Pyramids: An Overview

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The structure of the pyramid may unite the two religious monuments of the burial mound and the elevated altar. Because these functions are not mutually exclusive but rather are in many cases complementary and combined with yet other functions, modern archaeologists often face serious difficulties of interpretation. This problem becomes especially evident when they attempt to situate the monuments in their original contexts.

On the one hand, the pyramid can be a logical derivation of the burial mound, with the primary function of concealing the tomb of a prominent ruler while exalting his often-deified memory. The Egyptian pyramid, with its wonderfully refined form, is the perfect embodiment of this initial phase. It is, in addition, the only monument that can be considered a true pyramid in the geometric sense of the word (excluding, of course, the oldest example, in Saqqara, built with trunk-pyramidal elements).

On the other hand, the pyramid can constitute the monumental culmination of the elevated altar, an extreme manifestation of the "cult of height." Overwhelmed by the sacred, the simple mortal tends to place everything that relates to that sphere at a higher level, whether they be effigies, images, or altars, whether visible or invisible. The most outstanding forms of this genre are the ziggurats in Mesopotamia and the temple-pyramids of pre-Columbian America (particularly those of Mesoamerica and, on a lesser scale, those of the Andean region).

Chronologically, the Mesopotamian buildings are older; they date from the fourth millennium bce. The temples, such as those of Uruk (modern Warka, Iraq), are placed on high, artificial platforms accessible by staircases or ramps. From the third millennium bce these develop into massive ziggurats, which were usually composed of terraced blocks on a square foundation. The terraced blocks, perpendicular or parallel to the foundation, ascend in broken patterns, either directly or in spans. Archaeologists believe that a sanctuary usually crowned the last platform, but total destruction of the upper parts of the monuments makes confirmation of this thesis difficult. In profile such monuments present a terraced succession of vertical or near-vertical shapes. Their cubical appearance is often counterbalanced by great flutings that alternate rhythmically with the buttresses to animate the exterior facings and cast elongated shadows accentuating the vertical over the horizontal.

Even more versatile than the Mesopotamian pyramid is that of Mesoamerica, which originated between 1200 and 900 bce among the Olmec of San Lorenzo and La Venta on the Gulf Coast of Mexico and continued to develop until the sixteenth century ce. The Mesopotamian pyramid often has a quadrangular foundation, but occasionally it is circular, as in the main pyramid at La Venta or that of Cuicuilco; it can also be semicircular, as in some of the yácatas ("mounds," "pyramids") in Michoacán or the temples dedicated to the wind god Quetzalcoatl-Ehécatl that were part of the Aztec political expansion just before the Spanish conquest.

Conceived as a single truncated blockor, more commonly, formed by a series of terraced blocksand generally having one staircase, the Mesoamerican pyramid almost invariably presents ornamentation in talus form, an intuitive adaptation of the natural sloping angle of its solid earth fill. A formal element that works to define the principal volumes and to differentiate regional, local, and other styles is the talus panel (tablero-talud or talud-tablero ) with its salient moldings that produce well-marked shadows. The pyramid, usually crowned by a temple (single or, in certain cases, twin), tends to be complemented by plazas, esplanades, and other open spaces. These, together with stairways and altar-platforms, make up a nearly inseparable whole. This type of pyramid was conceived to satisfy the needs of a form of worship that, in its community aspects, took place outdoors.


For a general approach to the pyramids of Egypt and Mesopotamia see World Architecture, edited by Trewin Copplestone (New York, 1963) and Le grand atlas de l'architecture mondiale (Paris, 1982). For information on the pyramid in pre-Columbian America, George Kubler's The Art and Architecture of Ancient America (New York, 1982) can also be consulted.

Paul Gendrop (1987)

Translated from Spanish by Gabriela Mahn