I recently saw an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York called, “Design for Eternity: Architectural Models from the Ancient Americas.” The exhibit will be closing soon but there is an online version that contains excellent images of and info on each model (some of those images are below). But I felt I needed to see these models in person because I have studied miniatures and models in ancient cultures for many years and there is nothing like seeing these objects in person to get a better sense of why they are significant (a good reason to go to museums!). Here is my reaction to the exhibit.
First the show brings together works from different time periods, cultures, and parts of Mexico, Central America, and South America. Generally this is a problem. Going from the Olmec about 1200BC to Aztec around 1500AD, with Maya and Peruvian and West Mexican cultures in between is a bit precarious. It makes an assumption that these cultures and time periods had continuity. There certainly were borrowings and trade between these cultures when they occupied the same time periods but a 3000 year range should not make us comfortable with claims of cultural continuities. Also, most of the objects in this exhibit are looted rather than excavated with archaeological techniques so their contexts have been destroyed and we don’t know if they were in households, burials, or religious locations.
OLMEC house, 8.5 inches high, 1200–800 B.C.
Nevertheless, I have always argued that many different cultures in many different historic periods used models and miniatures and it is legitimate, I think, to consider the possibility that these different cultures used these models for related purposes. What are some of the purposes suggested by this exhibit? Few of the houses are considered models of real architecture in the sense of providing instructions on how to build a building. Instead many represent symbolic or ritual moments or aspects of the culture.
This remarkable wooden model from Peru (1400-1660AD) shows a funeral ritual with mummies:
Another Peruvian culture from earlier (200-600AD) time period also depicts what seems to be a ritual.
Another model (100BC-250AD) depicts a village in West Mexico with a man descending a pole. This ritual is actually still performed today. As the Met explains,
In Mexico’s Gulf Coast region, flyers (voladores) perform a contemporary version of this ritual. The volador, suspended by a rope, spirals down to the village below, mimicking a bird’s descent from the heavens to earth, symbolically uniting celestial and terrestrial realms.
Why depict common cultural rituals in miniature? These rituals were important expressions of the belief systems that sustained these cultures. They depict the relationships between the living and the dead, the divine and the human, the powerful and the commoner. As the Met catalog explains, in some cultures such models are considered “temporary abodes for gods and goddesses in the human world.” In other instances they serve to connect different aspects or levels of the world, of this life and the afterlife. The model, then, were concrete reminders or expressions of these ideas.
In this West Mexican model of a ballcourt (200BC-500AD), we see a ritual that does span all of Mesoamerica. The ballgame was both a form of sport and a ritual expressing important aspects of the belief system.
Pyramids are also depicted in these models but they, too, should not be just considered just scaled versions of real structures. The full-size pyramid provided a vivid expression of the centralized power of these societies and the importance of symbolic construct elements and the models contained some aspect of the same powers.
AZTEC Temple Model, 1400-1521
MOCHE, Peru, 200-600AD