As places for the community to gather or to hold rituals like processions, plazas could serve as sites of both sacred and quotidian significance. Plazas were often integral to towns in Mesoamerica and the Andes, and these towns entwined with their landscapes. One theme commonly found in both regions was a special connection between water and the plaza.

Both Maya and Inca symbolism linked the plaza with the sea. The Maya associated plazas and water so closely that they used the same word, naab, for both plaza and lagoon. In the Huacaypata, the most important plaza in Cusco, liquids the Incas spilled in libation would fall onto sand they had carried from the ocean into the mountains

High on the shores of Lake Titicaca, water and mountains formed a backdrop for likely ritual activities in the plaza of Tiwanaku. When Tiwanaku flourished, water flowed over and under the surface of the Akapana, the large temple adjacent to the plaza at the center of the city, similar to the flow of water down the nearby mountains during a storm.

The glyph for “town” in Nahuatl, a language spoken by the Aztecs and other groups in the basin of Mexico, shows a strong connection between the plaza and the town. The Nahuatl word altepetl, or “town,” literally means “water mountain,” written as a mountain with a spring. In the first image of this section, from the Codex Nuttall, the glyph for altepetl appears on the left. The image of a spring flowing from the altepetl glyph into a lake-plaza illustrates how closely plazas and towns were linked through water.



Alan L. Kolata, “Mimesis and Monumentalism in Native Andean Cities,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 29/30 (April 1996): 223–36.

Jerry D. Moore, “The Archaeology of Plazas and the Proxemics of Ritual: Three Andean Traditions,” American Anthropologist, New Series, 98, no. 4 (December 1996): 789–802.

Logan Wagner, Hal Box, and Susan Kline Morehead, Ancient Origins of the Mexican Plaza: From Primordial Sea to Public Space, Roger Fullington Series in Architecture (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013).


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