a grand ‘unity of conception’. Let’s get to the bottom, literally: pyramid BASES. The oldest - Maya - ones certainly stood the test of time; low in height, generally of vertical walls, they were simple raised and levelled stone platforms that made them immune from the effects of floods.

Pic 5: Reconstruction by Ignacio Marquina of the ancient site of Cuicuilco
Pic 5: Reconstruction by Ignacio Marquina of the ancient site of Cuicuilco (Click on image to enlarge)

With time, of course, as the building’s importance in the community grew, its height increased - and so did the problem of how to give the base the necessary strength to support the weight of an extra building on top. This was solved by giving the sides an angle similar to the slope of any sliding earth around, giving the structure much enhanced stability. See the example here from Cuicuilco, Picture 5.

Pic 6: The next steps...
Pic 6: The next steps... (Click on image to enlarge)

Over time, with the bases getting increasingly important, more and more successful ways were found to avoid the collapse of the structure due to excess weight: generally, by forming a core that was as compressed as possible, either of clay mixed with water and then heavily flattened with a roller, or of stone bound with the same material.
Slippage was also avoided by the use of concentric courses of stones embedded in the soil (for example at Cuicuilco) or by using large tree trunks: forming part of the core, they helped transfer the weight of the building above to the stone filled foundation.

Pic 7: How the main structures evolved at the Maya city of Uaxactan
Pic 7: How the main structures evolved at the Maya city of Uaxactan (Click on image to enlarge)

In the early days no lime plaster was used: building exteriors were finished with roughly placed stones, levelled with mud. The later use of stone worked into screed and the discovery of lime in building construction were big steps forward. Screed linings (see Picture 3) became much more durable and varied in form.

Pic 8: Illustration showing the design form of the Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan
Pic 8: Illustration showing the design form of the Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan (Click on image to enlarge)

Over the centuries, a range of pyramid bases have resulted from the combination of two basic forms: a PLATFORM (tablero in Spanish) with vertical walls, and the inward-sloping surface or PANEL (talud in Spanish). Classic examples of this technique can be seen at Teotihuacan. Further down the road, the two elements were developed again, with decorated motifs being added to the panels (See example from Cholula, inspired by Teotihuacan, Picture 9; the designs, painted originally in black, red and yellow, represent insects).

Pic 9: Artistic ‘tableros’ on the main pyramid at Cholula
Pic 9: Artistic ‘tableros’ on the main pyramid at Cholula (Click on image to enlarge)

At the end of the day, the main function of the base was simply to support a - relatively small - temple above it. The temples tended to be laid back from the centre of the platform, to allow ritual ceremonies (you know all about those...!) to take place. In general the height of the bases didn’t allow for very comfy stairways, which had to be narrow and steep. Later, with dual temples above, the stairways were divided by a parallel beam or rafter in the middle. Result: well, you’ll have to go to Mexico to admire them.

Our 2009 activity sheet on temple building
Our 2009 activity sheet on temple building (Click on image to enlarge)

Sources:-
Arquitectura Prehispánica by Ignacio Marquina, INAH/SEP, Mexico, 1951
Aztec Art by Esther Pasztory, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1983
The Aztecs by Michael Smith (2nd. Ed.), Blackwell Publishing, Oxford 2003
Aztec City-State Capitals by Michael Smith, University Press of Florida, 2008
NB The b/w line drawings of temples were based on those found in Historia de México by Wigberto Jiménez Moreno, José Miranda and María Teresa Fernández (3rd ed.), Editorial ECLAL, Mexico City, 1967, p.58.

Picture Sources:-
• Main picture: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 1 & 2: Photos by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore
• Pix 4 & 6: Illustrations by Deborah Tyler/Mexicolore
• Pix 3 (illus), 5, 7, 8, 9: Scanned from Arquitectura Prehispánica by Ignacio Marquina, INAH/SEP, Mexico, 1951, pages 63, 55, 526, 80 and 121 respectively

Click on the PDF icon to download our Activity Sheet on temple design!

Acrobat logo Download our Activity Sheet 6 on Ancient Mexican Temple Design

Learn more about Aztec pyramids...

Watch a short video of a 3-D virtual model of Teotihuacan’s temples
See a range of platform-and-panel designs from ancient Mexico
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