architectural models from the ancient americas

Review of this lovely small Metropolitan Museum show by Sharon Lorenzo

Design for Eternity is a show at the Metropolitan Museum that has brought together loans from many public and private collections in the Americas to explore funerary objects and traditions from cultures that thrived before European contact.  It is a beautiful small installation with as much explanation as scholars can provide since the usage of many of these items remains a mystery to be solved in the years ahead.

Pre-Columbian architectural models made of ceramic, stone, wood or metal are often called effigies as most of them have been found in burial sites.  They have both fascinated scholars and stumped them as to their real use and significance.  Some have suggested that they were houses for the wandering soul of the deceased or used in funerary ceremonies as vessels for the next life[1]


House Model, Nayarit, Mexico. 100-300 AD

In this example, we can see a guest arriving at the door of a two story ceramic home where the dog is at the lower entry sniffing the food which is being prepared under the thatched roof hut.  The peaked roof has an almost oriental tilt to its design.


Temple Model, Mezcala Style, Mexico, 200-800 AD.

While the ceramic effigy seems to model the life of the villages, the stone temple models such as this one found in a burial in western Mexico are less clear as to their intended purpose.  One scholar has suggested that they were offerings to the dead, and another suggests that it is a symbol of the supreme authority of the deceased.



Vessel from the Moche Culture, Peru. 400-600 AD

This highly decorated vessel appears to have both snails and cats decorating its rising  circular platform which culminate in the effigy of the deceased seated on top as a distinguished personality. The open spout suggests that it was either used as a whistle or perhaps to store liquids such as the local beverage known as  “ chicha.”[2]  This Moche culture flourished on the northern coast of Peru.

One of the most spectacular models in this exhibition is made out of silver from 1300-1500 AD from the Chimu culture in Peru.  This bottle shape might also have been used for a ritual drinking ceremony. We can see a central figure with a crown and two attendants at his feet seated on what appear to be temple steps.



Silver stirrup vessel, Chimu culture, 1300-1500 AD

mummybundlesMummy bundles, Chimu culture, Peru, @1440 AD.

Some of these vessels were found with images of what look like mummies which are bound in cloth decorated with pieces of shell. Their presence adds to the theory that these elite burials had ritual meaning for both the living and their deceased ancestors.   Design for Eternity shows us how diverse and sophisticated the funerary practices were in Mesoamerican communities before the arrival of European cultures.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art– October 26, 2015 to September 18,2016


[1] Joanne Pillsbury, Building for the Beyond: Architectural Models from the Ancient Americas, Design for Eternity, The Metropolitan Museum, 2015 pp. 23.

[2] Juliet Wiersema, The Art of Ancient Andean Architectural Representations,Design for Eternity, pp. 71.