1902 Encyclopedia > Architecture > Ancient American Architecture

(Part 115)


It was not long before the exhumation by Mr. Layard, in Central Asia, of the wonderful remains of fine art entombed in earthen mounds, that Mr J.L. Stephens, when engaged on a mission from his Government-that of the United States of North America- to some of the mutable states of Central America, heard of and tracked out in the forests of Yucatan the remains of a bygone time, exhibited in sculptural and architectural monuments of a coarse character, affording a strange counterpart to those which Mr. Layard describes as having existed in and about the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates. The remains of fifty or sixty cities have been discovered the most interesting being those of Chololu, Palenque, Uxmal, Tescuco, and Mitla. The chief structures were evidently temples (Teocallis), raised high above the surrounding buildings on grand basements, square on plan, and rising by huge steps to the summit, so as to have the general outline of a low truncated pyramid. One at Palenque is 280 feet square at the base, and about 60 feet high to the platform, on which stands the temple, the latter being oblong on plan, measuring about 76 feet by 25. It was a low building, with a roof formed by stone gradini, so as to be, in fact, a continuation of the pyramid. Other structure, supposed to be palaces, are described by Mr. Stephens, Mr. Catherwood, Lord Kingsborought, &c., and copiously illustrated in their works. Many of them are very extensive, but of no great elevation. They are chiefly built on massive stone basements and surmounted by cornices, the friezes of which are adorned with evident imitations of logs of wood in upright rows. The greater part of the roofs were of wood, but among the objects represented in Mr Catherwood’s View of Ancient Monuments in General America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, are several examples of vaults having the arch form, but not being arched vaults,-that is to say, of vaults presenting the appearance internally, or upon the soffit, of arches, but formed by the gathering over of horizontally-coursed masonry, with the inner and lower angles worked away – or cleaned off, as it is technically expressed-to the appearance on the inside which an arched vault would present. (See fig. 59). The circumstance that the arch form presented in the American monuments is produced by the gathering over of horizontally-ranged masonry, and not by means of arch structure, would seem to show clearly that if the builders ever had intercourse with the Old World, as was before the properties of the arch were known and exemplified in it. These remains show an advance on the Pelasgic and Celtic monuments of the Old World, and take the general character of the stoneworks of Egypt and India; but like those works, they exhibit the vaulted form by gathering over and not by arching.

Mr Catherwood states that he and Mr Stephens concur in the opinion expressed by Mr Prescott, in his History of the Conquest of Mexico, - "that though the coincidences are sufficiently strong to authorize a belief that the civilization of Anahuac (Ancient Mexico) was in some degree influenced by Eastern Asia, yet the discrepancies are so great as to carry back the communication to a very remote period, so remote that this foreign influence has been too feeble to interfere materially with the growth of what may be regarded, in its essential features, as a peculiar and indigenous civilization;" and this opinion the monuments, as presented by Mr. Catherwood, would seem fully to justify. But Mr Catherwood adds to this, as the ground, it would appear, for conciding with Mr Prescott’s opinion, that the results arrived at by Mr Stephens and himself "are briefly, that they (the American monuments) are not of immemorial antiquity, the work of unknown men; but that, as we now see them, they were occupied and probably erected by the Indian tribes in possession of the country at the time of the Spanish conquest, that they are the production of an indigenous school of art, adapted to the natural circumstances of the country, and to civil and religious polity then prevailing; and that they present but very slight and accidental analogies with the works of any people or country in the Old World."

Less artistic, but more vast and massive, are the structures in Peru, which have been as yet imperfectly explored. Referred by Mr Prescott to the reigns of the Incas, they are now considered to have been the works of a far earlier race, of whom the Incas were the conquerors. The rudest of these early works are sepulchral, and much of the same kind as the cromlechs and stone-circles already referred to )p. 383). One circle at Sillustani is 90 feet diameter, another 150 feet, and they have a massive paved platform all round them outside, which is not found in similar remains in the Old Word. The cromlechs are not covered merely by a flat stone, but are rudely domed over by overlapping stones.

A much more artistic class of tombs is built of stones in the form of a tower, but increasing in width towards the top, and domed as above described. Most of them are round on plan, but some are square and two stories high, the upper being covered with overlapping stones cut to the arch shape. Many of these are of hard stone, beautifully fitted together, and the chambers are lined with a peculiar stucco still in good preservation.

Some other sepulchral remains are on a much grander scale, being immense mounds held up by huge retaining walls. One of the these mounds is 108 feet high, and 276 yards by 75 at the top. None seem to have been as yet explored. Of the fortresses one of the grandest examples is at Cuzco, 760 feet above the level of that city. It has three lines of fortifications in terraces 1800 feet long, the lower terrace having a retaining wall now 25 feet high, the second (30 feet behind the first) 18 feet, and the third (18 feet be hind the second) 14 feet high. The walls are of cyclopean masonry, accurately fitted, one stone being 27 feet by 14 by 12, and many are 15 by 12 by 10 feet. The plan shows considerable skill, as the walls are not straight, but built with recesses and re-entering angles, evidently for giving the garrison command of the ground close to the walls. The most interesting remains in Peru are those called Huacas; but whether they were forts, or palaces, or tombs, is not as yet clearly ascertained. They are described as being enclosed by walls (in various examples 100 to 180 yards long, and 60 or 70 yards broad), and divided by cross walls, thus forming enclosures or chambers, many of which are still lined with stucco. In some of these are considerable remains of staircases, but the upper parts are destroyed. The chambers and enclosures are almost invariably filled with clay, which presents great difficulties in their examination. This filling in may, possibly, be accounted for by the construction of the walls, which are immensely thick (some at Chanchan are 15 feet), and usually of sun-dried bricks, either small (adobes), viz., about two thirds the size of ours, or very large (adobines), some being 1 to 2 yards long.

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