Pre-Columbian Architecture flashcards |

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Volcanic stone that Aztecs used as building material.


A raised road across wet or lower elevated ground. A bridge.

Temple-pyramid and plaza layout

Layout developed from the Olmecs and was repeated in future civilizations. The plan sits on an axis defined by an orthogonal arrangement of earthen platforms surrounding a ceremonial plaza lined with basalt columns. Temple and pyramid sits opposite of each other on the opposite ends of the axis.


The sloping faces on the levels of a temple.


Was a vertical face with a message of a temple level. Also a frieze.


The horizontal element above the architrave and below the cornice in an entablature. Equivalent of the tablero.


Upright slabs with inscriptions. The Mayans called them tree-stones. Were sometimes vertical, and had carved monoliths or would be hung on roof combs.

Roof comb

Stone lattice, so they could hang stone stelae with paintings on them to advertise the god that it was built for.


U-shaped plan

Used in South American Architecture. First developed at Sechin Alto. Plan consists of a granite-veneered stepped pyramid facing a sunken court flanked by low buildings and establishing an axis uniting a series of terraces.



Large palace compounds, rectangular in plan and divided into 3 sequential precincts. A citadel. Fort with a palace inside that was elevated.

Cyclopean stone masonry

In Inca stoork, each stone was dressed, then placed adjacent to its neighbors without the use of mortar. Masons then marked the outline of the stone on those already in place, removed it, and pounded out a profile to receive it. This process was to ensure a tight fit of the stones.

Great Pyramid and Ball Court, La Venta, Mexico, c. 1100-400 BCE

Olmec ceremonial center. Oldest known earthen pyramid in Mexico. Temple-Pyramid plaza layout was used.


Tribe name means mother culture. First civilization in Central America. They invented a calendar, numbering system, hieroglyphic writing and made astronomical observations. Invented the ball court and established a hierarchical society with nobility. Created the first Mesoamerican artistic style that united an ethnic group.

Ball Courts

A ceremonial ritual invented by the Olmecs and adapted by later civilizations in Mexico.

Teotihuacan Mexico, 200 BCE - 900 CE

Largely densely populated city. 6th largest city in the world at that time. Founders unknown, later inhabited by the Aztecs. It was a planned city. The smaller pyramids had one central staircase that led up to the temple. Temples used talud and tablero techniques. The stepped Pyramid of the Moon marked the north, alongside the causeway was a series of earthen terraces that faces the stepped Pyramid of the Sun.

Pyramid of the Sun, 100 BCE

Great stepped pyramid of Teotihuacan. Has a ceremonial staircase on one side. Core of the pyramid was compacted earth and rubble. Each four corners face the cardinal directions and has a child buried underneath. To replenish the earth they sacrificed people here.

Temple of the Feathered Serpent - 3rd century CE

Located at Teotihuacan. Temple not meant to walk up, had a temple up top as a ceremonial area. Has tableros of feathered serpents and storm gods. Feathered Serpent represented the dry season. Storm god represents the rainy season.

Palace of Ateltelco Teotihuacan, ca. 200 BCE-900 CE.

Used pattern of interlocking geometries and has cross-axial organization, the column screens, and the resulting rich sequence of spaces.

Fresco - Bounty Giving Goddess, Tetitla Palace, Teotihuacan, Mexico 600-750 CE

Earth/Nature goddess. Principal god of the city, responsible for agricultural real. Mesoamericans believed that human sacrifice was needed for the goddess to re the crops.

The Maya

Located in modern day Guatemala, Honduras, the Mexican state of Chiapas and the Yucatan Peninsula. Made up of 50 states and more cities than anywhere else in the Pre-Columbian Americas. Their world was made up of 3 distinct regions, starry realm of the heavens, middle realm of the earth, and the dark realm below.

Monte Alban (600 BCE - 1000 CE)

Zapotecs rose in power after the decline of the Olmecs. Here they leveled off a mountain top to develop an earthen platform on which they built a series of stepped pyramids as bases for their temples. They built their pyramids using talud-tablero motifs but had wide stairs. In 800 the Mixtecs followed the Zapotecs here.


Talud-Tablero of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs

Zapotecs - composition of battered walls and platforms.
Mixtecs - linear, with corbeled layers. Emphasized wide stairs.

Temple 1, Tikal, El Petรฉn, Guatemala 650 BCE

Mayan Temple with distinctive steep, plain tablero and talud walls. The temple has a roof comb and corbel vaults. One side has steep stairs that go to the temple on top.

The Palace at Palenque, 7th century CE

A Mayan residential and political complex for the King, Lord Pacal. Built with heavy thick masonry walls with roof cones. Used mostly as a political center, no evidence that anyone ever lived in the palace.

Palenque, 7th century CE

Mayan city, set in dense jungles, hills, and valleys. Lord Pacal was the ruler who built the city. The city also had earthen platforms with stepped pyramids, sometimes with wide stairs, and temples with elongated paths.

Temple of the Inscriptions, c. 683 CE

Temple at Palenque composed of 9 levels, each level represented a level in heaven and one steep stair case on the front face. Made of permanent materials. Had a roof cone. Pacal's tomb was underneath the Temple of the Inscriptions. Only Mayan temple used as a burial place.

Tenochtitlan (Mexico City)

The capital of the Aztecs. Was established on a series of small islands. It had 4 long causeways that divided the city into quadrants. In the center was the ceremonial center and built pyramids, ball courts and temples. The Temple Mayor included 2 subsidiary temples, one dedicated to the rain, water, and agriculture god Tlaloc and the other for Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun, war, conquest, tribute, and dominion.


There empire started in the present day, Valley of Mexico. Capital located at Tenochtitlan.

Stelae of Copan

Vertical, carved monoliths, similar to totem poles. Mayans called these tree stones and were carved with images of kings.

Chichen-Itza Yucatan Mexico

Mayan city. Main building are Caracol ( astronomical observatory, circular plan tower), the Castillo, (or Temple of Kulkulkan is a pyramid with stairs leading up each of its four sides), and the Temple of Warriors (has carved ranks and files of columns flank two sides of the pyramid. The carving includes eagles, jaguars, plumed serpents and Toltec warriors).

Typical Mayan City

Never used a grid. Most were in a hilly, wet landscape. Built platforms, then causeways connecting them. Then they built buildings on top of them. City center is composed of pyramids, staircases, palaces, plazas, and ball courts. City = building masses + void spaces. Buildings were to make a back drop for the activities in the plazas.

Corbel Vaults

Stones with mortar were gradually placed inward on both sides until the two sides meet.


A conical skeleton of poles covered with bison hides. Its vertical axis was tilted and it had an oval base to combat against harsh winter winds. Its covering could also be opened up for hot weather ventilation. It was beneficial for tribes that moved frequently because it was temporary, mobile, reusable, and quickly constructed.



Made from bent saplings that formed an arch-shape, forming a domical skeleton that was covered with smaller saplings and thatch.


Structure made by bending enough saplings into arch-shaped cross-sections to form a vault or dome like volume, then covering it with mats or bark.

Iglu (Igloo)

Structure of snow blocks created by the Canadian Inuit.



Teepee structure covered with animal skins.


Shed Houses

Log frames sheathed in cedar planks covered with single sloping or gable roofs. Used in northern and northwestern California.

Plank houses

A rectangular, post and lintel structure covered on its walls and roof with hand-split wood planks. Used in northern and northwestern California.

totem poles

Large cedar posts carved with effigies by Native Americans in the Northwest.

Pit houses

Timber frames set above 3-4ft deep pits and covered with pine needles, reed or grass mats, and earth. Used in northern and northwestern California.


Sunken, circular pit houses that were sacred and social spaces.


Housing complexes, often with several stories, made with adobe or stone.

Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon

Ancestral Pueblo city. Had an irrigation system of dams, ditches, and flood gates. They erected a 5 story, tiered, semicircular structure with 800 rooms and 37 kivas. Walls were made of bonded wythes of stone set in thin beds of clay mortar and applied a veneer of coursed ashlar covered with adobe plaster.


The oldest known, large scale, urban ceremonial complex in the Americas. Located at modern day Lima Peru. Oldest South American earthen pyramid.


Sechin Alto

Largest architectural complex in the Americas. The ceremonial center uses the U-shaped plan that sets a precedent for future civilizations.


Cerro Blanco

Located at the Moche River Valley in South America, capital of the Moche culture. There were two great, adobe structures by 100 CE, the Huaca del Sol (Pyramid of the Sun), and the smaller Huaca de la Luna (Pyramid of the Moon).

Nazca Glyphs

designs made in the ground by removing the upper desert strata of rusted metallic particles, revealing the lighter colored sediment underneath. Some depicted humans, llamas, monkeys and even a spider. They were used as ritual pathways defining multiple geometric forms.

Akapana Temple

Largest structure at Tiwanaku (Bolivia Highlands), a stepped pyramid faced with sandstone with a earthen core. Has a sunken court on top.

The ciudadelas of the Chimor Kingdom at Chan Chan 1000 CE

Large palace compounds, roughly rectangular in plan and most often divided into 3 precincts: a large northern entry court with smaller adjacent courts, offices and storage rooms; a burial platform adjacent to family living quarters; and a smaller area for a well and quarters for servants.

Machu Picchu, Peru, c. 1450 CE

Royal Inca estate by Pachacuti. Contains 200 houses for 1000 people. Has agricultural terraces, distinctive house types, meeting halls, and plazas. The houses were constructed out of stone, sometimes battered walls, tall end wall gables, trapezoidal openings, and distinctive plans, many had closed sides and only a pier on one long side. They had light wooden framed roof with a thatch covering.


Ancient empire that controlled modern day Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Capital was at Cuzco. Had no written language and were skilled at masonry.

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