Plan Ahead

Visiting Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty or Van Gogh’s Cypresses?

Read the additional visitor guidelines

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Architectural Models from the Ancient Americas

From the first millennium B.C. until the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century, artists of the ancient Americas created small-scale architectural effigies to be placed in the tombs of important individuals. These works in stone, ceramic, wood, and metal range from highly abstracted representations of temples and houses to elaborate architectural complexes such as palaces and ballcourts. Some are populated with dozens of figures, providing rare glimpses into the ritual and daily lives of the Aztecs, the Incas, and their predecessors.

Often called models, these small structures were not created as prototypes for actual buildings, but rather served as symbolic embodiments of religious or political power. Nonetheless, at times they feature architectural details that have long since disappeared from surviving structures, such as thatched roofs and ornament painted on walls. Some models correspond closely to known buildings, while others are unlike anything found in the archaeological record.

In the Maya region, hieroglyphs tell us that such miniature houses were resting places for gods. In regions with no tradition of writing, the significance of such effigies is less clear. In some contexts, models may have played a role in ensuring favorable conditions in the afterlife; elsewhere they may have represented powers associated with specific buildings. A striking number of these works also served as vessels. As such, they may have contained liquids necessary for funerary ceremonies, but they also played on the idea of architecture itself as a container for people and activities, and may have been thought of as receptacles for divine essences.

The Maya, well known for their spectacular temples and palaces at sites such as Copán, Palenque, and Tikal, created very few architectural models, while lesser-known cultures from the states of Nayarit and Colima in western Mexico produced elaborate miniature ceramic temples, houses, and even ballcourts and village scenes. In some cases, the architectural effigy is part of a larger vessel or sculpture. A model of a small platform surmounted by a temple with a peaked roof, for example, may have once served as the lid for an incense burner (1995.63.5).

Architectural models from western Mexico were intended as offerings in shaft tombs, subterranean funerary chambers used by families over generations. Nayarit architectural models often show individuals engaged in the preparation and enjoyment of a feast. In one example (1979.206.359), a woman prepares corn on a grinding stone (metate), with plates of food laid out in front of her; a dog sits at the entryway, eagerly awaiting crumbs to fall, while upstairs a feast is in full swing. Another larger Nayarit model (2015.306) features some sixteen figures, including pairs of men and women with their arms wrapped around one another, gathering around vessels filled with food and pulque, a fermented beverage. Matched or joined couples, a favored subject in larger freestanding ceramic sculptures of western Mexico, may represent ancestors or primordial couples, the origins of humankind and society. As the Nayarit buried their dead under their houses, the lower rooms have been identified as tombs. Following the death of the head of a community, such feasts may have served to memorialize the deceased leader and unify power around his or her successor. Similar to the feasts themselves, the models reinforce the connection between the living and the dead, the sacred and the civic.

Small-scale models made of hard stone in a style known as Mezcala come largely from the present-day state of Guerrero, in southwest Mexico. A particularly long-lived tradition, these works may have been produced over some one thousand years, from as early as 500 B.C. Little is known about their archaeological contexts, and there are few points of reference with surviving architecture in the region. Mezcala stone sculptures were greatly prized by the Aztecs, and offerings of these objects in their Great Temple (Templo Mayor), built between 1325 and 1519, underscore the importance of these works as a continuation of tradition, as heirlooms, or as emulations of an ancient style.

The Aztecs themselves created architectural models, and in great numbers. From humble beginnings in the fourteenth century, the Mexica (as the core cultural group is properly known) formed alliances with established kingdoms and city-states, consolidating their vast tribute-based empire with considerable speed. Part of their imperial strategy included the dissemination of an official religion. Aztec temple models were distributed widely, functioning as tools of empire to promote the expansion of the state religion at the household level. Aztec temple models replicate key details of their full-sized counterparts and may have acted as stand-ins for these buildings, or served as earthly homes for deities. Some include a figure at the summit, perhaps representing a deity, a deity impersonator, or even a personification of the temple itself. Examples with a circular base echo the rounded structures of temples dedicated to the wind god Ehecatl (1994.35.48). Made in considerable numbers with the use of press molds, these models, like the Aztec temples, were once painted in bright colors.

Ceramic vessels were the favored format for representations of architecture in Andean South America. This region was home to numerous complex polities, ranging from the Chavín civilization, which flourished high in the Peruvian Andes in the first millennium B.C., to the mighty Inca empire, which ruled over some 2,000 miles (3,200 km) of western South America before they were conquered by the Spanish in the sixteenth century. Nearly all ancient Andean cultures produced architectural effigies of some kind. Most were made of ceramic, but there are also rare examples in metal and wood.

Artists of the Cupisnique culture, a coastal group contemporary with the Chavín, made some of the earliest architectural effigies from the Andes. Cupisnique models also function as vessels and feature a spout in the shape of a stirrup, a formal tradition that endured for more than a thousand years on Peru’s north coast. A greater number of such architectural vessels are known from the later Recuay and Moche cultures. Recuay artists created complex models in ceramic, including depictions of multistory structures with towers and courtyards. Considering that the Recuay built above-ground mausolea (chullpas) to contain the remains of ancestors—buildings that clearly served as sites of veneration—the models could be representations of funerary structures. They convey not only a sense of architectural ornament, such as friezes, lost to the rains of many centuries, but also sculpted figures that give the viewer a sense of the architecture in use (1978.412.153). Some have only a single figure, others have many, but often there is one figure larger than the others, perhaps representing the founder of an ancestral lineage. Many of the sculpted figures also hold vessels, possibly representing the rituals associated with funerary practices or community feasts.

The Moche culture of Peru’s north coast, which flourished ca. 100–800 and was contemporaneous with the Recuay, produced the largest number of architectural effigies among the peoples of the ancient Americas, although models represent but a small percentage of the Moche’s prodigious ceramics tradition. Found in tombs, some models emulate monumental platform mounds, occasionally with a figure at the summit (63.226.13), while others focus on a specific structure located within a larger complex. Although it is difficult to discern the precise meaning of such works in the absence of texts from the period, these architectural vessels were closely associated with ritual practice, not only as emulations of sacred architecture, but also as vessels essential to funerary ceremonies.

Fewer architectural effigies are known from the later Chimú and Inca cultures. A unique example of an architectural vessel made of silver may represent a scene at Chan Chan, the Chimú capital on Peru’s north coast (1978.412.170). This dazzling silver bottle evokes the enigmatic U-shaped structures, known as audiencias, near the great courtyards and storage facilities within Chan Chan palaces. The vessel itself is a rare survival of Chimú silverwork, a tradition for which the Chimú were once famed. Shortly after the Chimú were conquered by the Inca, the silversmiths of Chan Chan were taken to Cuzco, the Inca capital, and pressed into service in the newly dominant empire. Sixteenth-century Spanish accounts describe Inca rulers planning their royal estates and developing military strategies with the aid of models, yet relatively few Inca architectural effigies have survived. It is possible that some were made of metal and were melted down in the Conquest; others may have been constructed out of perishable materials that have deteriorated over time.

As diverse as ancient American architectural effigies are, they all speak to an enduring tradition of capturing the essence of key structures and their associated meanings in miniature. Intimately bound up with ideas of time and place, the models leave us with indelible images of the lost worlds of the ancient Americas.