Mesoamerican Art: The Pre-Classic or Formative Period


Olmec Head from La Venta (photo by By SMU Central University Libraries –, No restrictions,

Pre-Contact Mesoamerica was characterized by well-ordered societies with hereditary professions and clearly defined stratifications. Art and architecture were manifestations of a complex symbolic system blending religion and politics, with art as a tool of the state with themes ranging from royal lineage with cosmic parallels to the gods and culture-heroes. Monumental sculpture tended to be loaded with religious symbolism, such as the giant portrait head above that may represent a deified ruler.

Mesoamerican societies had very few domesticated animals, and did not use wheeled vehicles or the “true arch.” Metal was used mainly for decorative, not utilitarian objects, and people and goods were moved either on foot or by canoe. Ideas about space and time directed all aspects of human life. Space was divided into 4 horizontal parts, which is generally shown as a cross oriented to the cardinal directions. It was also divided into 3 vertical parts: the Upper World, the Lower World and the world between. The Upper World had 13 levels, while the lower world had 9, and this symbolism showed up in the levels of many of the religious buildings of the various Mesoamerican societies. The axis of all 3 was at the center of the cross from which rose up the world mountain or great world tree, usually conceptualized as a ceiba. The concept of time was cyclical, with 2 calendars: the 260 day ritual calendar and a 365 day agricultural calendar with 18 20 day months and 5 nameless days. 13 times around the 365 day calendar equaled 52 years and also 72 complete 260 day cycles, which was called the calendar round. When it was completed, time renewed, and a new cycle began. Within all of these calendars were certain auspicious and inauspicious days, which meant that important events such as marriages and the ascension of rulers, as well as the naming of children were done only after consulting calendar priests and diviners.


Aztec Calendar Stone, 1479 (photo by By Anagoria – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

The Pre-Classic, also called the Formative period, is dated to c. 1800 BCE-150 CE, and is the period in which scholars see beginnings of a state characterized by a centralized government with elites and a standing army and/or police force; beginnings of monumental architecture and shamanic kingship; and many deities begin to appear who will remain important throughout Mesoamerican history. Construction of compact settlements begins, with pottery, loom weaving, stone working, and modeling of female figures in clay.


The West Mexican cultures of this period, of Nayarit, Jalisco and Colima, are characterized by shaft-tomb burials. Figural ceramics were made for high-status tombs, as these cultures had a shaft-tomb mortuary system, and regional interpretations of similar subjects made in unique workshops. Shaft tombs had multiple chambers indicating they were used over a period of time by a family group or lineage.

Nayarit, House Model, 200 BCE-500 CE and Pole Ceremony, 200 BCE-500 CE (photo by See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Nayrait, Standing Warrior, 300 BCE-300 CE and Standing Female Figure, 300 BCE-300 CE (photo by By Daderot – Own work, CC0, and By Daderot – Own work, CC0,


Nayarit, Ceremonial Ball Game, 200 BCE-500 CE (photo by By Los Angeles County Museum of Art        Native name Los Angeles County Museum of Art   Location Los Angeles   Coordinates 34° 03′ 48″ N, 118° 21′ 33″ W      Established 1910   Website   Authority control     VIAF: 977145857891723021009 SUDOC: 029887194 ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Nayarit is known for architectural models and painted tableaux which recreate the space planning and building types of the residential and ceremonial sites. Black, white, and yellow paint is used over a red-slipped clay. Human figures were depicted in naturalistic poses which reveal everyday life and clothing. Ball courts were also depicted, showing the ritual importance of the game from an early period. The ball game is as old as 1500 BCE, with permanent masonry ball courts as old as 600 BCE. In West Mexico, the game was played on an “I”-shaped court with 2 end zones and long playing alley flanked by tiered benches as seating for spectators. Athletes bounced a solid rubber ball off the hip or thigh onto court walls. Object sometimes to get ball through rings in wall or stone discs in the alley floor that served as scoring markers. If the ballgame was played for ritual purposes, the captain of the losing team, or possibly the entire team, could be sacrificed. The ballgame was a metaphor for the time cycles.


Jalisco, Mother Nursing a Child, c. 100 BCE-250 CE (photo by By Wmpearl (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Colima, Jar with Parrot Feet, c. 3rd Century BCE-4th Century CE and Dog with a Human Face Mask, c. 3rd Century BCE-4th Century CE (photo by By Hiart (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons and By Hiart (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Jalisco and Colima ceramics were more sophisticated. Colima wares are generally a red clay, and most often portray small pot-bellied dogs. These dogs were food, and represented the guides through the underworld. Also, a variety of human life was represented, including pornographic scenes. This may represent a belief that the tombs were the houses of the dead ,as well as shamanic beliefs, rather than just everyday life. Some of the Colima pieces also represented food, such as squashes or sea creatures, and many were also containers for food or liquid to be placed in the tombs with the deceased.


Olmec, Las Limas Monument 1, c. 1000-600 BCE (photo by By O Cadena (Cadeva) – Flickr (, CC BY-SA 2.0,

The Olmec were the oldest sustained civilization in Mexico, and were often viewed as the  the mother culture by later civilizations, although this name is a Post-Classic Nahuatl word used by the Aztec to describe the inhabitants of this rubber-producing area. The “heartland” of the Olmec is in the rainforests of Veracruz and Tabasco on the Gulf Coast, but their influence spread to central Mexico and Guatemala. The rise of this first state seems to have been motivated by an environment with high agricultural production and differential access to the best land by solidifying social groups. Architecture was motivated by kingship, with landscapes modified according to symbolic plans in order to enhance the ruler’s standing and enhance ties with the supernatural. The Olmec style of art is distinctive. The image most often found at Olmec sites is that of the were-jaguar. This is an adult or baby with an oversized cleft in the forehead, almond-shaped eyes, a flat feline nose, and fleshy lips curled back in a snarl to expose prominent canines. This image is rendered in varying degree of abstraction. The cleft in the forehead may be a reference to spina bifida, and the figures themselves are generally sexless. Often the iconography is of a young man or woman holding the were-jaguar baby in their arms with the Olmec gods incised on their shoulders and knees, such as on the Las Limas Monument 1 above, which has images of other Olmec gods on its shoulders and knees. This could represent a ruler communing with the god, who some believe to be an early form of the Rain God, or it could represent the actual sacrifice of a baby who resembled this god. Many scholars now see the were-jaguar figures as early examples of the Maize god, the most important deity in the Mesoamerican pantheon. The Olmec meant their sculpture to be seen from all sides. There have also been found many effigy axes, or celts, which were too thin to have any use other than ritual. These often have the were-jaguar incised on them. Many have been found in Guerrero, where they were probably carried by trade or Olmec missionaries. Olmec human figures generally have a feline-like element to their pose. They are suggestive of power, and seem to be linked to historical figures.


San Lorenzo (1800-400 BCE) is the most important of a cluster of 3 sites near the Coatzacoalcos River.  Tres Zapotes v2_do_2It is mainly built on a plateau rising 150’, ¾ of a mile long from north to south, and man-made. Mirror symmetry is characteristic of Olmec sites. The basalt for the monuments was quarried 50 miles away. Many of the ruler portrait heads are wearing the ballgame helmets. A ball court and many ball player figurines were found at the site. So-called “altars,” more likely thrones or ritual seating for rulers, were flat-topped basalt monuments with the ruler emerging from a cave holding either the were-jaguar baby or a rope for a captive, signifying either royal descent or warfare and conquest. The portrait masks of the rulers found have realistic features, implying portraiture, and although the Colossal heads are an idealized type, each has a distinct expression and features, implying individuality and portraiture. The site of San Lorenzo also had a basalt drainage system that removed the water from 2 ceremonial pools, and was a feature of ritual life. San Lorenzo was destroyed about 900 BCE by either invasion or revolution. Although it was originally thought that the monuments were smashed and defaced, then buried, scholars now think the damage to the monuments were cause by recarving and reuse of the stone.

Olmec, Colossal Head 1, 1200-900 BCE and Monument 52, 1200-900 BCE (photo by CC BY-SA 3.0, and By [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Tres Zapotes v2_do_2La Venta (900-400 BCE) came to power after San Lorenzo, located on a small island in the coastal swamps near the Tonalá River. The main part of the site is a 1 ½ mile north-south linear complex of large clay constructions. la_ventaThere is a huge volcano-shaped pyramid 110’ high to the north with 2 long, low mounds on either side of low mound on a center line. Behind that is a broad rectangular plaza that was originally surrounded by a fence of 7’ tall basalt columns with a terraced mound in the center. This complex resembles a large, abstract were-jaguar mask. There were originally many different colored clays that made up the floors of the complex, and 4 Colossal heads, such as the one on the top of the page, on the site as well as a number of stone stele, or vertical stone monuments. Also, many dedicatory offerings were buried, including 3 large abstract pavements of 485 blocks of serpentine each that formed were-jaguar masks and a large cache of 6 celts and 16 figures arranged in a scene. Very few burials were discovered. One was covered with basalt columns, and the bodies laid on a limestone floor. La Venta was deliberately destroyed and the monuments mutilated (although again, we could use the explanation that they were recarved) in about 400-300 BCE, but it never lost its significance as a cult center.

Olmec, Altar 4 and Greenstone Mosaic, Mask La Venta (photo by By Ruben Charles, ( – Flickr, (, CC BY 2.0, and By Ruben Charles, ( – Flickr, (, CC BY 2.0,

Olmec, Stele C, Tres Zapotes, c. 31 CE (By HJPD (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons and By Sorry, I dont understand the original text in japanse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Throughout the Olmec sites an early form of writing found on objects that can be linked to proto-Mayan glyphs. Stela C from Tres Zapotes is the oldest dated monument in this hemisphere. On one side is an abstract were-jaguar, and on the other is a long count date of 2 September 31 CE. The Long Count starts from 13 August 3114 BCE according to the Gregorian calendar. Dates are presented in terms of periods of varying length. The numbers are given as bars and dots with a bar representing 5 and a dot representing 1.

Olmec, Monument 1 and Monument 9, Chalcatzingo, ( and

Chalcatzingo was the most important highland Olmec site in the Amatzenac valley of Morelos. The site is characterized by a large rock formation that rises above the valley.chalcatzingo_cerro At the juncture of the slope and the cliff is a series of Olmec bas-reliefs (low-relief) carved on boulders. The most elaborate depicts a woman holding a ceremonial bar seated on a throne in the mouth of an earth monster with clouds and rain above. This symbolized power and fertility, and probably depicts a ruler. At the base of the rock formation was a structure that symbolized a cave, and served as a burial mound. Contained within was a stone mask with abstract feline motifs that served as a place to make offerings to the earth and the ancestral dead. This site was founded in 1500 BCE, but was at its height from about 700-500 BCE.

300px-monte_albc3a1n-12-05oaxaca161Monte Albán is located in the Zapotec region of Oaxaca, and was constructed on a series of mesas beginning about 500-450 BCE. This was a very strategic location, and was the capital of this state. The site is laid out as a mountain-top temple complex around a central court, with the oldest edifices are on the west side of the plaza. The top of ridge is sculpted into series of plazas with formal architecture arranged around.monte-alban-aerial-view

The Temple of the Danzantes platform is contemporary with Monte Albán I. The danznates are bas-relief figures on large stone slabs set into the outside of the platform. They are nude, with slightly olmecoid features, and are in strange, rubbery poses. This distorted pose, along with the open mouth and closed eyes signifies that these are corpses, probably of captured leaders. Often they show genital mutilation, and are nude, which was considered to be scandalous is Mesoamerica, and so is a stigma of captives. There is writing on the slabs with the figures, as well as other slabs, and glyphs that appear to be numbers from the 260 day calendar. The Zapotecs had a 52-year calendar round, but did not use the Long Count.

Monte Albán, Temple of the Danzantes and plaza and Danzante 55, Monte Albán I-Monte Albán II (photo by By DavidConFran (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons and By HJPD (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Monte Albán II runs from approximately 200 BCE-150 CE. Building J dates from this period, and is a stone-faced platform in the form of an arrowhead pointing southwest.


Monte Alban, Building J (photo by Mesoamerican – Own Work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Monte Albán, Building J, (photo by By Mesoamerican – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

There are a series of chambers with in roofed by leaned stone slabs. The exterior is covered in incised text and more danzante figures, which is a demonstration of the Mesoamerican obsession of recording victories over enemies. The building seems to be oriented to the observation of the star Capella, and is generally interpreted as an observatory.



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