Unprecedented Projects

The Birth of Mesoamerican Pyramids

By: Rosemary A. Joyce

Originally Published in 2004

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In 1519, The first Europeans to visit Tenochtitlan saw a massive pyramid supporting twin temples looming over the capital city of the Mexica, or Aztecs. Today, based on archaeolog­ical research and interpretations of 16th century documents, Tenochtitlan’s great temple is understood as a sacred mountain, a replica of Coatepec (“serpent hill”), a place described in Mexica oral histories.

More than 2000 years earlier, other Mesoamerican peoples built the first great pyramids in Central America, but no written records survive from these early times. In order to understand the genesis of these impressive buildings, modern interpretations of these earliest monumental constructions tend to project the specifics of later situations back in time, imagining that the first pyramids were likewise intended to be effigies of sacred moun­tains. But is this the case? How can we understand the intentions and actions of people who lived in a world lacking things like pyramids that later people took for granted? Questions like these are raised by Karen Vitelli and other archaeologists interested in understanding innovations.

Looking Up to Study Pottery

Another example of this approach is Karen Vitelli’s study of the ear­liest pottery from Franchthi Cave in Greece. Setting aside what she knew about the later production and use of ceramics, she tried to explain the cre­ation of the initial pottery at the site based exclusively on what had previ­ously existed there. What she found led her to suggest that the first pot­ters at Franchthi were curers who used fired clay as containers for med­ical mixtures. Though later develop­ments led to the use of pottery for storage, serving, and cooking vessels, it would have been inappropriate to assume that the first potters were inspired to make pottery by these later technological developments. Apart from explaining more of the actual data, Vitelli’s use of an approach that “looked up” from the past, rather than back from the pres­ent, avoided the danger of reversing cause and effect.

Like Vitelli, I find it necessary to “think up” from the past to avoid projecting back later experiences, as I try to understand revolutionary changes in social life experienced by people in villages across Mesoamerica during the Early and Middle Formative periods (ca. 1500-500 BC). I find it necessary to set aside what I know about the later public buildings of the Mexica and Mayas in order to imagine the actions and intentions of the people who raised the first massive earthen platforms, which are the forerunners of later stone and plaster pyramids.

I am interested in the lives of the people who inhabited what is now the north coast of Honduras. There, the Ulua River winds its way through a 2,075 km2 tropical valleys. A center of banana and sugar cane cultivation in the 20th sentry, the Ulua Valley was one of the most prized sources of cacao in 16th century Mesoamerica. In a project co-directed by Professor John Henderson of Cornell University, we are exploring the long-term history of this valley. Our research on farmsteads and hamlets of the Late Classic period (ca. AD 500-850) has uncovered evidence of earlier communities buried under the later villages that dot this fertile landscape. Our earliest dated evidence comes from Puerto Escondido, a village whose inhabi­tants produced striking, well-made pottery for at least two millennia, starting before 1500 BC.

Over a period of five to seven centuries, early residents of Puerto Escondido built, remod­eled, enhanced, and demolished their houses, producing thick deposits of floors, fills, and building debris. The buildings they constructed were made of materials that decayed under the tropical forest conditions in which they lived. Poles lashed together provided the frame‑work for walls finished with coats of mud plaster. Carefully prepared beds of pebbles under the main house posts could not prevent these buildings from decaying after years of tropi­cal rains. Nor could the mud plaster, renewed at intervals, pro­tect the framework of the walls from tropical insects. For the builders of Early Formative Puerto Escondido, earthen archi­tecture was something that needed to be renovated regularity.

Throughout Formative Mesoamerica, builders who had a background in these kinds of construction, renovation, and demolition techniques were responsible for the first monu­mental construction projects. The largest precolumbian build­ings ever constructed in Honduras are the pyramids at Los Naranjos dating to the Middle Formative period (900-400 BC). Located a short distance south of Puerto Escondido, Los Naranjos occupies the shore of an upland lake surrounded by mountains. As it appears today, the taller Structure I measures 100 m x 75 m, rising 19 m to a summit platform 25 m x 30 m in extent. In contrast, Structure IV is more modest in height, measuring about 6 m tall, but it is almost as extensive in its basal dimensions and it supports a group of three platforms that rise an additional 3 m in height.

These buildings, explored by archaeologists Claude Baudez and Pierre Becquelin in the 1970s, have complex histories of remodeling that lasted for centuries. In their earliest phases, Structure I rose to 13 m, while Structure IV was only 6 m tall. The initial construction of these platforms was less about building a tall pyramid than creating a broad platform. Only when the original platforms were augmented in height did they begin to look like pyramids and present a model for later pyramids understood as sacred mountains. In their original form, the broad earthen platforms of Los Naranjos actually recall the architecture of Puerto Escondido. There, during the remodeling of certain buildings, debris from earlier structures formed plat­forms that elevated later buildings. Patricia Urban and Edward Schortman describe a similar pattern of “incremental” construc­tion for the contemporary Naco Valley to the west, where earthen platforms extend­ing up to 49 m in diameter rose initially only 20 cm to 1.2 m above the surrounding ground surface.

Such modest beginnings have interesting implications. We may need to consider whether the earliest stages of monumental platforms were intended to persist at all, or if they might have been expected to weather away, as abandoned houses did. The builders of the earliest Honduran monumental earthen platforms would have understood clay plat­forms to be impermanent constructions that would regularly require refurbishment. They knew that using clay in any build­ing would likely lead to erosion and that, to extend the life of the building, it would need to be renewed. The durability of monumental earthen constructions may have been an unin­tended consequence of the increase in volume of the unex­posed mass of earth in a broader platform. With less exposed surface to erode actively, broader clay platforms of even rela­tively modest increased height, like those at the heart of the early monumental buildings of Los Naranjos, may have been more stable than their makers envisioned.

Clearly these early construction projects meant something to those who built them. But projecting the better understood meanings of later monumental buildings back onto these early structures may lead us to overlook distinctive perspectives of the earliest monument builders. Instead, we can “think up” from the perspective of these builders. The earliest earthen platforms that transformed Formative Mesoamerican land­scapes, and became part of all later landscapes in the region, may have been constructed without an explicit intention that they endure to convey sentiments to future viewers. Once built, however, even the relatively low early platforms trans­formed the space of the communities where they were con­structed. As visually omnipresent and stable points of refer­ence in their communities, monumental platforms created physical centers in Formative villages. Successor builders who placed temple platforms in central locations in communities carried on this effect, but not necessarily the intention behind these early buildings. Formative earthen platforms were proj­ects whose precedents lay in everyday construction practices that they transformed forever.

ROSEMARY A. JOYCE, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkley, has engaged in archaeological fieldwork in Honduras since 1977. Selected the 2003 Distinguished Lecturer of the Archaeology Division of the American Anthropological Association, she has been a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University (2001-2002), the University of California Humanities Research Institute (1999), and the Bunting Institute (1992-93). Her research interests include ceramic analysis, household archeology, and sex, gender, and the Cody. Her most recent books are Embodied Lives: Figuring Ancient Egypt and the Classic Maya (with Lynn Meskell, Routledge, 2003), The Languages of Archaeology: Dialogue, Narrative, and Writing (Blackwell, 2002), and Gender and Power in Prehispanic Mesoamerica (University of Texas Press, 2001).

For Further Reading

Joyce, Rosemary A., and John S. Henderson. “Beginnings of Village Life in Eastern Mesoamerica.” Latin American Antiquity 12 (2001): 5-23.

Urban, Patricia, Edward Schortman, and Marne Ausec. “Power Without Bounds? Middle Preclassic Political Developments in the Naco Valley, Honduras.” Latin American Antiquity 13 (2002):131-52.

Vitelli, Karen D. “‘Looking Up’ at Early Ceramics in Greece.” In Pottery and People, edited by James Skibo and Gary Feinman, pp. 184-98. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1998.

Cite This Article

Joyce, Rosemary A.. "Unprecedented Projects." Expedition Magazine 46, no. 2 (July, 2004): -. Accessed February 25, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/unprecedented-projects/

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