Architectural Monuments of Chavin Review

Architectural Monuments of Chavin

Written in 2008 by William J. Conklin and Jeffrey Quilter, Chavin: Art, Architecture, and Culture was published by the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA to reinterpret one of South America’s most important archeological sites: Chavin de Huantar. Located in the mountain valleys of Peru near the confluence of the Mosna and Huanchecsa rivers, Chavin de Huantar was built in approximately 1200 BCE by the Chavin civilization, one of the region’s most influential cultures during the pre-Incan era. A collection of monuments, gathering grounds, and massive temples, Chavin de Huantar was considered to be the focal point of the Chavin people’s system of worship, with people making pilgrimages for hundreds of miles to assemble in one of the site’s enormous plaza’s, and to make offerings to their deities in the region’s most prominent temple. As Conklin and Quilter explain in their comprehensive analysis, Chavin de Huantar was more than simply one civilization’s capital city or ceremonial center; it was one of the world’s most advanced architectural sites of its era. By approaching the study of Chavin de Huantar’s distinctive architectural attributes with both a scholar’s precision and a student’s passion, Conklin and Quilter’s Chavin: Art, Architecture, and Culture represents perhaps the most thorough and of this historical site’s architectural significance.

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Consisting of a colossal pyramid with a flat top, Chavin de Huantar was surrounded by a series of smaller temples which have been termed a, B, C, and D. By modern archeologists, as well as an open-air plaza known today as the Circular Plaza. The most advanced architectural designs within Chavin de Huantar, however, were observed in the site’s two primary temples, the Old Temple and the New Temple, which housed an array of advanced design features including acoustically-tuned water features, animalistic relief carvings, stone obelisks, and divinely inspired sculptures (Conklin and Quilter). For the Chavin people who lived and worshiped within the boundaries of Chavin de Huantar, the site represented the centerpiece of their civilization, and the architectural techniques used in the site’s construction are befitting of its monumental status. As Conklin and Quilter observed in their book, the process of excavation and filling used by the Chavin to create suitable foundations for their massive edifices was remarkable in that the fills “are massive and seem to signify the intent of Chavin constructors to noticeably modify the overall landscape context of their structures” (20). The stonework used in Chavin de Huantar’s construction was primarily white granite and black limestone, an architectural choice that resulted in the Black and White Portal and the Black and White Stage, two of the site’s most symbolically meaningful locations. As Conklin and Quilter concluded in the book, the religious significance between the colors black and white, which equate to the eternal cycle of day and night for the Chavin, motivated the site’s designers to source building materials by excavating over 50 miles away.

Another prominent feature of Chavin de Huantar that Conklin and Quilter devoted much of their attention to was the site’s distinctive structural design, as the Chavin paid the utmost attention to aligning features within the monument to one another. Time and again the authors focused their analysis on the concept of integration within Chavin de Huantar’s fundamental structure, with “the highly planned, carefully executed, and integrated constructions” (Conklin and Quilter 61) of the site’s monuments, temples, and ritual grounds astounding modern scholars in light of their intricacy and complexity. As an example of the Chavin builder’s keen attention to seemingly minor design details, the author’s highlighted the monument’s multifaceted use of structural columns throughout Chavin de Huantar’s Old Temple and Circular Plaza, observing that “these structural columns … are the only two architectural stages, illustrating possible ways in which builders at Chavin de Huantar may have adapted and continued architectural meaning across major architectural stages” (64). In the estimation of Conklin and Quilter, the Chavin people demonstrated an uncanny ability to evolve architecturally, imbuing the design of their civilization’s greatest monument with a sense of continuity that expanded its influence across the span of generations.

One of the primary motivations for Chavin builders to design Chavin de Huantar with continuity as their goal was that the site served as the center of worship, celebration, and ceremony for many thousands of people across hundreds of miles of territory. Despite the preexisting social divisions which undoubtedly existed between villages, families, and individual Chavin, the universality of Chavin de Huantar’s design from a spiritual standpoint provided every member of the civilization with a tangible cultural touchstone. Modern archeologists have observed a deep connection between Chavin de Huantar’s liberal use of animalistic, stone-cut reliefs, and the Chavin people’s devotion to the ritualistic worship of deities depicted in animal form. Of the famous carvings found within Chavin de Huantar’s Circular Plaza and Old Temple, Conklin and Quilter observed during the course of their study that “each plaza carries its own distinct icon: the aquatic serpent, the terrestrial jaguar, and the celestial bird … (and) most of the stone reliefs are associated with the entrances of important ritual buildings” (130). From an architectural standpoint, Chavin de Huantar’s most important purpose within the Chavin culture’s process of advancement was its ability to reinforce the traditional way of worship through modern form and function.

Considered to be the “Mother Culture” of the ancient Peruvian cultures more widely studied today, the Chavin people and their eponymous monument were largely responsible for the pyramidal, of later Incan cities. The complexity of the design processes used to create Chavin de Huantar became ingrained in the pre-Columbian architecture of the region, with intricate stone-carved sculptures and structural columns becoming essential components of Peruvian and South American building construction. As Conklin and Quilter consistently demonstrated throughout Chavin: Art, Architecture, and Culture, the sophistication of Chavin de Huantar’s design and construction was simply an astounding feat of human ingenuity, especially when one considers the engineering and to the historical era in question. By integrating aspects of their religious practice into the monument’s spatial arrangement, the Chavin presaged the concept of architectural alignment which would eventually become commonplace within places of worship, but at the time of Chavin de Huantar’s construction, the techniques being employed by this small Peruvian culture were as advanced as any in the world.

Works Cited

Conklin, William J., and Jeffrey Quilter. Chavin: art, architecture, and culture. Vol. 61. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, 2008.

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