Formative Period
Ideological belief systems held the ideal principles and underlying philosophies that were used to manage societies (Flannery and Marcus 1996:351). Clark (1997:211) argues that “the creation and deployment of art…promoted governance through covert control of foundational ideologies.” Therefore, the material expression of these ideologies was a major factor in governance, both in the Formative and later Classic periods. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that Mesoamerica’s earliest iconographic motifs were materialized during the Early and Middle Formative period (c. 1800-400 BC) (Clark et al. 2010; Coe 1989; Diehl 2004; Grove 1993; Pool 2007).

The Meso3D database provides innovative ways to better examine and interpret the monumental art of the Mesoamerican Formative period, which is fundamental to the study of all later cultural development in the region (See image below). Much about the evolution from rank societies and the development of hereditary inequality remains uncertain (Clark 1999; Grove and Gillespie 1992). Nevertheless, what is clear is that the creation, display, and administration of monumental stone sculpture and other art objects played a major role in the emergence and maintenance of sociopolitical transformation.


Formative Versus Preclassic
The terms “Formative” and “Preclassic” are basically synonymous, referring to a period of time from roughly 1800 BC to AD 200. The difference between the two words is primarily in usage, with Preclassic commonly used in descriptions of the Maya area and Formative used to define temporal events in other regions of Mesoamerica.
Both terms were originally “relational and developmental that no longer mean what was originally intended–a non-complex prelude to complex forms” (Clark et al. 2010:1). Initially, these termsassumedthatthe pinnacle of Mesoamerican cultural development (e.g., municipal architecture, sophisticated sculpture, exotic imports and eliteitems) was achieved during a “gilded age” referred to as the Classic period. Recent research has shown, however, that these distinctions were actually present in the earlier Formative period. Because no other terminology has been widely accepted, these terms continue to be used, but only as a signifier of sequential time periods.



The Formative period, which is used throughout this web site, is further divided into three segments: Early, Middle, and Late. Although the specific range of these eras varies regionally, a standardized timeline is used here:
  • Early Formative, circa 1800 to 1000 BC.
  • Middle Formative, circa 1000 to 400 BC.
  • Late Formative, circa 400 BC to AD 200.
  • These segments can be further subdivided into early, middle, and late phases as well (e.g., late Early Formative – c. 1300 to 1000 BC, or early Middle Formative – c. 1000 to 700 BC), in order to more closely identify temporal stages.


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