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Richard A. Diehl

[Nahuatl: “snake wall”]

Wall decorated with serpent motifs built adjacent to temple pyramids in the Postclassic Period (c. 900–1521 ce) in cultures of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Three coatepantlis are known: the courtyard wall in front of the Great Temple, the most important Aztec temple in the imperial capital at Tenochtitlan (c. 1500; see Mexico City, §I); a line of serpents depicted in the round at the Aztec religious center, Tenayuca (c. 1500); and a free-standing vertical wall at Tula, the earlier Toltec capital (c. 950–c. 1200 ce).

Although he did not actually see it, Fray Diego Durán (1537–1588) seems to have described the Great Temple coatepantli from eye-witness accounts: “Its own private courtyard was surrounded by a great wall, built of large carved stones in the manner of serpents joined one to another … This wall was called Coatepantli, Snake Wall” (...


Elizabeth Hill Boone

Scholars of Pre-Columbian and early colonial Latin America use the term “codex” to identify a manuscript book with a high pictorial content painted in the indigenous pre-conquest tradition. Pre-Columbian codices are entirely pictorial and hieroglyphic, but those created after the conquest in the early colonial period often also have alphabetic texts to explain and complement the paintings. In both, the pictorial content remains fundamental. This use of the term codex differs from that of the European manuscript tradition, in which codex is usually used to describe a book constructed of sheets of paper, papyrus, parchment, or vellum that are stacked and bound together along one edge. Such European codices evolved from the continuous scrolls of antiquity.

Only in Mesoamerica (the area of modern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras) did thinkers and record-keepers create painted books to record and preserve information. The Inka and their neighbors did not fashion such painted books but instead preserved information in knotted string records (...


Patrick Hajovsky

Realistic portraiture was never a dominant concern of Pre-Columbian artists or patrons, who more often sought to convey essential qualities and metaphysical states of being rather than physical appearances. In Mesoamerica as early as 1200 BCE, the Olmec pushed portraiture to notable heights with colossal stone heads, the greatest accumulation occurring at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan. Yet, overall, Olmec sculptures exhibit a range of representational strategies from realism to abstraction. Among the Maya, portraiture makes its starkest emergence in the 7th century at Palenque under Pakal the Great (see fig.). By and large, however, Maya stelae, relief panels, and jade masks do not favor physiognomic realism over idealism, especially surrounding ideas of divine kingship. In exchange, the actual physical appearance of kings was manipulated to fit ideals that are paralleled in sculpture, such as in the case of the stucco portrait of Pakal, who dons a false nose and an upward hairstyle to resemble a maize cob. In narrative relief sculptures depicting Maya men and women, physiognomic features may also have been associated with blood lineage, thus making their rendition important for establishing rule through phenotype....



Gary Urton

[khipu; Quecha: “knot”]

Knotted string constructions made of cotton or camelid (llama or alpaca) fibers that were the principal devices used for record keeping in the Inka Empire of Pre-Columbian South America. The typical structure of a quipu is built on a multistrand spun and plied cord, called a primary cord, that usually has a radius of around a half-centimeter and an average length of some 85 cm. Thinner spun and plied cords, called pendant strings/cords, are knotted onto the primary cord. When the primary cord is suspended between the hands, the pendant cords hang pendant. Quipus have been found with as few as 2 and as many as 1500 pendant strings. Secondary, or subsidiary, cords may be tied onto pendant strings, while some carry third-, fourth-, and up to sixth-order subsidiaries. Thus, the structure of quipus may be likened to rhizomes, with linear and horizontal stems from which roots shoot downwards.

The pendant strings of quipus are usually knotted in complex patterns, most commonly with clusters of knots in tiers (about a palm’s width apart) down the length of the strings. In the majority of quipus, the tiered knot clusters signified numerical values in the base-10 (decimal) place value system used by Inka cord keepers—called ...


Elizabeth Baquedano

Type of sculpture made with melted sugar. It is confined to Mexico, and its origins are uncertain, although it seems likely that it developed in imitation of the Pre-Columbian custom of creating images with tzoalli dough (a Náhuatl term for maize and amaranth seeds kneaded with honey), as described in detail by 16th-century Spanish chroniclers. The latter tradition has survived to the 21st century alongside sugar sculpture. Aztec deity images were made of clay, stone, wood, or tzoalli dough, and less frequently of gold, silver, or jade. The last three, more expensive materials, were used for temple images, but tzoalli images were also “sacred,” in that pieces were broken off and eaten, perhaps as if they represented the flesh of the gods. The 16th-century chronicler Diego Durán described how birds were made with such dough, with wings, feathers, and other details attached to them and painted, techniques also used by modern sugar sculptors....


J. C. Langley

Spanish term for a form of wall profile found throughout Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, comprising a vertical panel (tablero) resting on a slanting talus (talud). It is particularly associated with the type of pyramidal structure developed at Teotihuacan in the Basin of Mexico and characteristic of its culture (see fig.). Its origins are uncertain, but it occurs between 400 and 300 bce in the Puebla–Tlaxcala region together with other cultural traits later found at Teotihuacan. The talud–tablero was introduced at Teotihuacan c. 200 ce and during the next 500 years became almost ubiquitous on the stepped pyramids, which are typical of the city’s religious architecture. Each step of the pyramid comprised a vertical riser set in a frame or molding, either extended the full width of the pyramid or intersected by a stairway. This tablero is cantilevered and rests on a talud that slopes inwards at an angle of about 45°. The ratio of ...