Ciudad Perdida and its architecture

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ccording to investigations undertaken by the anthropologists Ciudad Perdida was built by the Tairona indigenous culture around A.D. 700 and it was the most important urban centre among the 250 indigenous settlements discovered so far in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Its population oscillated between 1,400 and 3,000 inhabitants.

Teyuna, as it is also called, included more than 250 terraces distributed in eight "neighbourhoods" where they lived, worked and performed religious ceremonies. The sectors of the city were communicated through a network of paved roads and stairs located on the slopes that guaranteed access to the fields of crops.

The secret of this successful architecture was the prevention of the soil erosion caused by the rains in the slopes of the hills thanks to the channelling of the rainwater that allowed an effective management of this natural resource.

Tairona architecture

Given the characteristics of the Sierra Nevada topography, the building of terraces was keystone for the construction of temples, dwellings, squares and meeting areas. For defensive purposes the vast majority of the settlements were located very on steep hills of difficult access that made unnecessary the construction of fortifications. Add to this that the only way of reaching the villages is by climbing a narrow staircase emplaced on a 60 per cent slope and we can understand why it was so difficult for Spanish conquerors to attack and dominate these villages. Furthermore, making good use of the gentler slopes and flat areas allowed the villagers to cultivate them as croplands.

Ciudad Perdida terraces are of two types although both are built under the same technique known as “tierra armada” (packed earth). The simpler ones are cuts in the slope hills to make a flat cross-section. The soil and stones taken from the cut are then moved down-slope as fill and held in place by several courses of rough stone.

The remaining flat surface is reinforced through compaction in some cases adding more medium size stones. In order to raise the wall above one meter high usually Tairona added a course of flat stones building up over them the next retaining wall. The combined weight of soil, rubble and stone retaining wall acts as a reinforcement minimizing deformation and shifts.

Once the terrace was finished surface exposed to water run off where then covered with flagstones to prevent water from puddling, thus avoiding erosion caused by oversaturation. It was then that the elevated ring of cut and dressed stone used as a foundation for buildings was placed on the terrace surface.

As the population and the need for living spaces grew, other cuts for terraces where made nearby, and masonry walls and terraces extended until they intersected against one another, thus creating great flat surfaces for living, some areas exceeding three thousand square meters.

Conversely, terraces built over the main hilltop that is, those in the Core Area, were built with complex retaining walls on both sides of rocky outcrops adding soil and rubble as a fill. Once a terrace was completed, it was possible to build the next one since the first one was used as a retaining wall for the following one. Stone stakes were also found in the edges of some walls to counteract displacement.

One of the more important and fascinating aspects of the Tairona construction is that it is one of the clearest examples of an urban architectural pattern completely different to the modern architecture where straight lines, spatial subdivision into boxes and perpendicular angles direct our perception.

Even if we compare it to the construction patterns used by other pre-Columbian societies like Inca, Maya or Aztec or to the great urban centres of Teotihuacán (México) or Tiwanaku (Bolivia) there are no great similarities because this societies commonly used rectangular forms, straight lines and partition walls to subdivide and create multiple inner rooms within a single building.

Tairona architecture by comparison, highlights and emphasizes sinuosity, the use of circles and circularity as formal elements, open spaces between buildings and the constant management and direction of circulation and movement, both within and between settlements. These characteristics can be observed in the extensive and oftentimes bewildering, network of paths, staircases and sidewalks guiding people´s circulation between buildings in a settlement such as Ciudad Perdida.

Although the Sierra Nevada was inevitably altered and transformed by the construction of these settlements between the 12th and 15th centuries one of the most interesting aspects is that buildings somehow follow the landscape´s natural forms. This implies a low density urban pattern in comparison with the total amount of the used area which tends to be far greater.

On the other hand, due to this particular architectural pattern, Tairona towns do not have well-defined edges allowing us to determine where a settlement begins or ends. Differing from many other pre-Columbian and preindustrial societies, the Tairona did not make use of walls or fortifications to delimit and enclose their towns. If we add to this the countless paths linking nearby towns to another, what emerges is a settlement pattern characterised by conurbation. This means that a certain area, in this case a section of a river basin comprising approximately eighty square kilometres, has a number of rather large towns, each with its own characteristics, that are dependent on one another.

This is basically what happens in the Buritaca river basin and other areas of the Sierra that in pre-Columbian times seem to have been densely inhabited.


Do you know that…?

The Lost City of the Taironas was built 700 years before Machu Picchu?

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