Building around 1,000 BC

The Globe



Perhaps the best known of the ancient Nubian cultures is that of Meroe. The Meroitic civilization dates from about 2500 to 2200 B.P. and is clearly the most complex and the most urban of the ancient civilizations south of Egypt. The city of Meroe was a large settlement covering an area of about 0.75 km2 (0.3 mi/). The center of the settlement consisted of a maze of monumental structures made of mud-brick and faced with fired brick. These buildings appear to have been palaces, meeting halls, temples, and residences for nobility and their workers. The central area of Meroe was surrounded by a monumental wall of mud-brick. (The Past in Perspective)

Southwest Asia

The early Sumerian temples were comparatively small buildings, but those that existed in Babylon in the time of Nebuchadnezzar II were very large, and contained many chapels which were built round a spacious hall. A large statue of the chief god of the temple was placed in the forefront of the sanctuary; sometimes he was represented standing upright and sometimes seated on a richly decorated throne. The statues of the gods who were associated with him stood either in the hall itself, or in the side-chapels, and in some temples the statues of kings and of prominent noblemen and warriors found a place. At the sides of the entrance stood colossal figures of lions, or bulls, or many-formed fabulous monsters, which were to prevent the entry of fiends and devils into the temple. The god was supposed to require a couch on which to recline or rest, and in great temples this couch was made of gold inlaid with semiprecious stones, or of wood plated with gold and inlaid with ivory. Its exact shape is unknown, but it probably resembled the Arab diwan. (Babylonian Life and History)

Now the ziggurat was the stepped type of mound temple, and for many centuries virtually the only kind of temple characteristic of Sumer, Akkad, Babylon and Assyria. Temples of this type were erected to the best of our knowledge from 2900 BC to 800 BC and even reappeared atavistically in the Middle East under the Moslems. It was also the type of temple, virtually the only type of temple, found amongst the Central American Indians. The ziggurat in both regions had a temple at the top, for the benefit of the god, a temple which was also used in both regions by the priests for astronomy. In both regions the temple was often erected with its four sides places in accurate relationship to the four points of the compass. In both regions, there was a broad flight of steps, a Jacob's ladder, leading from the ground to the temple at the summit. (The God-Kings & the Titans)

...sitting in front of the Ark of the Covenant by which Moses had communicated with the Lord, he received a divine sign: he was given a Tavnit--a scale model--of the future temple! When he neared the end of his days, King David summoned to Jerusalem all the leaders of Israel, including the tribal chiefs and the military commanders, the priests and the royal office holders, and told them of Yahweh's promise; and in full view of those gathered he handed to his son Solomon "the Tavnit of the temple and all its parts and chambers...the Tavnit that he received by the Spirit." There was more, for David also handed over to Solomon "all that Yahweh, in His own hand written, gave to me for understanding the workings of the Tavnit": A set of accompanying instructions, divinely written (I Chronicles, Chapter 28). (The End of Days)

The biblical books of Kings and Chronicles provide precise measurements and clear structural details of the Temple and its architectural designs. Its axis ran east-west, making it an "eternal temple" aligned to the equinox. Consisting of three parts, it adopted the Sumerian temple plans of a forepart (Ulam in Hebrew), a great central hall Hekhal in Hebrew, stemming from the Sumerian E.GAL, "Large Abode"), and a Holy of Holies for the Ark of the Covenant. That innermost section was called the Dvir (the "Speaker")--for it was by means of the Ark of the Covenant that God spoke to Moses. As in Sumerian ziggurats, which traditionally were built to express the sexagesimal's "base sixty" concept, the Temple of Solomon also adopted sixty in its construction: the main section (the Hall) was 60 cubits (about 100 feet) in length, 20 cubits (60:3) wide, and 120 (60 x 2) cubits in height. (The End of Days)

Though these were not monumental measurements compared to the skyscraping ziggurats, the Temple, when completed, was truly magnificent; it was also unlike any other contemporary temple in that part of the world. No iron or iron tools were used for its erection upon the platform (and absolutely none in its operation--all the utensils were of copper or bronze), and the building was inlaid inside with gold; even the nails holding the golden plates in place were made of gold. The quantities of gold used (just "for the Holy of Holies, 600 talents; for the nails, fifty shekels") were enormous... According to the Bible, tens of thousands of workmen were needed for seven years for the immense undertaking. What, then, was the purpose of this House of the Lord? When all was ready, with much pomp and circumstance, the Ark of the Covenant was carried by priests and placed in the Holy of Holies. As soon as the Ark was put down and the curtains separating the Holy of Holies from the great hall were drawn, "the House of the Lord was filled with a cloud and the priests could not remain standing."(The End of Days)

"And Yahweh appeared to Solomon that night, and said to him: I have heard your prayer; I have chosen this site for my house of worship...From heaven I will hear the prayers of my people and forgive their transgressions...Now I have chosen and consecrated this House for my Shem to remain there forever" (II Chronicles, Chapters 6-7). Throughout the Temple there was no statue, no idol, no graven image. The only object within it was the hallowed Ark' of the Covenant--and "there was nothing in the Ark except the two tablets that were given to Moses in Sinai." Unlike the Mesopotamian ziggurat temples, from Enlil's in Nippur to Marduk's in Babylon, this one was not a place of residence for the deity, where the god lived, ate, slept, and bathed. It was a House of Worship, a place of divine contact; it was a temple for a Divine Presence by the Dweller in the Clouds. (The End of Days)

In contrast to the culture of the Canaanite cities and villages in the lowlands, the highland villages contained no public buildings, palaces, storehouses, or temples. Signs of any sophisticated kind of record keeping, such as writing, seals, and seal impressions, are almost completely absent. There are almost no luxury items: no imported pottery and almost no jewelry. Indeed, the village houses were all quite similar in size, suggesting that wealth was distributed quite evenly among the families. The houses were built of unworked fieldstones, with rough stone pillars propped up to provide support for the roof or upper story. The average building, around six hundred square feet in size, presumably housed four to five people - the size of a nuclear family. In many cases, stone-lined pits for storage of grain were dug between the houses. These silos, and a large number of sickle blades and grinding stones found in every house, indicate that grain growing was one of the villagers' main concerns. Yet herding was still important; fenced courtyards near the houses were apparently used for keeping animals secure at night. (The Bible Unearthed)

Samaria was apparently conceived from the start as the personal capital of the Omride dynasty. It was the most grandiose architectural manifestation of the rule of Omri and Ahab. Located on a small hilltop, however, it was not the ideal place for a vast royal compound. The builders' solution to this problem - a daring innovation in Iron Age Israel - was to carry out massive earthmoving operations to create a huge, artificial platform on the summit of the hill. An enormous wall (constructed of linked rooms, or casemates) was built around the hill, framing the summit and the upper slopes in a large rectangular enclosure. When that retaining wall was completed, construction gangs filled its interior with thousands of tons of earth hauled from the vicinity. The scale of this project was enormous. The earthen fill packed behind the supporting wall was, in some places, almost twenty feet deep. That was probably why the enclosure wall surrounding and supporting the palace complex was built in the casemate technique: the casemate chambers (which were also filled with earth) were designed to relieve the immense pressure of the fill. A royal acropolis of five acres was thus created. (The Bible Unearthed)

Although the Omride palace at Samaria has been only partially excavated, enough of its plan has been uncovered to recognize that the central building alone covered an area of approximately half an acre. With its outer walls built entirely of finely hewn and closely fitted ashlar stones, it is the largest and most beautiful Iron Age building ever excavated in Israel. Even the architectural ornamentation was exceptional. Stone capitals of a unique early style, called Proto-Aeolic (because of the resemblance to the later Greek Aeolic style), were found in the rubble of later centuries' accumulations. (The Bible Unearthed)

Yet perhaps the most impressive engineering achievements initially linked to the Omrides are the enormous underground water tunnels cut through the bedrock beneath the cities of Megiddo and Hazor. These tunnels provided the city's inhabitants with secure access to drinking water even in times of siege. Because of its enormous depth, of almost a hundred feet, support walls had to be constructed to prevent collapse. Broad steps led to the bottom, where a sloping tunnel, some eighty feet long, led into a pool-like rock-cut chamber into which groundwater seeped. The Megiddo water system (above) consisted of a somewhat simpler shaft, over a hundred feet in depth, cut through the earlier remains to bedrock. From there it led to a horizontal tunnel, more than two hundred feet long, wide and high enough for a few people to walk at the same time, which led to a natural spring cave on the edge of the mound. The entrance to the cave from outside was blocked and camouflaged.

See Sitchen's Tale


The most fantastic of all the world's ancient optical traditions was unquestionably that of Pharaonic Egypt. ...the axis of the great temple at Karnak was effectively a stone telescope tube 600 yards long. of the many 'light tricks' at Karnak - that of the 'offering of light' placed onto the tray held by the Pharaoh Rameses III, and which was actually captured on film, despite the fact that it only lasts for three minutes and then vanishes. I have briefly mentioned the 'Eye of Horus' in its form of a water-tilled crystal sphere for creating fire from the rays of the Sun. (The Crystal Sun)

These apertures in the pylons and separating walls of Egyptian temples exactly represent the diaphragms in the modern telescope. What then was the real use of these pylons and these diaphragms? It was to keep all stray light out of the carefully roofed and darkened Sanctuary; but why was the Sanctuary to be kept in darkness? The first point that I wish to make is that these temples - whatever view may be entertained with regard to their worship or the ceremonial in them - were undoubtedly constructed among other reasons for the purpose of obtaining an exact observation of the precise time of the solstice. The priests having this power at their disposal, would not be likely to neglect it, for they ruled by knowledge. The temples were, then, astronomical observatories, and the first observatories that we know of in the world. (The Crystal Sun)

'The Temple of the Eighth' - an engraving published in 1803 from a drawing of 1799 by Dominique Vivant Denon, showing the ruins of the Temple of Hermopolis in Upper Egypt, as it appeared at that time. (Collection of Robert Temple.)

The two obelisks of Rameses II standing in front of the entrance to the Temple of Luxor.

The Temple of Luxor is indisputably devoted to the Human Microcosm. This consecration is not merely a simple attribution: the entire temple becomes a book explaining the secret functions of the organs and nerve centers. I hold that every stone in the walls of the covered temple was cut according to completely predetermined measurements; similarly, the setting of each stone was chosen with exact knowledge of the scene to be depicted there, the joints being located in such a way as to cut - intentionally - head, feet, hands, attributes, etc. (The Temple in Man)

The entire covered temple appears as a construction established on the plan of an axis and later displaced from this axis by a slight pivoting motion. This "displacement" action is constant, not only for the plan of an entire building, but for the figure as well; and this corresponds to a purpose. In the presentation of the sacred theme (principles) through representation in bas-relief, the parts of the body with symmetrical organs are shown in profile. The parts of the body with asymmetrical organs (left and right) are shown full-face. But when it is a question of giving measurements, or of symbolizing functions and states, all variations (positions, distortions, etc.) are permissible. For instance, the arms, characterized as left or right, are sometimes represented, depending on the intention, with two left hands or two right hands. The left hand receives, the right gives. The legs are joined or taken as one mass, as with a mummy, to express the idea of fixation, death, or inertia; they are placed one in front of the other to indicate a state of life. Thus, the seated, standing, or running personage has its particular meaning which - like its gestures, attributes, costume, and color - must be interpreted. It is very important to note that "created" personages - that is to say, personages issued from the Divine principle and not procreated through woman - have no navel. (The Temple in Man)

The elements observed in the Temple of Luxor prove: 1. That the pharaonic temple has a didactic purpose; hence every detail has its import. 2. That the entire value is accorded to the teaching; the technical aspect is subordinated to this aim. 3. That there is, in the inscription by means of texts and figurations, a method for translating a philosophically ordained thought. 4. That symbolism is the method of transcription of the thought of the Ancient Egyptians, in writing and in figuration as well as in the architecture. 5. That there is a precalculated program, realized through Time by successive Kings, heirs of the tradition. 6. That the monument is constructed (contrary to our current principles of architecture) on several axes; that each axis has a meaning, and that this meaning dictates the meaning of the parts subordinate to it. 7. That there is, in pharaonic Egypt, geodetic, astronomical, and physiological knowledge surpassing that which Egyptology has hitherto been able to concede. (The Temple in Man)

Three sites had a particularly profound impact on me: the temple complex at Karnak; the Zoser 'step' pyramid at Saqqara; and the Great Pyramid at Giza on the outskirts of Cairo. It seemed to me that the special composite quality of raw power, delicate grace, imposing grandeur, mystery and immortality that these edifices possessed stemmed from the working out within them of a refined and highly developed understanding of harmony and proportion - an understanding that could reasonably be said to have amounted to a science. Combining engineering, architecture and design, that science had been remarkable by any standards. It had never since been surpassed in its ability to stimulate religious awe, and it had been equalled in Europe only in the great Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages such as Chartres. Centuries and civilizations before them, however, it had been the ancient Egyptians who had been the first masters of the science of building - the first and still the greatest architect- masons that the world had ever known. Moreover, the monuments that they left behind beggared description and challenged time itself. Typical in this respect were two tall obelisks that dominated the Karnak complex and that I found myself particularly drawn to on my own visits there. One, I discovered, had been erected by Pharaoh Tuthmosis I (1504-1492 BC) and the other by Queen Hatshepsut (1473-1458 BC). Both were perfect monoliths, hewn from single slabs of solid pink granite, the former standing 70 feet in height and weighing an estimated 143 tons, the latter standing 97 feet in height and weighing an estimated 320 tons. A few minutes' walk to the south, overlooking a sacred lake that was used by the temple priests for elaborate purification ceremonies, I found a third, but tumbled and broken, obelisk, the top 30 feet of which - surmounted by a finely pointed pyramidion - were nevertheless quite undamaged. On one occasion, following the advice of a guidebook I had with me, I stepped over the rope perimeter surrounding this fallen giant and placed my ear to the angle of the pyramidion. I then struck the granite firmly with the palm of my hand and listened, entranced, as the entire monolith reverberated with a deep, low- pitched tone like some strange and prodigious musical instrument. It seemed to me that this phenomenon could not possibly have been accidental. On the contrary, the enormous care and 'skill required to produce such a monolith (when the same splendid visual effect might have been achieved simply by cementing block on block) only really made sense if the ancient Egyptians had wanted to realize some special property inherent in a single piece of stone. I learned that they had not been hewn locally but rather had been transported by river from granite quarries more than 200 kilometres to the south. (The Sign and the Seal)

Indus Valley



Toward the end of the Shang period, there were many walled towns and villages in North and central China, and, compared to earlier periods, a much greater proportion of the populace lived in these semi-urban settings. (Patterns in Prehistory)


A mosaic floor was dug up at La Venta, the pieces of mosaic laid in asphalt; the same form of construction as is found in ancient Crete. (The God-Kings & the Titans)

South America

The ancient temple complex of Machu Picchu is thought to be an Incan ruin. Its location--perched on a forbidding ridge in the Andes Mountains northwest of Cuzco--causes us to wonder, as we have in other instances, just how the Incas could have transported the 10- to 15-ton blocks of stone used to build it. While the Incas did build an elaborate road system with stones of much smaller size, they had no wheeled vehicles and archaeologists admit once again to being unable to understand the process or techniques used. We run into similar questions at Sacsayhuaman, another Incan site. There, 100-ton blocks of stone were cut from the matrix rock, chiseled into strange yet exact polygonal shapes, and fitted together to last, it seems, until the end of time. (68)

The most magnetic aspect of Tiahuanaco's prestige was the great complex of architectural monuments in its civic center, and it was this complex that underwent a radical change in about AD 600. The centerpiece of the sacred city of Tiahuanaco was the Akapana, a stepped, flat-topped pyramid from which water cascaded. It was a "mountain full of water," a man-made replication of the sacred cliff at Titicaca. In about AD 600, contemporary with the debacle at Moquegua, this preeminent agricultural shrine was "decommissioned" and turned over to a newly arisen warrior class. All evidence indicates that the theocrats--priest-astronomers whose title, capaca, defined their function--never relinquished their power at Tiahuanaco. As Kolata himself emphasizes, Tiahuanaco never kept a standing army, and never used military force as a primary means of furthering its influence. (The Secret of the Incas)

The architecture of Tiahuanaco was open, majestic, given to carving out volumetric space. It was meant to be seen, and above all to be entered. By the seventh century, the most distinctive feature of Tiahuanacan architecture was the development of architraves--carved portals opening between great architectural spaces--through which the witnesses of ritual, ordinary people, might enter. Tiahuanacan architecture emphasized the horizontal aligning the planes of earth, horizon, and sky for the contemplation and edification of those entering its ceremonial spaces. Tiahuanacan architecture was open, unwalled, separated from the profane world only by its moat, which formed a conceptual barrier, rather than a visual one, between the sacred and the ordinary. Tiahuanaco was an invitation to participation. By contrast, the architectural style of Wari was secular, manifesting a obsession with power, wealth, control, elitism, and intimidation. William Isbell has described the architectural style of Huari as "orthogonal," that is based upon the repetitive use of right angles. The structures erected by the administrators of Wari, whether in Wari itself or in outlying regions such as Pikillacta, were constructed on a vast scale--sort of instant, walled cities These structures exuded exclusion and control. From the outside, one had no idea what was going on inside. Access was restricted to extremely narrow gates, themselves framed by walled roadways. Once inside, one found oneself within a rigidly geometric warren of intersecting narrow "streets" formed by the walls of innumerable interior compounds. Periodically, along such streets, were placed narrower gates, even further restricting movement within. The interior walls were devoid of architectural detailing and iconographic representations. Moving through these streets, one had no idea of how the space upon which one trod related to the topography outside. Everything looked the same. Each compound had a narrow entrance off the "street." Each compound was itself a warren of rectangular rooms with interior access between spaces also severely limited. Wari architectural creations were monuments to control. Aside from the quarters of the administrative upper class, the rooms at Wari sites were occupied by three kinds of people: soldiers, laborers engaged in the construction of the sites themselves, and artisans. Unintrested in the administrative burden involved in moving enormous amounts of foodstuffs, the rulers of Wari were intent on the production, distribution, and trade of luxury goods. These sites were a combination of garrison, factory, construction project, and dormitory for those enjoined under the labor tax to participate. (The Secret of the Incas)


 In his excavations Coe also discovered a sophisticated drainage system of carved, basalt-lined ditches and an elaborate network of channels and sluices, all of which still functioned once they were cleared of accumulated debris. Coe's team, however, could not comprehend the system's purpose. The Olmecs had labored intensively in this region of dense jungle; it gradually became clear that the San Lorenzo site was only one of many. Remains unearthed in some of the hills nearby were also undoubtedly from this forgotten civilization. (The Genesis Race)

Now the ziggurat was the stepped type of mound temple, and for many centuries virtually the only kind of temple characteristic of Sumer, Akkad, Babylon and Assyria. Temples of this type were erected to the best of our knowledge from 2900 BC to 800 BC and even reappeared atavistically in the Middle East under the Moslems. It was also the type of temple, virtually the only type of temple, found amongst the Central American Indians. The ziggurat in both regions had a temple at the top, for the benefit of the god, a temple which was also used in both regions by the priests for astronomy. In both regions the temple was often erected with its four sides places in accurate relationship to the four points of the compass. In both regions, there was a broad flight of steps, a Jacob's ladder, leading from the ground to the temple at the summit. (The God-Kings & the Titans)

Moving to La Venta, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, we come to the very point of origin of the Olmec culture, which is dated about 800 BC. Here again, among the Indian figures, appeared unmistakable African heads, big and powerful, and the bearded Semitic faces. There, too, was found a ceremonial centre whose walls had been constructed out of basalt columns, each column ten feet tall and weighing two tons, that had been brought from a quarry sixty miles distant. Inside the centre was excavated a stela, fourteen feet high, seven feet wide and almost three feet in thickness; revealing two seven foot high figures. The face of one had been broken off. The other was a bearded European face, looking, the United States excavators thought remarkably like Uncle Sam. Both figures wore pointed, upturned shoes of a style associated with the Near East. The Etruscans, too, wore these upturned shoes. This combination at La Venta again provides proof of a combined foreign influence of a type that the Mediterranean Seas alone could supply. (The God-Kings & the Titans)

A mosaic floor was dug up at La Venta, the pieces of mosaic laid in asphalt; the same form of construction as is found in ancient Crete. (The God-Kings & the Titans)

Here [San Lorenzo], at the dawn of history in Central America, the Olmecs had heaped up an artificial mound more than 100 feet high as part of an immense structure some 4000 feet in length and 2000 feet in width. Coe's team made a number of finds here, which included more than twenty artificial reservoirs, linked by a highly sophisticated network of basalt-lined troughs. Part of this system was built into a ridge; when it was rediscovered water still gushed forth from it during heavy rains, as it had done for more than 3000 years. The main line of the drainage ran from east to west. Into it, linked by joints made to an advanced design, three subsidiary lines were channelled. (Fingerprints of the Gods)

Carbon-dating suggested that the Olmecs had established themselves here between 1500 and 1100 BC and had continued to occupy the site - which consisted of an island lying in marshes to the east of the Tonala river - until about 400 BC. Then construction was suddenly abandoned, all existing buildings were ceremonially defaced or demolished, and several huge stone heads and other smaller pieces of sculpture were ritually buried in peculiar graves, just as had happened at San Lorenzo. The La Venta graves were elaborate and carefully prepared, lined with thousands of tiny blue tiles and filled up with layers of multicoloured clay. At one spot some 15,000 cubic feet of earth had been dug out of the ground to make a deep pit; its floor had been carefully covered with serpentine blocks, and all the earth put back. Three mosaic pavements were also found, intentionally buried beneath several alternating layers of clay and adobe. (Fingerprints of the Gods)

La Venta's principal pyramid stood at the southern end of the site. Roughly circular at ground level, it took the form of a fluted cone, the rounded sides consisting of ten vertical ridges with gullies between. The pyramid was 100 feet tall, almost 200 feet in diameter and had an overall mass in the region of 300,000 cubic feet - an impressive monument by any standards. The remainder of the site stretched for almost half a kilometre along an axis that pointed precisely 8° west of north. Centred on this axis, with every structure in flawless alignment, were several smaller pyramids and plazas, platforms and mounds, covering a total area of more than three square miles. (Fingerprints of the Gods)

In the Valley of Oaxaca, during the Tierras Largas phase (ca. 1650-1400 BC) small public buildings were constructed by egalitarian village inhabitants. These buildings had plastered walls and plastered floors set into low platforms of crushed rock, in contrast to the dirt floors and unplastered walls of residences San Jose Mogote also boasted a large nondomestic structure built in several tiers of stone and adobe, on which were placed stone carvings of a jaguar head and a raptorial bird. At San Lorenzo, elites also used basalt for carved columns, drains, and other embellishments in large houses, the earthen walls and floors of which were colored red with hematite-stained sand. Local clays provided the raw material for pottery, figurines, and other small artifacts, and colored clays were selected for building platforms, plastering walls, and making adobe blocks. At San Lorenzo, blocks of bentonite, a clay derived from weathered volcanic ash, were used to pave floors. (Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica)

Twenty post-molds on the platform mark the walls of an apsidal structure 12 m long and 9 m wide. The earthen walls and floor of another elite residence, dubbed the "Red Palace," were plastered with sand stained by hematite. Massive, 4 m tall carved basalt columns apparently supported its roof, and L-shaped basalt "benches" are thought to have been used as step coverings. Blocks of bentonite clay (a weathering product of volcanic ash) and limestone found among the collapsed debris may have been used in its walls. The 40 cm thick mud walls of several structures lack post-molds and were evidently constructed using a rammed earth technique. Others employed bentonite masonry fixed with mud mortar. Floors were made of gravel or packed earth or paved with bentonite blocks. (Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica)

On the slopes of the plateau, stepping down to a level 40 m below the summit, broad artificial terraces supported the thatched wattle-and-daub houses of the common folk. Other modifications to the landscape around San Lorenzo include causeways or dikes. The two largest measured 750 x 60 m and 600 x 75 m and bordered ancient river courses at Potrero Nuevo and El Azuzul, respectively. Packed floors and activity areas on the Potrero Nuevo causeway show that it supported Formative period habitation. Built up more than 2 m above the floodplain, these two may have provided some measure of flood control and possibly served as wharfs for loading and unloading canoes. Rather than building formal courts and temple mounds as did their successors, they sculpted the natural contours of their surroundings into a cultural landscape and defined sacred areas with arrangements of stone monuments. (Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica)

The archaeological site of La Venta sits atop a low hill formed by the erosion of the ancient Pleistocene landscape, which rises more than 20 m above the surrounding wetlands. At the summit of the "island" the Olmecs constructed a civic-ceremonial zone impressive both for its size and for the formal conception of its architectural program. Stretching for nearly 1.5 km and covering some 65 ha, it contains over 30 earthen mounds and platforms, each oriented to 8° west of north. (Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica)

Complex C contains the "Great Pyramid" of La Venta, mound C-1. With a volume of 90,000 cu m, mound C-1 was the largest single structure of its time in Mesoamerica. Set on a 150 m wide platform (structure C-3), the pyramid rises 34 m above the plazas of Complexes A and B. ...but recent excavations on the southern side of the mound show that it was built as a stepped earthen pyramid with inset corners The eastern edge of the great plaza is bounded by the Stirling Acropolis, a massive platform measuring 300 x 250 m. (Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica)

Erected in four major stages and enduring numerous resurfacings over 400 years, more or less, the stepped platforms and courts were built up with carefully laid layers of red, pink, yellow, gray, and purple sands and clays. Some of the platforms also incorporated adobe bricks, unusual at that early time, to fill their volumes. In the final building stage, around 400 BC, a thick cap of red clay was laid over the entire complex. In the most completely excavated example, under the southwest platform, a pit measuring 15 by 19 m and 7 m deep was filled with 1000 tons of serpentine blocks laid in 28 courses set in olive-green and blue clay. (Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica)

Stratigraphy of the southwest platform, Complex A, La Venti (Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica)

Basalt column tomb (Tomb A) from La Venta, now in the Parque La Venta, Villahermosa, Tabasco. The tomb was walled and roofed with natural basalt columns and paved with limestone slabs. On top of the slabs were laid the bundled remains of two or three children accompanied by figurines, ornaments, and a stingray-spine effigy, all in jade, a concave hematite mirror, 2 obsidian disks, a shark tooth, and 6 natural stingray spines. (Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica)

Excavation of Paso de la Amada Mound 6, Structure 4 (Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica)

Most of the inhabitants lived in small, wattle-and-daub houses rounded at each end in an apsidal floor plan, but each barrio also contained one apsidal residence that was much larger, and which may have housed the village chief and his family. The largest and most elaborate of the series of apsidal buildings erected on Mound 6, Structure 4, measured 22 x 10 m, with recessed porches and a hearth in each of its curved ends. Broad clay footings supported its wattle-and-daub walls, and large posts held up the massive, presumably thatched, roof....patterns of artifacts and refuse on the floor of Structure 4 revealed areas of eating, cooking, and obsidian tool manufacture common in domestic settings. (Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica)

The ballcourt, Mound 6, and an elongated mound of unknown function mark the northwest, southwest, and southeast edges of a plaza 173 meters on a side, with the entire plaza complex contained within an area about 304 m square. This Locona phase plaza has a reasonable claim as the earliest formal ceremonial complex of comparable scale in Mesoamerica. In addition, northeastward beyond the plaza and roughly aligned with it are a raised area with some low mounds and a depression, or 'bajo, each of similar dimensions to the plaza. Clark speculates that the above areas and a fourth, to the east, were laid out as aligned modules that employed a standard indigenous unit of 1.666 m multiplied by multiples and simple fractions of the ritual numbers 13, 20, 52, 260, and 365 used in later Mesoamerican calendar counts. Thus the full length of the ballcourt, estimated by Clark at 86.63 m, would be 52 units long, the southern plaza twice that, or 104 units, and the external dimensions of the southern plaza group 182.5 units, or one-half of 365. (Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica) (Note: this unit is within 1 cm of the "Magalithic yard" of Europe!)

Artist's conception of structures San Jose Mogote. Upper, public structure ("men's house"), Tierras Largas phase: Lower, common residence, San Jose phase

A few distinctive buildings in the larger village at San Jose Mogote differed from the villagers' homes (p.197). Though of similar dimensions, they were set on low earthen platforms, their wattle-and-daub walls used more pine posts, and the floors and walls were covered with lime plaster. Notably, however, they contain little of the refuse associated with residences, or the small figurines thought to have been used by women in household rituals. In addition to the greater care given their construction, two features of these structures suggest they were built as public buildings for ceremonial functions. First, all were oriented 8° west of north, an orientation later used for ceremonial buildings in Oaxaca and Olmec La Venta. Second, a small, centrally located pit was set in the floor of several of these structures, apparently to hold powdered lime for ingestion with ritual plants like tobacco. Marcus and Flannery therefore interpret them as a kind of "men's house," that due to their small size would necessarily have been restricted to a small group of initiates. Higher-status houses were whitewashed and better built than those of lower-status households. Their residents also consumed more deer meat, had better access to imported marine shell, jade, and pottery, and were more involved in making crafts like basketry, shell ornaments, and iron ore mirrors, but the differences are a matter of degree rather than kind. (Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica)

The phase II (between 1000 and 900 BC) inhabitants of Teopantecuanirlan also constructed impressive hydraulic works. One of these, showing parallels to San Lorenzo and La Venta, consisted of subterranean drains formed from small U-shaped stones with flat covers that conducted water out of the sunken platform and surrounding ceremonial precinct. The other was a 100 m long canal lined with thick, 1-2 m tall, stone slabs that connected with a storage dam. Apparently an irrigation canal, it is the earliest such work known in Mesoamerica. Most of the inhabitants of one excavated residential unit lived in perishable structures, including one that was built on a stone-walled foundation. Another structure, possibly a higher-status residence, was built of adobe on a low rock and rubble platform. Bell-shaped pits used for storage, refuse disposal, hearths, and craft production areas surrounding the houses attest to the varied activities of their residents. (Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica)

North America

…the Poverty Point culture of the lower Mississippi Delta…is named after the Poverty Point site in Louisiana , where large earthworks were constructed sometime between 1200 and 600 BC. The six nested ranks of earthen mounds at Poverty Point average about 25 meters wide and 3 meters high and are set about 40 meters apart. Near them stands an artificial mound more than 20 meters high and more than 200 meters across. It is estimated that more than three million man-hours of labor were required to build this complex, with hundreds, perhaps thousands of people hauling dirt in baskets in an organized, planned effort. If each basket contained a cubic foot of dirt, about 1,236,007 loads would have been required. Burials suggest that this complex was a mortuary cult, but its overall significance is difficult to assess. Like any other large earthworks, those of Poverty Point offer points for astronomical observation: a person standing on the large mound at Poverty Point can see the vernal and autumnal equinoxes on a line across the center of the mound, looking east.  (Patterns in Prehistory)


Under the pyramidial central earth mound it is now clear that all kofun conceal an inner megalithic burial chamber and a megalithic passageway, usually oriented south. One of the most spectacular of these 'barrow' structures, Ishibutai, thought to date to the seventh century AD, can be visited today because erosion long ago exposed and isolated its megalithic core. The two giant stones that form its ceiling weigh close to 100 tonnes each while the lesser stones of the side walls and the passageway are still enormous megaliths by any standards, weighing between 10 and 20 tonnes.